Family House's mission inspires its newly appointed executive director

Chris Togneri
| Friday, July 5, 2013, 11:07 p.m.

Bob Howard knows his new job will be different.

As the recently appointed executive director of the nonprofit Family House, which provides shelter and emotional support to critically ill patients and caregivers who travel to Pittsburgh for medical treatment, he understands he'll witness incredible courage one day and heartbreak the next.

“When you see people go through a double-lung transplant, and surviving, and they view this place as a second home, it's inspiring,” Howard said this week at Family House University Place in Oakland.

“Sometimes it will be, ‘Oh my goodness, this is absolutely terrible.' Other times it will be, ‘Look at the strength these people have.' ”

Howard, 58, of Sewickley became interim director in January when Christie Knott, his predecessor, stepped down to spend more time with her daughter. Family House's board of directors dropped “interim” from his title at the end of April.

“At first, I didn't think this would be long-term,” he said. “But the mission just kind of grabbed me.”

Howard runs an organization entering its 30th year, founded by doctors and civic leaders who tired of watching patients' families sleep in chairs in hospital waiting rooms. He oversees a staff of 22 full-time employees, 36 part-time staffers and 256 volunteers.

“It's a wonderful compliment for Family House, for the legacy of Family House, to have such a strong leader step in and take the helm,” said Knott, 44, of Hampton. “Bob is bright, a capable leader, and he loves Family House.”

Expansion projects marked Knott's tenure as director. When she took over in 2005, Family House operated three locations in Shadyside and Oakland. It opened a fourth in 2009 at University Place, adding 48 guest rooms.

The organization's 160 rooms almost always are filled. The annual $4.2 million operating budget relies heavily on donors.

Howard said he will shift focus from expansion to shepherding staff and guests through the expected changes brought by the Affordable Care Act.

He comes to Family House after 34 years in corporate America. His résumé includes stops at L.B. Foster Co., Koppers Inc. and US Airways. Most recently, Howard started a human resource consulting business.

Knott advised he should “keep a sense of humor and remember this is the best job you'll ever get.”

If the emotional job becomes too much, Howard has a temporary escape: a 153-acre farm in Clarion County where he and his wife spend weekends tending to cattle and harvesting hay.

“It's a hobby,” he said. “It's a place to shake off the city, get rid of the stress. Just being in the country helps me re-energize.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or

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