Stan Nelson

Stan Nelson

Founder and Chairman Emeritus* of the Scottsdale Institute, 1926-2012

When Stan Nelson passed away, Scottsdale Institute lost its founder, but the healthcare industry lost a visionary thinker, innovative systems architect and good friend.

Stanley Roe Nelson, a hospital executive who pioneered many of the organizational strategies that have become accepted practice for today’s health systems, died on Friday, August 3, 2012 in Minneapolis after a brief illness. Mr. Nelson, who resided in both Minneapolis and Scottsdale, Ariz., was 85.

In a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Nelson demonstrated a unique ability to see hospitals on a larger playing field even at a time when most of them operated as isolated facilities run by local charities or religious denominations. He anticipated and ushered in the development of hospitals into integrated health systems and strategic collaborators in the community, especially with physicians.

“He had a great vision for what changes needed to be made,” said Don Wegmiller, a friend and colleague for more than 50 years who served as chief executive at Minneapolis-based Allina Health, which today owns Abbott Northwestern. As a young, thirty-something CEO in the early 1960s, Mr. Nelson oversaw the merger of Northwestern Hospital with rival Abbott Hospital to form Abbott Northwestern, a bold move that presaged a wave of mergers and acquisitions among hospitals that has accelerated today under Healthcare Reform.

He was only in his late twenties when he assumed his first job as chief executive of Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind. Mr. Nelson’s most noteworthy and far-reaching accomplishment occurred in the years 1971 through 1988, when as CEO of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, he conceived and developed the Henry Ford Health System into one of the country’s first vertically integrated health systems, an industry model that predominates today.

When he arrived at Ford the hospital was in financial straits and dependent on the philanthropy of the Ford family and Ford Foundation. Mr. Nelson personally lobbied Henry Ford to donate $200 million to expand the ailing Henry Ford Hospital in downtown Detroit by building satellite outpatient clinics to serve the burgeoning suburban population. “That was unheard of,” said Mr. Wegmiller. “People said academic medical centers are supposed to be downtown. They run a hospital and that’s it. Stanley had the vision to say, ‘No, that must change,’ and he did it.”

Mr. Nelson left Henry Ford Health System as a financially self-sustaining health system that continues to thrive under enlightened leadership, including being awarded the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2012. Mr. Nelson also served as Chairman of the American Hospital Association in 1982. He was instrumental in the founding of group purchasing organization Voluntary Hospitals of America-today the Irving, Texas-based VHA-serving as its founding president from 1977 to 1981 managing VHA under the umbrella of Henry Ford Hospital.

Mr. Nelson was not one to rest on his laurels. After retiring from Henry Ford, he founded the not-for-profit Scottsdale Institute, an executive organization of leading health systems that share best practices in information technology. Once again his vision set him apart, enabling him to see the need for senior healthcare executives to embrace IT years before its time. Not technically savvy himself, his advice was simple: “Find the right people and it will all work out.” It has. Scottsdale Institute continues to reflect his collegial nature and innovative thinking in its mission to gather together top executives for collaboration, education and networking.

During his long career he mentored a generation of healthcare executives, many of whom went on to become leaders in the field. Mr. Nelson is remembered as much for his personal charm, wit and good humor as his professional accomplishments. “He had a way of communicating, a finesse about him,” recalls Charles Frankhauser, MD, a retired pathologist who worked with Mr. Nelson when he was an executive in Fort Wayne , Ind., and remained a life-long friend. “No matter what the situation he always had the proper phrase.”

William Wildern, who became vice president for development for Henry Ford Health System under Mr. Nelson, said, “What a wonderful human being. He wanted the truth and the good to win. I never saw him ruffled. He was a terrific CEO.” His vision of strategic collaboration in healthcare emanated from his personal relationships. “He had an idea a minute, was very creative. He always wanted to hear your viewpoint. ‘What do you think,’ he’d say.”

“Stan,” as friends and colleagues knew him, was born on August 12, 1926 in Stanley, Wis. to Newell and Signe Nelson. His son Mark said his father always felt fortunate that he was not born in Oshkosh and given that city’s name.

Mr. Nelson received his Bachelor of Science degree in economics and a Master of Hospital Administration degree from the University of Minnesota. He received the Gold Medal Award for excellence in healthcare administration from the American College of Healthcare Executives in 1982, and was inducted into the Health Care Hall of Fame in 1999.

Mr. Nelson was preceded in death by his parents and his daughter Barbara. He is survived by his wife of 63 years Virginia (Rif), daughter Janet Rice (Jim) and son Mark, grandchildren Lindsey Nelson Donnelly (Scott), Scott Nelson and CloAnne Nelson, Anna and Peter Rice, step-grandson Jason Rice (Tamar), step-granddaughter Mia Wakefield (JC), and great-granddaughter Marin Yulieth Donnelly.

Several hundred people gathered to warmly memorialize Stan at a Celebration of Life Service Sunday, August 12, Mr. Nelson’s birthday, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Besides his successful career, he was remembered as a loving family man, great friend and avid golfer who once had a handicap of 1. Friends and family are welcome to post tributes online.

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Stanley R. Nelson Scholarship
c/o University of Minnesota Medical Foundation
ATTN: Adam Buhr
Director of Development
School of Public Health
4200 Delaware Street SE
Mayo Mall Code 197
Minneapolis, MN 55455
Bridge Builders
Bethlehem Lutheran Church Foundation
4100 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55409
Stanley R. and Virginia L. Rifenbary Nelson Endowed Scholarship
ATTN: Connie Albers
Director of Stewardship
St. Olaf College
1520 St. Olaf Ave.
Northfield, MN 55057


TRIBUTES: Modern Healthcare and Minneapolis Star Tribune