The man who led Juneau’s branch of St. Vincent de Paul, caring for hundreds of homeless and destitute Juneauites for more than 20 years, has died.
Dan Austin passed away at his Idaho home on Thursday morning, his wife told the Empire by phone.
“He’s been fighting cancer for three or four years,” Annie Shapleigh said. “He didn’t let anybody know.”
“It just took a turn for the worse very quickly, and there was nothing that could be done,” she said.
No memorial services have yet been scheduled.
Maureen Hall, director of the board for the Juneau chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, called Austin “kind of a Mother Teresa for Southeast Alaska.”
“There was never a more devoted or dedicated human being to the poor and homeless than Dan Austin,” said board member Jim Studley.
“He devoted 30 years of his life to Juneau and the poor. That’s what they need to know,” Studley told the Empire to share with readers.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society, known simply as St. Vincent in many cases, is an international Catholic organization formed in the 19th century to aid the poor worldwide. Paul Paradis formed Juneau’s chapter in 1986, apocryphally starting in his garage “with a can of beans and $5.”
Austin came to head the society in the late 1990s after serving as a Legislative aide and in the executive branch.
“He felt the government had its purpose and its place, but it had a lot of bureaucracy and red tape,” Studley said.
When Austin arrived, the Juneau branch of the society had already begun to focus on housing.
Within a few years of its founding, the chapter built a shelter for families without homes. That grew from five housing units to 17, and under Austin’s leadership, grew further.
In 1998, not long after Austin became the chapter’s general manager, the Juneau chapter of the society opened Smith Hall, a senior housing complex one block from Nugget Mall.
Other projects followed, including child care and even more housing. Austin was involved with the Glory Hole and the development of the Housing First project in Lemon Creek. He developed St. Vincent’s child care programs and guided its outreach and fundraising.
He coordinated the growth of St. Vincent’s thrift store and its recent move to the former Valley Auto Parts store on Glacier Highway near Donna’s Restaurant. The space formerly occupied by the thrift store will be turned into additional low-income apartments.
“All along the way, Dan was the one who was continually trying to invent the best way, the most economical way to use our limited resources,” said Bob Rehfeld, who has served more than 20 nonconsecutive years on the St. Vincent board of directors. “From the time that we hired him, he’s been the inspiration.”
While board members said they had not been aware of how sick Austin was, they also said Austin had begun a transition process toward retirement.
The hope had been to complete that work by the end of the year, allowing Austin to focus on grant-writing while another person handled day-to-day operations.
“We had always planned on a phased approach so he could bring another individual up to speed,” Studley said.
With Austin gone, “it’s not going to be real easy, and I think we’re going to have to break it into components here,” Rehfeld said.
Rehfeld said it’s worth remembering Austin as someone who fulfilled both a religious and practical vocation.
“By serving the poorest of the poor, we’re serving the Lord, and he probably embodied that more than most people I’ve ever known,” he said.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.