Lying in a field and gazing up at the star-filled night sky of western Howard County is what finally sold Richard Krieg on taking the helm of the newly created Horizon Foundation a decade ago.
Now the Ellicott City resident spends his workdays not only as the first president and chief executive officer of the Columbia-based health and wellness philanthropy, but also as moderator of a local cable TV program on health and community issues and chairman of the county's disaster-planning group.
"I fell in love with the county's countryside and quality of life, but the people were the first appeal," said Krieg, who moved to the county from Chicago in 1998 to accept the foundation's offer. "I was also struck by the access to public officials. The culture here is that you roll up your sleeves and work together."
One of Krieg's major priorities this year will pivot on forging good working relationships in the southeast corner of the county.
"We want to come up with new objectives to improve the health and wellness of the population of North Laurel, where our highest concentration of low-income Hispanic residents live," he said.
Krieg said he has spoken with County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa and Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Guy Guzzone, who represent that area.
"This will be not be a one-year, flash-in-the-pan deal, but a long-term arrangement," Krieg said. "And it will not be confined to the Hispanic population there, either. We will set up shop and work hand-in-glove with the residents to identify and solve problems."
Because "a lot gets lost in translation," Krieg has arranged for his five-member staff to learn Spanish in hopes of breaking the language barrier that can impede progress in resolving issues. Fluent himself, he said he plans to "get down to ground level and talk to the folks" and be a part of the process in North Laurel.
Igniting a conversation that leads to community initiatives is one of the things Krieg does best, said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.
"Rich has a really good mind, and he acts as a catalyst who brings natural partners together," she said. "When you have someone who pursues ideas, there is always the risk of failure, but he is always eager and ready to support a good idea."
When Krieg was offered the opportunity to work as the head of the Horizon Foundation, he moved to Howard County from Evanston, Ill., with his wife, Judy. The couple have three children: Lauren, an elementary school teacher in Costa Rica; Jessica, a medical school student in Baltimore, and Gregory, a doctoral student in computer science in Wisconsin.
The Florida native is the former health commissioner of Chicago. He previously served as executive director of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University in Chicago and as director of policy for the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council.
"It was interesting when the Horizon Foundation was first formed that Rich was chosen [as president] from outside our community," said Anne Towne, executive director of the Association of Citizen Services. "He brought a more urban leadership style, but more importantly he brought a vision of possibility. You might not always agree with him, but he challenges all of us to think bigger, bolder, better."
When Krieg isn't working with the foundation, he is involved with the Community Emergency Response Network (CERN), which he has chaired for six years.
"I convened this group after 9/11, prompted by the very real likelihood of a major terrorist threat to Washington" and what that would mean to the county given its proximity to the nation's capital, he said.
In working with Krieg on disaster planning and other issues, Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon praised his "strong, yet quiet leadership," which he said promotes cooperation and collaboration.
"He is one of the more influential people in the county, yet he's the real deal," McMahon said. "Rich has a good idea of what the county needs, and he genuinely cares about finding remedies for those needs. He knows how to bring people together."
CERN's improvements in preparing a community for a natural or man-made disaster have been "path breaking" and have led to national recognition, said Krieg. He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given the organization several commendations for its work on sheltering in place and community preparedness exercises.
"I also care passionately about the issue of pandemic flu, or avian flu," he added, saying that having on board Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's former health commissioner and now the county's health officer, "is a big plus" for CERN.
Despite his high profile in the community, on public display for viewers of his cable TV program, On the Horizon, Krieg said, "I am still not comfortable in the role of funder." Noting he has never before held a job in philanthropy, he said, "I always find it difficult to be seen that way. I just like to talk about the issues."
The "real essence" of the Horizon Foundation, which bills itself as having $92 million in assets, is that "we're not afraid to jump into the trenches and get involved," he said. "We are less a funder than a catalyst. Some things we self-finance and some we finance with others -- we like working that way."
While Horizon's largest commitment is to nonprofit organizations, he said, "We have no qualms at all in terms of financing government." Though the foundation has been criticized in the past for interfering, Krieg said, he continues to ask: "If the center of the problem lies in government, why not?"
Noting that Howard County is first in the state in elderly population growth, he said future issues needing attention in this arena include housing, transportation and medical resources.
"We may be a small county, but we're going to be a small, old county," he said.
Howard ranks first, he said, because of the core of longtime Columbia residents who are aging and the fact that they, in turn, are bringing their aging parents to live with them.
Krieg has done just that with his father, Arthur Louis Krieg. Calling him "a bona fide World War II hero" who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Krieg said his father moved in with him and his wife in October.
"It's been a remarkable experience to have Dad here with us," said Krieg, whose mother, Ruth, died of cancer in 2006. "We have dinner together and just hang out. But I have also been able to witness firsthand how some of our local services operate since Dad uses them."
He singled out the pulmonary-therapy program at Howard County General Hospital and Neighbor Ride, a volunteer transportation service, as being "life-savers."
Despite Krieg's lengthy professional to-do list, he finds time for outside interests, such as traveling and kayaking with his wife, who is on the faculty at the College of Medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
He has built two sailboats and Williamsburg-style furniture and plays bluegrass music on guitar, a talent he picked up during his two-year stint in central Brazil as a community health-care worker for the Peace Corps. He remains a member of the National Peace Corps Association's advisory council.
But he acknowledges that he is often happiest when he is working.
"Every day is as exhilarating and energizing as the first," he said. "What I love about the Horizon Foundation is that we're not in an ivory tower, and we're not disconnected from the issues. What I love about Howard County is that it's a really good place to find the solutions."