|Eileen Beehan, center, talks with Dot and Phil Ponder during a reception to honor her after her retirement from Catholic Charities of Tennessee. Beehan worked for Catholic Charities for 34 years, including the last 23 as director of the Social Services Department. Photo by Andy Telli
When Eileen Beehan first went to work for Catholic Charities of Tennessee in 1980, she saw the job as transitional, one she would hold for several years while she figured out what she really wanted to do.
Thirty-four years later, “here I am transitioning into retirement,” Beehan told friends and family who gathered at a reception on Jan. 16 to celebrate her years of service to the community.
Beehan’s retirement became official on Jan. 9. For the last 23 years, she’s been the director of the Social Services Department at Catholic Charities overseeing programs addressing clinical counseling, geriatric services, child welfare services, school counseling, immigration services, Hispanic Family Services and community outreach related to basic needs.
From 1995 to 2003, she also served as a member of the Metropolitan Nashville Council representing East Nashville. During her term, she was heavily involved in two events in her district that have helped reshape the city: the construction of LP Field as the home of the Tennessee Titans, who moved to Nashville from Houston, and the 1998 tornado that ripped through the city and the recovery and rebuilding efforts since.
Beehan, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church in Nashville, is a life-long member of the Catholic community in Nashville. She attended Cathedral School and St. Bernard Academy growing up.
“Education was obviously important” in her family, Beehan said. “My grandmother who lived with us was from Ireland. She really valued what education could give you.”
At the Catholic schools she attended, both operated by the Sisters of Mercy, “there was a love of learning. There was a sense of the opportunities for you there,” Beehan said. “The Mercy nuns taught you very thoroughly, so you wanted to learn.”
Their Catholic faith was also at the center of her family’s life, Beehan said. She had an uncle who was a priest, cousins who were nuns, “So there was that environment you grow up in,” Beehan said. Like many Catholic families, they prayed before every meal, said the rosary on Fridays and attended Mass together. “It’s always there,” she said of her faith. “It’s just part of your life.”
She also learned about service from her family. Her father, Thomas “Tricky” Beehan, who got his nickname as the captain of Father Ryan High School’s 1927 state championship basketball team, was a policeman who had the reputation of being “light on the cuffs,” interested in helping people stay out of trouble in the first place, Beehan said. “He really was a social worker.”
After high school, she attended St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., with the intent of majoring in biology. But eventually she decided to switch to sociology. During her senior year, she had a field placement with Catholic Social Services in South Bend.
“I learned everything,” said Beehan, who was given real responsibilities in the position. “I learned what a field placement should be like, that you should have a real experience.”
When she returned to Nashville, she went to work for the Metro Department of Public Welfare, first working on adoptions and later in child protective services leading teams investigating whether a child needed to be removed from their home.
After seven years, she moved to the Luton Mental Health Center for a year. “I was assisting the administrator, learning about billing systems, getting grants and utilization rates.”
She knew some people who worked at Catholic Charities. “They seemed to have a sense of fulfillment because they could do some of the work we see as preventative rather than stepping in after there had been a lot of harm or hurt done,” she said.
In 1980, Beehan was hired as a school counselor, a job she held for the next 12 years, working with students at several schools, including Christ the King and Father Ryan.
“There was so much to like about it,” she said of the job. “Working with some of the families you could see people wanting to change and doing some marvelous things.”
While working as a school counselor, she also was involved in other programs, including international adoptions, overseeing the emergency assistance program, starting the Christmas Wishes program, overseeing the North Nashville Outreach program, and starting the Creating Hope by Assisting Parents (CHAP) program to teach parenting schools.
Doing different things “helped me to stay interested,” Beehan said. “I’m very eclectic. I like variety. It helped me to connect families, to see families as a whole because I could see different points of contact where things overlapped. It made me aware of many resources.”
In 1992, she was named director of the social services department.
“She was a wonderful mentor and supervisor,” said Mary Hemminger, who worked with and for Beehan from 1991 until she retired last summer. “She saw the big picture of situations with clients or helped us to see … we were conduits of help but the clients were responsible for their growth.”
Beehan “just took great joy in her staff when they did something well or they were deserving of an honor,” Hemminger said. “She was always happy to bestow honor where honor was due, and we loved her for that.”
At the reception honoring Beehan, Lisa McGovern, the counseling services coordinator at Catholic Charities, said, “She created an incredible environment and was encouraging. … She has helped shepherd us to be much better professionals than we would have been otherwise.”
Beehan also has been involved in local, state and national social service organizations, agencies and committees, including Catholic Charities U.S.A. She has received numerous professional honors, including the Jim Martin Award for Child Welfare Services, the Ida B. Wells Tennessee Freedom Fighter Award, and the Tennessee Alliance for Progress Badge of Courage Award.
In 1995, Beehan dove into politics, running for and winning a seat on the Metro Council. During the campaign, the Houston Oilers announced they were moving to Nashville and the city was going to build a stadium on the river in her district. Under the Council’s rules, all the legislation concerning the stadium had to be introduced by the representative of the district where it was built, which put Beehan in the middle of the effort.
There were many issues concerning the stadium, from the impact on the neighborhood of the dump trucks going to and from the construction site to the stadium’s economic impact on the neighborhood, Beehan said.
In selecting the architects and contractors for the project, Beehan worked to make sure minority- and women-owned businesses were involved. She also worked to make sure recycling and reusing were part of the construction plans, which helped save 50,000 tons of waste from being landfilled, she said.
In 1998, the second major event of her term in office occurred: a tornado hit Nashville, damaging or destroying 3,000 homes in her district.
“You do have to react in an emergency mode,” Beehan said.
Her jobs at Catholic Charities, which had an office in East Nashville at Holy Name Church, and on the Metro Council, complemented each other while she worked to help her district after the tornado, Beehan said. “There was a good overlap that allowed me to have a good view and share information.”
Once the initial cleanup started progressing, Beehan’s focus shifted to rebuilding East Nashville. People in the community did not simply want to rebuild the community as it had been, but to go beyond that, Beehan said.
The community worked with the American Institute of Architects to develop a plan to rebuild East Nashville. “We took our time in looking at what we wanted to do. We were very thorough,” Beehan said. “As a community we set goals. And many of them have been achieved.”
Today, East Nashville is one of the city’s most thriving communities.
During her career at Catholic Charities, Beehan has seen the agency grow as it has responded to the needs of the community.
“I’m very mindful that we represent the (Diocese of Nashville),” she said. “I’m very proud as a Catholic that (Catholic Charities has ) been doing the kinds of things we’ve been doing for over 50 years.”