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Lynn Dickerson: Bringing the Gallo Center into the Light

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How do you define success? When I asked Lynn Dickerson this question, her answer took my breath away. Her career encompasses numerous successful roles–including a senior executive position for the newspaper publishing giant, the McClatchy Company, and her current role as the CEO of the Gallo Center for the Arts–and I expected her answer to center on it. However, pausing only briefly, she said, “At the end of your life, when you look back on its entirety, I think the most important thing is to ask yourself questions that matter the most: Were you a kind person? Were you honest? Did you treat people fairly? Did you live your best life? Because that is success.” 

Entwined within the hierarchy of society is the notion that success is defined as objects, money and status. True success should not be viewed through rose-colored lenses, but instead with eyes wide open, because if you define success as something that can be bought or as a position of authority or wealth, it can easily become as fleeting as life itself. 

At 51, Lynn made a big career change. In 2000, she was offered a job at the Modesto Bee. As the publisher, Lynn, her husband and their two sons would move to the unfamiliar city of Modesto from their home state of Texas. She served as publisher for the newspaper for six years, and in 2006 she experienced another big change when she was promoted to the position of Vice President of Operations for the McClatchy Company. A publicly traded publishing company, McClatchy then operated 31 daily newspapers in 14 states with an average weekly circulation of 1.6 million and a Sunday circulation reaching upwards of 2.4 million readers. Lynn’s VP role meant she would oversee 11 of those 31 daily newspapers. However, McClatchy’s headquarters were in Sacramento, and this meant another move for the Dickerson family. 

With her role as a vice president and 29-year career in the newspaper industry, it might be easy to place Lynn in a box labeled “successful,” especially since she was a woman in a male-dominated industry. But in July 2007, everything came to shattering halt when her 18-year-old son, Ryan, mysteriously drowned while life guarding at a summer camp.

“Ryan had plans to attend college that fall at the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. After graduating from Modesto High School, he had taken a summer job at his childhood summer camp near Austin, Texas, as a lifeguard,” she shared. “We had been in Sacramento only ten days when I received a call from the director at the summer camp telling me Ryan had died. It was a horrific, awful time in our lives, and we were absolutely devastated.”  

At the time of Ryan’s death, Lynn was in the middle of a perfect storm. The recent move to Sacramento meant her family and friends were miles away. The loss of her son consumed her, and although she had a new job, it was difficult for her to see beyond the darkness. And by the end of 2007, the newspaper industry was in crisis. With the internet taking center stage, layoffs became common. 

“It was really hard to be away from our friends and family after Ryan passed away. There was so much darkness in my life at that time and I really didn’t know if I was ever going to be happy again. I was really just trying to survive,” she expressed. Two years later, she was laid off from the newspaper company. “It was sort of a welcome relief. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I had learned the hard way there were far worse things in life to lose than a prestigious title and fat paycheck.” However, a call from the chairman at the Gallo Center for the Arts would become a beacon of light during her time of darkness. “I never thought as long as I lived that I would ever have fun again or see the beauty in life. The chairman of the Center called and said, ‘Why don’t you come on home and run the Gallo Center?’”

The Gallo Center
It began as a concept in 1997, and with the help of generous donations and the work of many within the community, the Gallo Center for the Arts opened its doors in 2007. Less than a year later, the country went into a major recession and the Gallo Center was in crisis. Having served on the board of directors during her earlier time in Modesto, Lynn knew the Gallo well. Her background in business would prove to be exactly what the organization needed, and in turn, the Center would be exactly what Lynn needed to pull out of the darkness and help bring her into the light. 

She accepted the job, moved back to Modesto and became the CEO of the Gallo Center for the Arts in October 2009. Focusing on bringing the Center back from the brink, she worked hard to secure its financial future. Less than a year later, the organization saw its first fiscal year in the black. “Whatever I do, I give it my all. Even in my darkest days and being exhausted from grief, I continued to work hard, and I got up every day ready to fight another battle.” 

The nonprofit’s mission was to transform how the city of Modesto and the surrounding communities experienced the arts. The aim was to offer affordable cultural opportunities designed to be accessible for all. “Although the timing was sort of lousy when the Center opened, thankfully, it survived during the recession. It became an organization that really transformed our community, and really the entire region,” Lynn affirmed. 

Focusing on arts, entertainment and multicultural programming, the Gallo Center houses two performance venues, the 1,248-seat Mary Stuart Rogers Theatre and the 440-seat Foster Family Theatre. Both are equipped with orchestra pits, stage aprons and scene docks and provide sophisticated audio-visual, rigging, drapery, lighting control, orchestra pit lift and shell systems that allow performers to put on extravagant, show-stopping productions. Hosting local arts and entertainment organizations and artists from around the world, the Gallo provides a place for performers and patrons alike to experience the grandeur of theatre and gives youth access to much-needed cultural experiences. With the vast array of cultural and entertainment presentations hosted by the Gallo Center, a day rarely passes without an event taking place inside its majestic walls.

Since its inception, the Gallo Center has hosted more than 7,000 events and more than 1.8 million people. In addition to offering a place for artists to showcase their talents, the Center provides youth education opportunities. Between 30 thousand and 40 thousand students visit each year to see a show costing just $5 per student. Recently, the organization has expanded their arts education programming by developing the Gallo Center Youth Academy. The GCYA provides year-round performing arts classes and programs for grades one through six and features twice-weekly, hour-long sessions that encourage youth to explore the arts. Whether the student’s interest is acting, theatre, playwriting, singing, composition or another area, the academy’s goal is to provide a place for budding artists to explore and experience the arts.  

When I asked Lynn what her fondest experience has been during her time at the Gallo Center, she said, “I feel like I’m in the business of bringing joy to people’s lives. The truth is, life is hard, and we’re all fighting some sort of battle. I truly enjoy that my work brings happiness into other’s lives. Because even if it’s only for an hour or two, people can set their worries aside, enjoy a beautiful show and just forget their troubles for a short time. If I can lighten their load, maybe even carry their burdens for just a few moments, it’s worth every ounce of effort. Having experienced my own tragedy, the Center has helped me realize that even in the darkest moments there is light waiting for all of us.”  

The Gallo Center for the Arts sits almost regally in the heart of downtown Modesto; it is a reminder to the community that, through hard times, everything and everyone can prevail. Thanks to the efforts of many, from its generous donors to its hundreds of volunteers, a dedicated staff and to Lynn herself, the Gallo Center for the Arts continues to flourish. They have helped make the Center a shining beacon of beauty and a tribute to community pride. 

With a hint of her Texas accent still lingering, Lynn said, “When people say to me that I saved the Gallo Center, I tell them, no, the Gallo Center saved me.”