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Innerviews: Hospital executive grateful for career

By Sandy Wells, Staff writer

Fate and those random, unplanned circumstances that shape our lives have blessed Bob Gray.

Where would he be without the job offer that came along halfway through his dissertation? And when he faced unemployment, wasn’t it odd how the hospital just happened to have an opening? And he most certainly wouldn’t be here today if a sudden family commitment hadn’t trumped the new opportunity in Alabama.

Circumstantial? Coincidental? Yes. But that’s how life goes, he said. And he couldn’t be happier with the way things went for him.

Two weeks ago, at 62, he retired as senior vice president of business development at Thomas Memorial Hospital after a tenure of 33 years. Despite the demands, he loved the work, loved expanding the hospital, meeting the financial challenges, recruiting new doctors (his specialty).

Now, he welcomes retirement with the same energy, confidence and enthusiasm he brought to his executive role. He has it all mapped out — golf, workouts, naps, all the things overshadowed so long by 12-hour work days, evening board meetings and pressing civic obligations.

Through it all, he never stopped wondering how a little tow-headed boy from Welch ended up leading such a fortuitous and fruitful life.

“My dad taught biology, anatomy and physiology and mother taught English at Welch High School. In 1920, my grandfather came from Greece with no money and no language and worked as a dishwasher for three years. Then he went back and got my grandmother and six other people.

“They settled in Clifton Forge, Va., and were in the restaurant business. They moved to Welch, which had a pretty big Greek community, and had a restaurant there, the Steakhouse.

“After I was born, mom went back to work, so I stayed with my grandparents above the restaurant. I spoke Greek before I spoke English. I went to school as a little Greek boy.

“There were about 100,000 people in McDowell County in 1957. You could not get through town on miner’s payday. They mined a lot of coal down there. The stores were packed. It’s so sad now to go back and look at it.

“After my first year in school, the grade school building burned, and they were building a new elementary school, and we didn’t get to finish first grade. It was February, so they gave us credit for the year. My dad took me back to the burned building, and we got my envelope of burned valentines. That’s probably where I learned to get around the rules, from him.

“I got to meet John Kennedy when he came through campaigning. I got to shake his hand. He was there three times.

“My dad worked three jobs. He went to the Foremost milk plant and loaded milk trucks, then went to school to teach all day and then went to Kroger and butchered.

“I started here in 1981. They paid me $30,000 my first year, more than my parents made together. I was rich. I didn’t know we didn’t have anything growing up. We had a nice house and went on vacation every year.

“There was no question about college. In 1970, they were doing the first draft lottery. I had a high number, 359, and I knew I was safe. Years later, when I was president of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, I got to go pick up Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, our speaker at the annual dinner. Riding down the hill with him, I said, ‘I regret and sometimes feel guilty that I didn’t serve in Vietnam.’ He said, ‘Son, stop it. You want to stay as far away from war as you possibly can.’

“I was accepted at Morgantown, the University of Tennessee and the University of North Carolina. I went to Morgantown because that’s where my buddies were going. I majored in political science and history. I thought about law school, got a master’s in political science and worked on a doctorate thinking I might teach.

“Halfway through my dissertation, a guy offered me a job in the WIC (Women Infants and Children) nutritional program just starting with the state Department of Health. I was hired to set it up in all of northern West Virginia. I had to go around and visit these little grocers up these hollows and enroll them to take WIC coupons.

“I got busy with that and got married and had a kid and then came to Charleston to review health projects for the Certificate of Need program. After four years, I went to work for the West Virginia Health Systems Agency, which was federally funded. When Reagan was elected, he got rid of all that.

“I had a buddy working here at Thomas, and I called him and asked if they had anything. He said they had a guy leaving and I should come talk to the boss. Bill Shepherd, the administrator, hired me in the spring of 1981 as vice president of operations.

“I thought I knew everything and found out I didn’t know anything. He saw something in me and took a chance. About 75 days later, the police led him out of here in handcuffs because he was stealing from the hospital.

“The board got rid of the nursing director and the chief financial officer. I was afraid to make eye contact with anybody because I had been here less than three months, and they were cleaning house. The Rev. Richard Mahan was chairman of the board and was administrator for about six months until we hired a new guy, and I managed to survive. I’m senior vice president.

“The building here opened the week I started. It was a marvel. I still call it the new building. I got this office, and I sat down at this desk, and I thought, ‘Hey, this is OK.’ And I never looked back. I’ve had fun every day.

“But health care is a hard business and is getting harder. When I started, they were getting ready for a new payment system where Medicare would pay us a fixed amount no matter what we did, whether it was a broken hip or taking out a gallbladder.

“The older guys who were my age then thought the world was going to end, and the guys my age, the 29-year-olds, wanted to push them out of the way and have their turn to take on a new challenge. Now I’m one of those old guys who think with the Affordable Care Act that health care is too regulated and changing too fast and guys who are 29 want to push me out of the way. That’s the evolution of this business.

“Every 30 years, I think health care seems to reinvent itself. The world as I knew it is ending. In the early days, there was a lot more money in health care. People paid the bills. The government payers were better. Nobody wanted to beat you out of a deductible. Today, there just isn’t enough money in health care to do what you want to do.

“When I started, Thomas Hospital was a $16 million business, a big deal. I’m leaving, and it’s an $800 million health system. That’s how far we’ve come. We folded in Saint Francis seven years ago and created the Thomas Health System. We are the 10th-largest employer in West Virginia.

“When I got here, the medical staff was real old, the original staff, 35-year-old guys who came after World War II and established a hospital. The hospital opened in 1946. So by ’81, they were in their 60s and 70s. The day I started, they had a board meeting, and I looked around, and it was all World War II veterans smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor.

“We started recruiting young specialists. I’ve brought in over 200 doctors. If you see a doctor in this valley, there is a good chance I brought that doctor to town. That’s probably the thing I am most proud of. I’ve recruited nine doctors this year.

“I’ve done this 33 years. Like a prize fighter, you like going out on top. I don’t want anyone to ever say I stayed one year too long. I’ve got an implanted defibrillator for a cardiac condition. I’ve accomplished what I want to do, and I want to move to chapter two.

“On my first Monday, I’m going out in my front yard, and as the sun rises over my shoulder, I am going to take a picture of myself on the first day of chapter two.

“I’m going to treat retirement like a job so I can phase into it. I’ve been working 12-hour days for 33 years with night meetings and doctors calling me on my cellphone. I’m going to get up Monday at the regular time and have coffee with my wife, and she’s going to drive here to work. Then I’m going to do yoga and go to the gym, and then I will have a sandwich, and at 2 o’clock, I’m going to take a nap. I will do that for a couple of weeks, and then I’m going to Myrtle Beach for a week to play golf. I play every Saturday and Sunday and on afternoons when the weather is good.

“I ran for 30 years, until I developed the cardiac condition. I ran in 16 distance runs. In ’95, I finished in 90 minutes, my best.

“I play bluegrass guitar. We have a group, the Chestnut Street Pickers. We play bluegrass gospel.

“I thought about leaving here once and was offered a job in Birmingham at the University of Alabama Medical Center. About that time, my mother called and said she had breast cancer. I wasn’t going to leave. She passed away two years later, and my dad died six months after that.

“That was the fork in the road, but I have no regrets at all. I’ve had a charmed life. I feel good about what we’ve accomplished here.

“I’m a little blond-headed boy from Welch working in the capital city of West Virginia. Occasionally, I put on a tuxedo and doctors come over and want my opinion on things, and it never stops amazing me that I’m a little guy from Welch, and they are seeking me out. I never forgot that I was that little guy.”

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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