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Rice Hospital in Willmar, Minn., celebrates 75th year

Rice Memorial Hospital will celebrate 75 years this week. Built during the height of the Depression, with $166,000 in money from the Cushman Rice legacy and federal Public Works Administration funds, the hospital has developed into a multimillion dollar, multifaceted complex. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Hans Dahl has many memories of the 29 years he spent as administrator of Rice Memorial Hospital.

There were the infamous "hall beds" that housed patients in the hallways during the high-occupancy times of the 1960s and 1970s. There was the day in 1975 when the entire hospital was placed on standby for evacuation because of a major fire that destroyed part of a nearby block in downtown Willmar.

Then there was the infant who was in such a hurry to arrive that the delivery took place on the lawn outside the hospital's front door.

Many stories, both large and small, are being remembered this week as Rice Hospital celebrates its 75th birthday.

Dahl, who headed the hospital from 1963 to 1992, said he's looking forward to the occasion "because of the memories."

The celebration this week includes parties for hospital staff, current and former board members and city officials, and an open house from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday for the public.

Mike Schramm, chief executive of the city-owned hospital, said it's "an important milestone in our history."

"We're hoping to make it memorable for the community," he said. "A big part of who you are is where you've come from and how you came to be."

There's three-quarters of a century of history to celebrate, from the pre-World War II years to the new millennium, from an era when medical records were written or typed by hand to electronic medical records that allow charting to take place at the patient's bedside.

Rice Memorial Hospital was built during the height of the Depression, with $166,000 in money from the Cushman Rice legacy and federal Public Works Administration funds.

The hospital opened to great fanfare on Aug. 2, 1937. The first patient was a little girl having her tonsils removed.

"A model institution in every respect," proclaimed the Willmar Daily Tribune, which went on to describe the pink and gray terrazzo floor in the lobby, the French reproduction painting in the waiting room and the white cribs in the newborn nursery.

The original Rice Hospital had 37 beds. Its two operating rooms were equipped with $5,000 worth of equipment, including a $500 anesthesia machine.

Dumbwaiters carried food from the kitchen up to the patient floors. The laundry department contained an 8-foot gas-powered mangle for ironing sheets.

Marjorie Doyle Nelson's children grew up hearing stories about their mother's career in the late 1930s and early 1940s as one of Rice Hospital's first medical stenographers, taking dictation and transcribing medical reports by the doctors. Because the office staff was small, she often filled in as the receptionist.

One memorable day she was at the reception desk when someone came in with a severed finger which she dutifully delivered to the doctor, recalled Debb Sheehan, one of her daughters.

Her mother loved being part of Rice Hospital, Sheehan said. "This was always a connection she cherished."

Dr. Conrad Larson, a pathologist at Rice from the mid-1970s until retiring in the early 1990s, says what impresses him the most about Rice's history is the magnitude of change the hospital has undergone.

"So many things have improved since I came," said Larson, who was chief of the pathology department for several years and also served a stint as chief of the medical staff. "Since I left, it's almost unrecognizable."

Past local leaders would likely appreciate how the hospital has dealt with constant change yet been forward-thinking in addressing community needs, Schramm said. "To continue to change over time and to continue to invest in the hospital and support the community I think is what past board members and past city officials would be proud of. We've been proactive in investing in new technology and new ways to treat patients."

Schramm believes past city leaders also would recognize Rice's emphasis on providing compassionate, excellent care.

"It's what we stand for as an organization and what we believe in. We continue to strive for that," he said.

Hospital leaders see this legacy as so important, it's shared with every new Rice employee during orientation, Schramm said.

Although some of the focus this week is on the past, it's on the future too, he said. "I'm always thinking about where we're going in the future. In the future, hopefully people will see we were trying to do the right thing."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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