(Borrowed from an interview for the WHA newsletter when Warren R. Von Ehren retired in 1986)
Mix youthful enthusiasm with passion, perspective and the presence to accept advice, and you have Warren’s philosophy on life. How did he acquire it?
His career in hospital administration began in the United States Army, whose ranks he joined shortly after earning a Bachelor of Science degree at Northwestern University in 1942.
“I had been a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Urbana, planning on earning my doctorate in biology and going into teaching and research,” he explained. With experience in biology, joining the 13th General Hospital and doing lab work seemed a natural thing.
After that, he was selected to attend Officer Candidate School at Camp Barkley, Texas. He graduated from OCS in June 1943, was commissioned second lieutenant and was assigned to the 98th General Hospital in Fort Jackson, SC. Thereafter, he spent 22 months in England, France and Germany.
“The Army introduced me to the whole idea of hospitals and health care,” he commented. “It changed my whole direction.”
While in the Army he met Mary, an Army nurse, who would become his wife of 60 years. They had two children together, Penny and Daniel.
Upon returning to the states, Von Ehren acquired an appointment to teach freshman biology at Northwestern University in September 1946. That summer, he began his first job with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, IL. And there he met his first mentor, Dr. Edward Leveroos, a flight surgeon from Superior, and the hospital’s medical director.
“We became very good friends,” said Von Ehren. “He’s the first person who really asked me, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I told him I wanted to earn my doctorate and then teach. He advised me, instead, to stay in the hospital field, since it was the up-and-coming thing. But I had to make my own decision.”
As a result, Von Ehren left the VA hospital, taught biology for the semester, and quickly decided that teaching wasn’t his calling. Hospital administration held a greater interest, so he enrolled full-time at Northwestern in the master’s program.
While at Northwestern, he also worked for the American Hospital Association in Chicago. After graduation, he served as assistant administrator at Bronson Methodist in Kalamazoo, MI, from 1949 to 1951. His boss, William Perdew, was a Methodist minister, who served as the hospital’s administrator.
“Perdew had no business background, but he was superb. He knew how to handle people, to get them to work together, to realize their full potential as human beings. He was my first true example of what a hospital administrator should be.”
Von Ehren had great admiration for Perdew, who, though a perfectionist, wasn’t the kind of person to look over one’s shoulder.
“He made suggestions but left it up to the individual to work it out. He always followed up and pointed out what you had done wrong, but never vindictively. He was critical but in a constructive way.”
In 1951, Von Ehren became administrative assistant for the AMA’s Council on Medical Education and Hospitals. He worked there until 1953 when he moved to Green Bay, where he was Bellin Memorial Hospital’s administrator for seven years.
“It was the first time I was really on my own. Now that I think about it, it was presumptuous to think I could run a hospital at age 32.”
When he arrived at Bellin, the budget was $500,000 to $600,000 annually; when he left in 1960, it was in the millions.
“At Bellin, I learned that the ‘Buck Stops Here.’ The real art of administration, I found, is getting people to work together. You must select the right people and allow them to work on their own – within the parameters you set. You must give them the freedom to make their own mistakes, but to learn from them as well.”
During his tenure at Bellin, a building program added 75 beds and provided new ancillary services. In 1955, under his leadership, a three-year diploma school of nursing was established.
“I was too young to really stop and reflect on the responsibility,” recalled Von Ehren. If I had, I might have gotten cold feet. I had that youthful enthusiasm – which is great, and there ought to be more of it; I really plunged ahead.”
In 1960 Von Ehren took over leadership at WHA as Executive Director where he remained for the next 26 years.