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Vital Signs:
Valedictory for a visionary, a gentleman, and a gentle man

When William Wilson was a junior at Dartmouth College, he landed a job that changed the course of his life. Wilson, who died at DHMC on March 10 at age 90, served as chief administrator of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital from 1948 to 1978. That job back in 1932-as a waiter in the MHMH doctors' dining room-was what got him interested in medicine. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1934, earned a master's degree in hospital administration, and a little over a decade later was asked back to run the place. And that changed the course of the institution.

During Wilson's 30-year tenure at MHMH, the number of beds, doctors, and admissions more than doubled. In 1950, the hospital's budget exceeded a million dollars for the first time; by the time he retired, it had increased nearly 50-fold. By the late 1960s, with the opening of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center and other programs, MHMH was beginning to look like a major, academic medical referral center. In the 1970s, it officially became one.

The late Bill Wilson is seated at his desk in this undated file photograph.

So what do people remember most about Bill Wilson? "He was a real gentleman," says Marilyn Prouty, head of nursing from 1972 to 1988, and "a good listener." So much so that when Dartmouth- Hitchcock Medical Center was created in July 1973-and a joint council appointed to "plan, resolve conflicts, and coordinate the activities of the four member institutions"-Wilson was tapped to chair the council. "Bill could handle disagreement," recalls Allen Britton, a former MHMH and Clinic board member. "He kept things under control . . . but he didn't domineer. He was well respected by staff and board. A gentleman."

James Varnum, the current president of MHMH, explains that acknowledging others' efforts was one key to Wilson's success. For example, he started a service club in 1953 to recognize employees -and last year he spoke at the event's 50th anniversary. He knew everyone and "everyone was important to him," says Varnum.

John Hennessey, former dean of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and a former MHMH board member, describes Wilson as relaxed and friendly, but also a keen intellectual and a visionary. "He had a profound and thoughtful concern for change. He used the dynamics of change to bring about improvements." In a 1991 history of MHMH, Hennessey wrote: "While medical science and technology grew vastly more complex, Bill Wilson's human touch was a persistent, unifying value for patients and staff alike."

Says Varnum, whose own tenure at MHMH's helm is now approaching Wilson's, "I keep running into people who knew Bill, and they always remember him fondly as a gentleman." There's that word again. "He was not just a gentleman in the [usual] sense of that word," adds Varnum, "but a gentle man."


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Dartmouth Medical SchoolDartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterWhite River Junction VAMCNorris Cotton Cancer CenterDartmouth College