August 25, 2003

40 years, 31 days

Eric Rangus

Next weekend, after 40 years and 31 days working for Emory’s hospitals,
John Henry will retire.

Henry, chief executive officer of Emory Hospitals and Wesley Woods Center, announced in March that he would retire effective Aug. 31.

When Henry was hired Aug. 1, 1963, John F. Kennedy was in the White House and Emory President-designate Jim Wagner was in grade school. Henry has seen Emory’s hospitals grow in size and stature, earning dozens of awards, and just last year he was present as Crawford Long unveiled its $270 million renovation—an accomplishment Henry ranks as one of the two most significant of his tenure. The project recently was selected to receive one of the Urban Land Institute awards for 2003 (an honor that recognizes the proper use of land).

If he wanted to spend his last five months on the job coasting through a victory lap, he could hardly be blamed. It’s not like he hadn’t earned it. Henry was even able to add a few more honors to an office filled with them: The Health Care Heroes Lifetime Achievement Award came from the Atlanta Business Chronicle in May, and the Georgia Hospital Association’s (GHA) 2003 Chairman’s Award followed a couple months later. They were a couple more pats on the back in a career that has been filled with them.

But coasting is something Henry would never consider, let alone do. “I don’t think I’ve slowed down or changed my way of doing things,” said Henry, a serious, up-front man with a distinguished Southern drawl that gives away his Georgia roots (he grew up in College Park).

Since announcing his retirement, Henry’s routine hasn’t changed. He still shuttles between his offices at CLH and Emory Hospital, meets regularly with the health care management team, and makes a point to return every call and e-mail he receives the day he gets it. He is still responsible for the day-to-day operations of three hospitals, and says he will take the job seriously until he shuts off the lights in his office on his last day.

Come Sept. 1, Henry will carry the title CEO emeritus and will serve as a special advisor to Michael Johns, executive vice president for Health Affairs. “I’m sure there will be things going on, and we’ll just have to wait and see what comes down the pipe,” he said.

Henry’s mind remains fixed on the many challenges involved in running a hospital in the 21st century. In simple conversation, he touches on issues ranging from medical ethics to philanthropy to traffic; each of these must be addressed by Emory’s hospitals if they want to continue providing the best care for patients and the most fulfillment for staff, he said.

“John Henry’s career at Emory has been an extraordinary saga of leadership, loyalty and vision,” Johns said. “He has loved and nurtured Emory Hospital, Crawford Long Hospital and Wesley Woods Center as if they were family.”

In a sense, they are—or their employees are, anyway. As Henry walks the halls of Crawford Long, most everyone acknowledges him with a “hello,” and he is quick to return the greeting. “You’ve got to take care of people” is a line Henry repeats. In one sense he means that literally, in that a hospital’s job is taking care of the sick.

Its other meaning relates to his own position. As CEO, Henry must take care of his staff and his doctors. He must make them feel wanted and appreciated. Henry acknowledges hospital workers when they pass him in the halls—they, of course, know his name, but he knows theirs as well. His gratitude really knows no bounds.

When his mother-in-law passed away in June at the age of 89, Henry wrote a letter of appreciation to the staff at Wesley Woods, who had taken care of her for the past two years at Budd Terrace. He called the team “angels on earth,” and thanked several doctors and staff members by name. A copy of the letter ran in the July 2003 issue of the Emory Healthcare newsletter.

For many years, Henry’s families at home and at work have overlapped. Wife Barbara has run the gift shop for more than a decade and has given approximately 36,000 hours of her time as a volunteer. She also designed some of the accoutrements of the new building (the wall paneling, furniture and color schemes are her doing, as are some of the hospital’s more exotic additions, like two aviaries, a fish tank in the emergency room, an auxiliary garden, the world’s largest tuned wind chime—which faces Peachtree Street in front of the hospital—and two water walls that change color, which visitors see upon entering the CLH atrium). All were gifts from the CLH auxiliary. Taking visitors on a tour of the new facility is something Henry, very much like a new homeowner showing off his first house, enjoys.

Barbara also helped design a spectacular wall-sized mural that decorates one wall in the CLH employee lounge that chronicles the hospital’s transformation from its horse-and-buggy-ambulance days to its sparkling modern-day appearance. The mural “95 Years of Caring,” painted by Melaney Bracken, is reproduced on the front cover of a recently released book Caring for Atlanta: A History of Emory Crawford Long Hospital, for which John Henry wrote the foreword. The employee lounge, also a gift from the auxiliary, includes a staff fitness center.

Henry’s association with Emory actually predates his employment by 10 years. After graduating as salutatorian of his class at the Georgia Military Academy (now Woodward Academy), Henry began his freshman year at Emory College in 1953 when he was just 15 years old. He graduated at 19 as a pre-med/history major.

After two years in medical school, Henry joined the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps and served for four years, 1959–63. His unit was based at Fort Benning and would’ve been the first to hit the beach had the United States invaded Cuba during the missile crisis in October 1962. The transports were already loaded at the port of Savannah.

In 1963, Henry, who was honorably discharged as a 1st lieutenant, received the Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service. He doesn’t to talk much about his duties during the crisis since much of it remains classified. The award, framed on his office wall, is dated Nov. 27, 1963—five days after President Kennedy was assassinated.

By that time, Henry had already begun his tenure at Crawford Long as an administrative resident. Thus began Henry’s climb up the ladder. He was named CLH administrator in 1984. A year later he became the hospital’s first-ever CEO. In 1995, Henry added CEO of Emory Hospital to his resume, and he said the merging of those two cultures was, along with the new CLH building, his greatest accomplishment.

“It was a challenge because the people at Emory didn’t think they needed me,” said Henry, who had been at CLH 32 years when he took on the leadership of Emory Hospital. “And the people at Crawford Long were jealous because they didn’t think I needed to be at Emory.”

Henry said the transition took a lot of diplomacy at both hospitals as all the protocols were standardized. Basically, Henry just widened his family. And that family widened again in 2000 when Wesley Woods came under his auspice.

It is impossible to neatly wrap up Henry’s career in one short article or comment. Perhaps the most articulate attempt is in an author’s note by Ren Davis that follows Henry’s foreword to Caring for Atlanta:

“For John Henry, family has always been the center of both his personal and professional life, and hospital staff were simply members of his extended family. Quite possibly, the greatest legacy of his years of leadership, and the hospital’s greatest challenge in the future, will be to ensure that this deep-rooted sense of family endures.”