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March 03, 2010

Legacy of An Early HSUS Leader: John Hoyt

Forty years ago, in a selection that would forever change the trajectory of the organization, a small, Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit group recruited a 38-year old Presbyterian minister as its president. The organization was The HSUS, with about one dozen employees, a few thousand members, and an operating budget of under $500,000. The minister was John A. Hoyt, who left his position as senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Ind. in April 1970, to become The HSUS’s fourth chief executive since the organization’s founding sixteen years earlier, in 1954.

John Hoyt, HSUS president from 1970-1996
The HSUS
John Hoyt, HSUS president from 1970-1996.

Four decades later, it is impossible to overestimate John Hoyt’s imprint on The HSUS. In 27 years of dedicated service, he put together the team that made a good organization a great one, and he established a standard of excellence and hard work that continues to motivate and inspire. He and Paul Irwin, who was Hoyt’s deputy and then his successor, laid the foundation for the heightened operational success of the organization, which has continued to prosper and grow even more effective and feared by our opponents in the last few years.

The HSUS had been operating just a decade and a half when John accepted his position, and had already accomplished a great deal under the leadership of Fred Myers, Robert Chenoweth, Oliver Evans, Mel Morse, Marcia Glaser, Coleman Burke, Pat Parkes, and other staff and board members. They helped secure passage of the Humane Slaughter Act (1958) and the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act (1966), laws that vice president Patricia Forkan and board member Robert Welborn and others would continue to make a major focus of their work in later years. They conducted pioneering investigations into cruelty. They established branches throughout the country, and they stayed true to The HSUS’s founding mission of tackling the large-scale cruelties beyond the reach of local humane societies.

It takes nothing from the legacy of those pioneers in our organizational history to note that John Hoyt took The HSUS to another level.

A man of charm and grace, John was also an accomplished institution builder who understood the value of a well-developed and professional organization working for animal protection at the national level. He had a serious mind, and he attracted professional campaigners, scientists, and movement strategists, including my friend Ed Duvin. He recruited board members who have helped to lead the organization over the last 30 years and who continue to do so today, including K. William Wiseman, Joe Ramsey, Dr. David Wiebers, our current board chair Anita Coupe and our vice chair Dr. Jennifer Leaning. He was determined, as he once observed, that The HSUS under his leadership was “to be relevant without being compromised, to be ethical without being arrogant, to be caring and sensitive without being sentimental.”

HSUS executives Paul Irwin, John Hoyt and Patricia Forkan
The HSUS
HSUS executives Paul Irwin, John Hoyt and Patricia Forkan.

John was new to the movement in 1970, but he knew plenty about concern for animals from his paternal grandmother, a West Virginia farmer whose example and influence taught him the importance of kindness. And he brought his experience with the church, an institution built on ethical principles, to his work with The HSUS, which he viewed as a kind of “ministry” that would benefit people and animals.

John’s basic framing of the animal protection issue has commanded my admiration for a long time. Throughout his career, he underscored his view that in caring for animals, we are showing respect and care for ourselves, and that, in helping animals, we are ennobling ourselves. Humaneness, he observed, needs to have both human and non-human animals as its focus. It’s a timeless tenet, and one I hold dear.

Since John’s retirement in 1997, he has remained engaged with our work, and continued to advise and serve the organization. John was one of the first to congratulate me on my appointment as president of The HSUS, and he made a point of mentioning that he was about the same age at the time of his selection. He was optimistic and encouraging about the energy and devotion a young person could bring to the leadership role at The HSUS. In that moment, his words provided great encouragement, and coming from someone who had blazed just such a pathway, they were all the more meaningful.

With a few exceptions, perhaps, the men and women who chose John Hoyt to lead The HSUS as its president are no longer with us. But John is, thankfully, and for those of us who have served with him, it’s an honor to reflect on his legacy. We can all look back and say that his arrival on the scene signaled a new era of hope and resolve, and the decisions he made throughout his tenure at The HSUS are still being felt every day within the walls of the institution.

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