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A Half-Century at St. Luke’s: an Oral History

By Dr. David C. Pate, News and Community
June 25, 2012

I had the great pleasure recently of sitting down with E. E. “Gil” Gilbertson and Ed Dahlberg, the two chief executive officers who preceded me at the helm of St. Luke’s. On the eve of our sixth anniversary as St. Luke’s Health System, and in the spirit of the timeless and compelling vision that St. Luke’s leadership has held since the beginning, I wanted to share parts of our conversation with you.

Gil arrived at St. Luke’s in 1959 as the assistant administrator of what was then a one-hospital organization. He’d received a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota two years previously and was coming off a bracing book project he’d been asked to work on when Bishop Norman Foote, then the Episcopal bishop and the majority shareholder of the then Episcopal-affiliated St. Luke’s, asked him to look into a position in Idaho.

“I liked what I’d read about Idaho,” he said. “I had never come here before. It was still the biggest hospital in the state of Idaho. And the opportunity to work for Mrs. Ross (Helen Ross, then the hospital superintendent) was interesting."

“I fell in love with Boise.”

What followed until Gil’s retirement in 1988 was a period of great growth and progress.

"With Ed and Gil in my office during our recent visit. The value of their leadership is incalculable as we celebrate six years as St. Luke's Health System."

Gil became the hospital’s administrator in 1961. He was 31 years old. He recalls dividing all the needs of the hospital into four categories and listing the details on index cards. “I have never, ever, looked at them again,” he said to me.

Gil’s relationships with Bishop Foote, board and staff members, and the medical community were instrumental to all the changes that occurred during his career with St. Luke’s. He made a point of spending time in the doctors’ lounge, and counseled Ed to do the same when his successor joined the hospital.

“I felt comfortable with the medical staff almost immediately,” Gil said. “I liked physicians, always have.”

During Gil’s tenure, the hospital was expanded, cardiovascular programs and the Mountain States Tumor Institute were established, pediatric and obstetric services were developed, and clinical practices were strengthened in many areas. Boise attracted highly skilled specialists who contributed significantly to a stepped-up level of patient care. Gil also raised St. Luke’s profile through his active participation and leadership with the American Hospital Association.

In collaboration with Bishop Foote, Gil effected the change that converted the hospital to community control. St. Luke’s also developed programs in response to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

Gil’s endeavors with hospital board members were highly productive. Board members’ roots in the community, as deep then as they are now, meant the organization built its financial and other resources thoughtfully and methodically. Hospital leaders built capital slowly and steadily. It was a conservative approach that kept the hospital on solid ground, laying the foundation for secure development going forward. 

Ed Dahlberg joined St. Luke’s in 1985, arriving from Bozeman. Like Gil before him, Ed took to St. Luke’s immediately.

“The quality of the organization was palpable,” he told me. “You could just tell there was something about the place. It was the organization, the commitment to patient care.”

Until he retired in 2009, Ed honed patient care and staff relationships. He expanded the Boise hospital, established St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, developed the Meridian hospital from the ground up, and partnered with the Wood River on what ultimately became a new, St. Luke’s hospital. Gary Fletcher, now St. Luke’s Health System chief operating officer, succeeded Ed as chief executive officer at the Boise hospital in 2006, when the St. Luke’s Health System was established with the addition of St. Luke’s Magic Valley.

Ed’s focus on the coordination of care, evidence-based medicine, and the elimination of waste laid the groundwork for processes St. Luke’s is working to implement on broader scales today. His relationships were every bit as instrumental to St. Luke’s evolution as were Gil’s and have led to the organization’s singular reputation, solid financial footing, and structural strength. Everything St. Luke’s is today is due, in some measure, to seeds these two leaders planted decades ago.

Yet Ed, like Gil, is modest about his achievements.

“I didn’t have dreams of what we are today,” Ed said. “I had no particular idea of what specifically we needed to do."

“I think 10 percent of the things we did were my idea and 90 percent of the things we did were our ideas,” he said, “just trying to read the tea leaves and where medicine is headed.”

 “I think what’s been done is just superb,” Gil said. I couldn’t agree more.

About The Author

David C. Pate, M.D., J.D., is president and CEO of St. Luke's Health System, based in Boise, Idaho. Dr. Pate joined the System in 2009. He received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and his law degree from the University of Houston Law Center.