Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Remembering Neil Wortley

Neil Wortley, former administrator and one of CoxHealth's best ambassadors, passed away Monday morning at his home at the age of 89. Our prayers and thoughts are with his family and many friends.

Mr. Wortley had a rich history with CoxHealth. He became administrator of Cox Medical Centers in 1952 and, with the exception of eight years with the Missouri Department of Health, held that position until his semi-retirement in 1985. Under his guidance the medical center grew from a 496-bed hospital in 1965 to a regional health center that included 510-bed Cox South. In his later years, he served Cox as administrator emeritus and focused on fundraising to support hospital services and patients.

Mr. Wortley is likely best remembered by his Cox “family” for his hospital rounds. Holiday rounds were often celebrated with a festive costume ranging from bunny ears at Easter to flashing lights at Christmas time. He loved Cox and the employees and spread his good will generously with us all.

Memorial Services will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 2, in First and Calvary Presbyterian Church, under the direction of Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home. Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday in the funeral home.

Mr. Wortley: A Living Legacy
CoxHealth Connection, May 2006

During CoxHealth's 2006 centennial celebration, then-Corporate Communications director Chris Whitley wrote this profile of Neil Wortley. This piece covers Mr. Wortley’s long history with the organization while capturing the spirit that made him a CoxHealth legend. We wanted to share it again with everyone who had the pleasure of working with Mr. Wortley.

It’s a good life these days, being Neil Wortley.

You’re still an early riser, though perhaps not as early as when you ran Cox Hospitals and would make rounds at all hours — weekdays, weekends and holidays alike. These days, you have the luxury of going back to bed after breakfast if you want, so sometimes that’s exactly what you do — but only now and then.

There is too much going on in your world to miss.

At 84 years old, you are more alive than plenty of people half your age. Three times a week, you drive yourself to the Meyer Fitness Center, where you pump iron and break sweat, not just as exercise for the body and mind, but as an act of stubborn defiance against time.

You still fit into the same old Burge School of Nursing sweat suit that you wore three decades ago. Okay, you admit, it’s “a little tight” in a place or two, but it makes you chuckle when you realize it’s older than most of the youngsters zipping around you on the running track.

You still crack jokes with folks wherever you go around town.

And yes, you devil, you are still stealing hugs and kisses from pretty girls of all ages. Nobody but you could get away with this.

Best of all, people genuinely love and respect you for who you are, and for all you’ve done to help build CoxHealth into what it is, even though so many of these folks are too young to have a clue about all that you did over four decades as administrative assistant, administrator and CEO.

It’s a safe bet that few people know you grew up in the little town of Lake Odessa, Michigan, where you return each year for your class reunion, or that you earned the nickname “Digger” because of a youthful apprenticeship at your Uncle Walter’s furniture store and funeral parlor.

No one would be all that surprised to learn that you were drawn to a career as a mortician because, as you say, “that’s a profession that allows you to really serve people when they really need you.”

That’s so you, the serving of other people.

Even when it’s not entirely a voluntary act, as it was in 1942 when the draft marched you off to basic training at Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Ark., and then to a surgical technician’s job at O’Reilly Army Medical Hospital in Springfield.

The Army Medical Corps brought you to Springfield, and O’Reilly brought profound changes to your life. How could anyone not be changed, working in a place where the daily mission was to patch up the lives of young men who had come home in pieces from World War II? You were so good at it that you eventually became a trainer of medics.

Your hospital career had begun.

Coming to O’Reilly changed your world in a bigger way. A blind date with Mary Orr, a doctor’s daughter from Ash Grove, led you to the altar. Actually, it led to your sister-in-law’s house, where on a three-day pass from the Army, you and Mary married. You remember every bit of that day, right down to the fried chicken you ate that evening at Riverside Inn.

Mary, herself a nurse, would be your devoted partner and confidante for the next 44 years, until she passed in 1989. She had been with you that Sunday afternoon in 1947 when you were flipping through one of her Dad’s old AMA Journals, and you stopped to notice a CAREER OPPORTUNITY advertisement that said a hospital administrator could make as much as $12,000 a year.

“Wow,” you thought to yourself. “This could be it for me.”

How right you were.

Living in a $25-a-month garage apartment at 662 ½ Hampton Street, with eldest son Neil Christopher barely a toddler, daughter Carolyn Bahaja still in her crib and little David Calvin not yet a twinkle in your eye, you enrolled at Southwest Missouri State College. In 1950, after three short years of studying business administration, and thanks to summer classes, Mary’s patience and the GI Bill, you emerged with a bachelor’s degree.

From there you went directly to the hospital administration program at Washington University in St. Louis, which returned you to Springfield for an internship at Burge Hospital in 1951.

Burge was a bustling place at the time, and a perfect learning laboratory for a bright young administrative resident. By 1949, a philanthropic force of nature by the name of Lester Edmund Cox had taken control of the hospital. The place had only 90 beds when you landed. But because of Mr. Cox, a renaissance was underway, and you found yourself squarely in the middle of the action. At least for a while, you did.

In May 1956 — half a century ago — you answered a call to work for the Missouri Department of Health and Welfare in Jefferson City. Nursing home regulations were new to the Show-Me State, and it became your job to apply them. You also were in charge of Missouri’s involvement with the federal Hill-Burton Act, a magnificent boon for community hospitals like Burge because it provided cash grants that allowed them to expand. For nine years, your hand with Hill-Burton helped grow hospitals all over the state.

That fact was not lost on Lester E. Cox. One of his friends, radio magnate Ralph Foster, who knew you from his service with the state’s hospital advisory board, called you one day with a dinner invitation. So you and Mary drove down to Springfield, and along with attorneys Wally Walter and John K. Hulston, you ate and talked. Mr. Cox, a direct man, made it known that he wanted you to “come back home and make the floors shine.”

You brazenly told him that you’d accept his offer to return as administrator of Burge-Protestant Hospital, but on one condition: Charlie Edwards, who was working at Bothwell Memorial Hospital in Sedalia, had to come with you.

Mr. Cox said yes, and you said OK, and on August 1, 1965, you came back to Springfield as administrator of Burge-Protestant.

Brilliant as he was, not even Mr. Cox could have possibly known what a deal he’d made. There was Charlie, a serious, sedate, almost shy sort of fellow who focused on the ledgers, the fiscal nuts and bolts of running a hospital. And there you were, outgoing, gregarious, a people pusher to Charlie’s pencil pusher, the right brain to his left.

Together you were dynamite. That’s what folks who were around then still say about the two of you. You and Charlie came to a hospital that Mr. Cox had brought back from the brink of closing in the 1940s, and together you really made the place hum.

These were the 1960s, the Space Age was in full throttle, and our nation’s technology race against the Russians almost seemed mirrored here at home in a smaller way, as you strove to make Burge-Protestant the better hospital in town with the newest innovations, the best equipment, the most modern facilities, the first with this and that. From then, and on into the 1970s, you helped bring in cobalt treatments for cancer, you pioneered the concept of a mobile coronary care unit, and you launched the Baby Buggy—a mobile intensive care nursery for infants. Even after Mr. Cox passed away in 1968, and the hospital was named in his honor the following year, you and his son, Lester L. Cox, kept forging ahead with ambitious plans.

For all the serious time you put into your work, you never hesitated to make things fun. How many of your peers ever put on bunny ears, or a referee’s outfit, or a lepruchaun’s costume, or, for crying out loud, fishnet panty hose, as goofy ways to boost morale around the hospital? Don’t deny it. You could be a real fruitcake at times, if that’s what you thought was needed to give the troops a lift.

Speaking of crazy, it really makes you smile, knowing what a nut some folks thought you were back in the late ‘70s when you said Cox should build a women’s and children’s hospital in Hester Gibson’s corn field, way out south of town. But see, Cox South worked out fine, right through a change order that added floors to the initial design and turned it into a full-service hospital that’s now about to celebrate its 21st anniversary.

The same year Cox South opened, you retired. On June 28, 1985, you handed over the keys to Charlie Edwards, who became executive administrator, and you became administrator emeritus, which you continue to define by your behavior as meaning “one who still makes rounds because he still cares deeply about this place.”

There are far more places on campus to make rounds today than there were when you stopped making them for a paycheck. Places proudly bearing the names of your benevolent friends — Hulston, Martin, Meyer, Turner, Wheeler. All around CoxHealth, there are still plenty of familiar names on ID tags, too, including that of Steve Edwards, Charlie’s son, who runs South, and who freely admits he’d be a fool not to listen when you drop by his office as you do, with your observations and suggestions.

Yes sir, you are still running this hospital in your head, although you freely admit that you would not trade the joys of retirement for the headaches of managed care and physician relations and inadequate Medicaid reimbursements and, oh, let’s not get into them all.

CoxHealth is in very good hands today, you declare. The men and women who run the place have a smart view of the future, as far as you’re concerned. The Cox Medical Park project that will replace Cox North in a few more years is a good example of that.

Still, you confess that when the bulldozers start to push against the old hospital walls, it’s going to be a bittersweet day. You invested so much of your life there. Your youngest son was born there. You’re only halfway joking when you say you’d like to buy North and keep it going, if only you could win Powerball first.

Proudly, you point out that Springfield is already Luckytown, having CoxHealth as its largest and only locally-governed health care system.

But you’re beyond modest about the role you played in making it so.

“We had outstanding leadership from our board, we had hundreds of great staff, doctors, nurses, technicians, cafeteria people, maintenance folks, food service folks, you name it,” you say. “They’re the ones who made the hospital what it was, and that’s still true.

“I was just fortunate to have a little part in it, myself.”