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Colloton 'leads by example'

Kathryn Fiegen

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 27, 2007

Colloton Records Request Timeline

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

He's not done, not yet.

He's battling two types of cancer and recently went through a second round of chemotherapy. Friends say he is trying to spend more time these days healing with his family, friends and church.

But he can't get away.

John Colloton, director emeritus for University Hospitals, has been fighting retirement ever since he formally retired in 2001.

He already had retired once before, in 1993, from his position as University Hospitals chief dxecutive officer. He came back as UI's vice president for statewide health services and retired again in in 2001.

Colloton is credited with saving University Hospitals. When he came aboard in 1956, hospitals all over the country were facing turbulent times. With the advent of Medicaid and Medicare, many were predicting University Hospitals' demise. Without any state funding, and without a background as a doctor, Colloton turned the hospital into one of the top medical centers in the country -- marking him as an expert in hospital administration -- in Iowa and across the country.

Friends say Colloton, 75, isn't in the office as much these days, but he still works behind the scenes to offer his advice and consult with other members of the university and state. His correspondence with key leaders in academia, health care and politics now is the focus of a legal challenge by the Press-Citizen, which has complained to the county attorney about the university's decision to deny an open records request seeking Colloton's e-mails and letters. The newspaper contends that, although retired, Colloton's UI-maintained documents, including some involving the presidential search at UI and the controversial contract between the school and Wellmark Blue Cross-Blue Shield should be made public. Colloton maintains an office at the hospital and is furnished with a secretary and computer.

In an April 2002 interview in his University Hospitals office with the Press-Citizen, Colloton said he came into "work" almost daily . Colloton declined comment for this story but remarked that nothing has changed since the 2002 interview, except he is "four years older and has four more grandkids."

Colleagues of Colloton agreed to talk about their friend -- but not about the documents' controversy.

'Great determination' in building hospital

Friends described Colloton as intelligent, an excellent leader and a man who knew how to get the job done. They also said he cares deeply for his wife, three grown children and grandchildren.

Nicholas Rossi is a retired University Hospitals cardiovascular surgeon who has known and worked with Colloton for more than 40 years.

"He's the kind of guy that when he's retired, it still looks like he's working full time," Rossi said. "He's known so many people, I'm sure that he still spends a lot of time consulting with people."

Hard work has been the constant in Colloton's life. He was born in 1931 to poor Irish immigrants and had to go to work at an early age to help his family pay the $25 rent . Later, Colloton wanted an education. So he went to Dubuque-based Loras College and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in business administration . After serving in the U.S. Army, he began work at University Hospitals in 1956 . He used his GI bill to pay for his graduate education in hospital administration.

He was appointed CEO 15 years later by Willard "Sandy" Boyd, president of the university from 1969-81.

Boyd told Colloton he would face challenging times at the institution. Hospitals all over the country were having problems in the 1970s, he said, and some had to go to private ownership or make large cuts to programs.

"The main thing was the importance of financial stability of the hospital. We didn't want it to become a burden to the university," Boyd said. "(Colloton) came to me one day and said, 'The hospital is antiquated. We need a new hospital. I have a plan, and it won't cost the university any money. Can I do it?' And I said, 'Yes, on one condition. You can't call the hospital antiquated. It was built at the same time I was born.'"

The result was a $500 million capital-improvement program from 1976-2005 that overhauled the medical center's services and centers. Many consider it to be Colloton's finest accomplishment in a lifetime of big achievements.

"I think the greatest thing he ever did was lay out a capital plan to expand the hospital with no funds available," said Darrell Wyrick , UI Foundation president emeritus and Colloton's fishing buddy of more than 30 years. "He laid out a plan with $500 million without any state funding. He took it on with great determination and pride and energy. He essentially carried it out just the way it was planned early on."

Colloton 'leads by example'

Donna Katen-Bahensky, who is now the CEO of University Hospitals, said she knew how difficult it must have been for Colloton to secure the funding. State hospitals expected to get tax dollars to operate, she said.

"It was very brave of him to do, and he was very young," she said. "Gaining access to capital is one of the hardest things you have to do."

Katen-Bahensky said she remembered admiring Colloton's work as a young hospital administrator at the University of Nebraska Hospital in Omaha.

"I think everybody knew his work and how young he was," she said. "For most of us, it was, 'Gosh, that's where we'd like to be but there's no way we could get there.'"

When Katen-Bahensky took over in 2002 at University Hospitals, she said it was Colloton who showed her around, told her who everyone was and explained the hospital's history -- even though he had retired from the position nine years earlier.

"He's willing to share information, and he's really intelligent," she said. "He knows a lot, not only about what is happening at this hospital, but what is happening around the country. He's very well read."

Not only that, but Colloton has an amazing memory, Katen-Bahensky said.

"One of the things about his memory is he remembers everyone's name and the years things happened," she said. "We'll call down to his office to ask him if he can remember a year or a name for us."

Wyrick said Colloton always led with determination and energy.

"He leads by example," he said. "He wants things to be done right, and he pushes hard, and he expects people working with him to push hard, too. And that means using whatever kinds of methods are necessary to provide that leadership."

'An outstanding vision'

Amy O'Deen , Colloton's executive assistant for the eight years before he retired, said her boss was demanding -- but working for him was thrilling.

"I remember him walking around the hospital, with him looking at the empty shelves and unfinished areas that were under construction," she said. "And he could see, even if it was just two-by-fours, what exactly it was going to be. He was there with his arm-sleeves rolled up, talking to the construction workers. He had an outstanding vision."

O'Deen said Colloton was often at the office until 9 or 10 p.m. each night and worked many weekends. She said before he went to meetings, even routine ones, he wanted to be completely prepared.

"He would walk around, and if he saw trash on the floor, he would be the first to pick it up," O'Deen said. "And we all followed his lead."

Things such as picking up trash, talking with construction workers and negotiating with doctors and legislators are what make Colloton an excellent manager, Rossi said.

"He would take what everyone had and make the whole thing work," he said. "Everyone had their own agenda. He was not a physician, but he could talk to doctors and make them work together. He was able to get people on the same wavelength. And that takes talent."

But, Rossi said, when Colloton was working, he was definitely working. He was not the type to ever stand around and just talk.

"He's all business, no fluff," he said. "He's not the kind of guy to pass the time of day with. You would have to have something to talk about concerning the hospital. Outside of work, now that was a different story."

Colloton's hard work brought him national attention. From 1970-98 , he served on policy and advisory boards at the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Yale, Johns Hopkins and Michigan . In 1991, he was elected a Distinguished Service Member of the Association of American Medical Colleges . In 2002 , he received the Horatio Alger Award , a national honor that recognizes role models whose lives illustrate that integrity and initiative can triumph over adversity. He was the first hospital administrator to win the award, which is given to 10 people annually .

In addition, a number of things have been named after him -- an outstanding student award in the university's graduate program in hospital and health administration, a $90 million hospital pavilion, an endowment chair in the College of Public Health and a board room at Wellmark Inc., where he has been on the board for 30 years, serving as its chairman from 1993-2000.O'Deen said she was sure Colloton got other job offers around the country, but she said he never discussed them with the staff.

"He was a very humble person," she said. "He could have gone on to bigger, better paying jobs at other places across the country, but he didn't. He is a true Iowan, and this was his baby."

Colloton records request timeline

Nov. 27, 2006:The Press-Citizen receives the first in a series of documents that appear to be from University Hospitals Director Emeritus John Colloton to several top officials, including Gov. Tom Vilsack, Regents' President Michael Gartner and former University of Iowa President David Skorton. These documents appear to address topics such as the Wellmark contract controversy of 2004 and 2005, the UI presidential search and UI and University Hospitals restructuring.
Nov. 29, 2006:The Press-Citizen submits a records request to UI that asks for documents and correspondences to and from Colloton to Vilsack, Gartner and Skorton, among others.
Nov. 30 to Dec. 7, 2006:UI begins investigating what is called a "personnel matter" by UI officials and a "security breach" at University Hospitals by regents.
Dec. 22, 2006: UI passes the 20-day limit for complying with an open records request.
Dec. 28, 2006:The Iowa Attorney General advises UI that Colloton has no public duties and is not subject to the records request. UI denies the request.
Jan. 3, 2007: The Press-Citizen requests records of Colloton's secretary, Nancy Kirkpatrick.
Jan. 5, 2007:UI denies the Kirkpatrick request.
Jan. 11, 2007:Gartner directs the board office to look into a security breach at University Hospitals. Regent Robert Downer confirms the security breach involves the Colloton e-mails.
Jan. 17, 2007:Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, at the request of the Press-Citizen, says she will investigate UI's refusal of the Colloton records request.
Jan. 23, 2007:Gartner, at the request of Regents' President Pro-Tem Teresa Wahlert, directs the board office to investigate policies regarding emeritus personnel. This after a series of media reports identified several perks received by Colloton.
Jan. 24, 2007:The UI General Counsel's office says the investigation on the personnel matter is concluded but will not say what if any sanctions occurred.