Dean Eller has spent the past 21 years honoring a commitment he made to his dying daughter to carry on her passion for blood donation.
Now the 69-year-old president and executive director of the Central California Blood Center – and the face of blood donation in the central San Joaquin Valley – is ready to find a successor to continue his mission. He will retire at the end of July.
“I felt called to this position with the promise I made to Jenny on the night she died, but I think I fulfilled that,” Eller said Monday.
Jennifer Eller, who was diagnosed when a Bullard High School senior, died in 1995 after a four-year battle against leukemia. During her illness, she needed hundreds of blood transfusions and became an advocate for blood donation. On the night she died, Eller told her he would continue the advocacy.
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“I had the privilege, in all honesty, to walk and follow in Jenny’s footsteps – and they were big shoes to follow,” he said.
On Nov. 11, 1999, the blood center board hired him to lead the nonprofit agency.
A longtime mortgage banker, Eller had no experience running a blood center. “All of a sudden, I’m in a science-related industry. I had to learn fast.”
But his business experience came in handy. In his first year as president and CEO, the blood center went from a budget with a deficit to financial stability. And the center has remained debt-free since.
I had the privilege, in all honesty, to walk and follow in Jenny’s footsteps – and they were big shoes to follow.
Dean Eller, president and CEO at Central California Blood Center
Another challenge he faced within days of taking over the agency: the “Y2K” scare, which had companies fearful that computers would fail at the stroke of midnight Jan. 1, 2000. The blood center had not prepared for the potential catastrophe. “We had to really hustle,” Eller said.
Next came 9/11, and Eller found the center handicapped by the grounding of airplanes after the terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon. The blood center had been flying blood samples to a laboratory in Arizona for nucleic acid testing, but with flights canceled, the samples had to be ferried by bus. “And the bus company lost our samples a couple times,” Eller said.
That drove Eller to bring new technology to the Fresno blood center so that testing could be done locally. In 2001, only large blood centers were sold the testing equipment, but Eller insisted on a face-to-face meeting with the corporation’s president. Within four months “we had a full-service, state-of-the-art laboratory at our blood center,” he said.
And in August 2009, the blood center opened new headquarters at Herndon and Blythe avenues to house the donor testing laboratory and the Jenny Eller Donor Center. The $20 million facility was paid for by donations and efficiencies in service, Eller said. “It was paid for the day we moved in.”
The center, which supplies blood to 30 hospitals, also added eight bloodmobiles, making it easier for people to donate in Mariposa, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties.
Retirement will not end his involvement with the blood center and blood donation, Eller said. And he will be helping the board find a replacement who has a vision and energy to take the agency forward.
Eller has been a visionary, said Jeff Negrete, a past blood center board chairman. “He had the ability to be a forward thinker in knowing we needed growth in this city to obtain blood donations and blood products.”
He had the ability to be a forward thinker in knowing we needed growth in this city to obtain blood donations and blood products.
Jeff Negrete, past board chairman, Central California Blood Center
Eller’s business sense and passion for blood donation have been a good combination, said Leslie Botos, center spokeswoman. “He knew if we are not good stewards and maintain the public trust at all times, we’re going to fail.”
Botos has known Eller since before his daughter’s death. She and Jenny Eller made appearances together at Rotary clubs throughout the region to encourage blood donation.
Eller has put his heart into the recruitment of blood donors, Botos said. A day or two after Jenny Eller died, he spoke “at Fig Garden Rotary where she was scheduled to speak.”
Rita Gladding, who joined the blood center board in 1989 and is now an emeritus adviser, said Eller “has been the face of our blood center to where people in our community now understand the need and they understand the need because of the passion that Dean has.”
Eller said he is proud to be an advocate for blood donation. “The way the community has responded to me and to Jenny’s story – it’s unparalleled.”
In 16 out of the 17 years he has led the blood center, “we have not had to import one unit of red blood cells into the Central Valley,” he said. “We have been able to sustain ourselves. That’s almost unheard of. Only this past year have we had to take in a little bit. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
And Eller does not let any opportunity to encourage blood donation slip by.
“Oh gosh, yes,” he said Monday of the ongoing need. “We have 5 percent of our goals for O negative (blood) and only 48 percent overall, and we are entering a long holiday weekend. Please, get the word out.”