Bill Dutton: 52 years and counting, still inspired by the Red Cross mission

By Dan Santos, American Red Cross Volunteer

Bill Dutton started his career with the American Red Cross in 1970.

In his 52 years with the Red Cross, Bill Dutton has seen many changes, except for one thing: “The mission to help others in need is still there. That’s what has kept me inspired.”

During his Red Cross career, Dutton developed his organizational and leadership skills to mobilize the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.

Anne Kratz, who worked with Dutton at the Red Cross starting in the late 1990s said: “He always really believed in the Red Cross. For him to stay involved all these years is a tribute to the man and the organization.”

In 1970, after graduating from California State University, Northridge, Dutton was looking for a real paying job. His sister mentioned that the Red Cross in Los Angeles had an opening.

“I told her I don’t know anything about the Red Cross, but I’ll give them a call,” he said.  “I walked in at just the right time and was hired.”

“It was a great experience working in different parts of Los Angeles … downtown, Hollywood, South Central … and getting youths involved,” he said of his eight years as the Los Angeles chapter’s assistant director/youth consultant.

The Los Angeles experience prepared Dutton for a string of leadership opportunities at Red Cross chapters in California.

He took an executive director position with the Glendale/Crescenta Valley chapter in 1978.  “There were lots of opportunities for helping people,” he shared.

He recalled a time different from today’s environment of Red Cross partnerships with hyper-local community groups: “If the Red Cross wasn’t involved it just didn’t get done.”

During his nearly 17 years at Glendale/Crescenta Valley, the chapter increased its volunteer membership from 100 to about 400. “The chapter had only two volunteers assigned to disaster services when I first arrived,” he said. “We were able to build that up quite a bit.”

It was a “great opportunity to get involved in fundraising and community relations,” he said.

“During the Northridge earthquake (in 1994), we were one of the only buildings in Glendale with the lights on. We had an emergency power generator,” Dutton said. “That brought a lot of people by for help.”

Relief workers from throughout the country operated 47 shelters in response to the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, housing more than 22,000 men, women and children.
Photos by Jeanette Ortiz-Osorio, American Red Cross

During his Glendale/Crescenta Valley tenure, Dutton and his wife, Bonnie, would often celebrate their wedding anniversaries in the Santa Barbara area.

“I always thought in the back of my mind if something ever opens up there, it would be a great place to live and work,” he said. “I loved the Glendale job, but something did open up in Santa Barbara and that enticed me,” he said. “They were looking for an experienced director, which I was.”

Dutton spent the next ten years as executive director of the Santa Barbara County Chapter. Dutton inherited a healthy roster of 1,000 volunteers, which increased to 1,300 under his leadership. At the time, the Santa Barbara chapter had four field offices, including Lompoc, Vandenberg Space Base (now known as Vandenberg Air Force Base) and Santa Maria.

Erick McCurdy, a volunteer with disaster services in Santa Barbara, remembers Dutton as someone you could come to for advice and help: “Bill was always very approachable. He was the CEO, but his door was always open.”

McCurdy passed along a story about Dutton’s first day on the job in Santa Barbara in January of 1995: “It was a horrible year for rain and flooding in Santa Barbara, so the staff prepared a cake for Bill’s first day that was decorated with a sinking ship. That was kind of funny, welcome to your new job: We’re sinking here; Santa Barbara, not the Red Cross.”

“We had floods so bad that year, we were able to get extra grants to help the victims,” McCurdy said.

“I don’t remember the sinking ship (cake),” Dutton said. But he got right to work in Santa Barbara. “So much of my first year was in disaster mode. That was just after being in disaster mode the entire previous year with the Northridge earthquake. Disasters seem to have followed me. That is the excitement of being with the Red Cross.”

Kratz, who worked with Dutton while serving as a member and then president of Red Cross boards of directors said: “He was an awesome CEO. The board adored him. They would have followed him anywhere.”

Kratz now works as a regional philanthropy officer for the Red Cross Central California Region.

She credited Dutton for his leadership following 9/11 when the Red Cross, like many institutions, struggled to realize they weren’t prepared for such a disaster. “We had to re-think how can we be ready in the future at the national and local levels,” Kratz said.

Besides his strengths in budgeting and fundraising, Kratz said Dutton had great people skills. “He hired a good mix of people and empowered them to do great work. Bill lobbied for the staff to get paid what they were worth and to get their benefits in retirement.”

“He knew everybody … volunteers, staff members. He had everyone’s support and he was unflappable,” Kratz explained.

In 2005, near the end of his run in Santa Barbara, Dutton was deployed to Pascagoula, MS, to fill in for that chapter’s executive director during Hurricane Katrina. “She had lost her home to Katrina and had two small kids, so she had to join family elsewhere,” he said.

Dutton’s resume lists his “retirement” from the Red Cross in 2005, and for many people those 34-plus years would have been a welcome opportunity to rest and enjoy the sunsets in Goleta. Dutton, however, still made his skills and experience available to the Red Cross.

“I enjoy mentoring new leadership and getting someone else to replace me eventually,” he said. “I love seeing other people getting involved. Boards and chapters will always need new leaders.”

He served as interim CEO with the High Desert chapter in Victorville for a couple of months in 2005, and was interim executive director with the Shasta Area chapter in Redding in 2005 and 2006.

Dutton volunteered from 2013 to 2017 with the Santa Barbara External Relations Committee as chairman. From 2013 to 2015 and in 2021 he was board chairman of the Red Cross Retiree Association’s Southern California unit and he served on the national retiree group’s board from 2015 to 2019.

Dutton also worked for 20 years as a national instructor teaching Red Cross supervision and management courses. 

Dutton celebrated 52 years of Red Cross service at the 2022 Volunteer Recognition Awards. Photo by Steve Medina.

Besides staying active with the Red Cross, Dutton has also donated his time and skills to other service organizations. He has been involved with the Glendale and Santa Barbara Rotary International clubs since 1978.

He has served as a board member and chairman since 2019 with Mayan Families, which works with communities in Guatemala to advance their nutrition, health and economic development.

Dutton, 77, grew up in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. He was a member of Taft High School’s first graduating class in 1962. Dutton got his first volunteer experience with VISTA Volunteers (now known as AmeriCorps VISTA) in 1969. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. She volunteered as a nurse and he helped out at the teen center for the service program started in 1965 to alleviate poverty. The couple raised three sons.

Asked whether he is giving serious thought to retirement, Dutton said: “I don’t see it in the near future. Maybe some day. Those last 50 years have gone by pretty fast.”

It’s National Volunteer Week and the American Red Cross recognizes the nearly 2,000 individuals who selflessly give their time to help people in need across Central California. They make our humanitarian work possible. Visit redcross.org/volunteertoday to join them today.

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