Pilgrim Place CEO will leave longstanding legacy

Bill Cunitz is retiring as the CEO of Pilgrim Place on December 28, but you wouldn’t know it based on how he talks about the storied Claremont retirement community.

The longtime director is stepping down after 17 years, which houses retired Christian and nonprofit workers. Pilgrim Place is renowned across the country for it’s neighborhood-style approach to retirement, something Mr. Cunitz takes great pride in.

“There’s a very different sort of culture here,” Mr. Cunitz said. “It’s broadened my understanding of what it means to be in this stage in life.”

Mr. Cunitz timed his retirement with the community’s 100-year anniversary in Claremont. Pilgrim Place was originally established in 1915 on the current grounds of Scripps College, originally as a temporary home for missionaries returning stateside from overseas.

“It seemed to me like a great opportunity to sort of switch horses, to bring in new leadership and allow someone to come in and take over for the next 100 years,” Mr. Cunitz said.

The Boston-raised Mr. Cunitz, an ordained minister, first came to Pilgrim Place in 1998, trading the frigid Massachusetts winters for a mild and comfortable southern California climate. He initially agreed to the job interview just to take a break from a particularly harsh Boston winter. A free trip to California wasn’t bad, either.

“I remember getting back on the plane, hoping I got the job.” Mr. Cunitz said. He did, and Pilgrim Place hasn’t been the same since.

Mr. Cunitz isn’t one to revel in the spotlight, even when pressed on the legacy he will leave behind at Pilgrim Place. Instead, he points to the numerous amenities the community has that revolutionized the way elderly residents live out the rest of their lives, especially when the number of seniors in the United States has dramatically risen.

But when asked what he is most proud of, Mr. Cunitz points to the construction of the new LEED-certified administration building and the revitalization of the community’s nursing home into a facility that prides itself on individuality and putting day-to-day care in the hands of residents.

“Our nursing home was a very typical, hospital-model nursing home. You’d walk in, and there would be old folks in wheelchairs lined up across from the nurse’s station, just sitting there with their head down,” Mr. Cunitz said. “I think that’s one of the things I look back on, just the different life people have had in that nursing home because of that changes we went through to de-institutionalize that hospital setting to make it more home-like.”

But in the end, Mr. Cunitz cherishes the subtle moments, like seamless daily operations and the charming peacefulness of Pilgrim Place.

“Sometimes the quietest moments are the most meaningful. Not the big splashy public events,” he said.

Mr. Cunitz plans to move to Portland, Oregon in retirement, spending time away from Claremont as he settles into his own post-career life. He’s been offered a couple of positions, but will embrace retirement on the banks of the Willamette River.

As the outgoing CEO of Pilgrim Place, Mr. Cunitz finds himself in an interesting position—retiring as the head of a retirement community. Does his job give him insight into the process?

“Perhaps,” he said, adding he has seen residents come to Pilgrim Place not knowing what to do in retirement due to their lives revolving around their “roles,” be it work or otherwise.

“If nothing else, my awareness of that challenge hopefully will shape how I approach my own retirement,” he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Cunitz is hard at work tying all loose ends between now and December 28, when the moving vans arrive. He still regularly meets with residents who have concerns, and his goal is to make as smooth of a transition as possible for incoming CEO Anne Schiff, who arrives at the beginning of January.

“We’re trying hard to make sure that we don’t leave anything untouched,” Mr. Cunitz said. “Just saying goodbye to people and letting them say goodbye to you is sometimes a challenge.”

But the community isn’t done with him just yet. On Saturday, December 5 at 4:00 p.m., there will be a centennial celebration honoring Mr. Cunitz. He has been kept in the dark on most of the details, but a strong turnout is expected.

“I’m probably going to get one of those certificates from the city, which I’ve wanted to get for a long time,” he said with a smile.

But his final days as the head of Pilgrim Place has allowed Mr. Cunitz to reflect back on over 17 years of providing top-of-the-line care to the community’s residents. 

“I just feel really fortunate to have been here and to grow and meet really great people,” he said. “It’s been a great community, I’ll miss it a great deal.”

Matthew Bramlett




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