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St. Luke's thriving after early struggle to make ends meet

RONAN - St. Luke Community Hospital and Health Care Network celebrated its 50th anniversary Thursday to coincide with observance of National Hospital Week.

Festivities included an open house with door prizes, cake and ice cream for those born at St. Luke in the past 50 years, and special recognition of retired former staff and community board members, said Wayne Fuchs, hospital spokesman.

Fuchs said the facility opened March 22, 1953, and faced many financial tribulations in those early days, including a narrow escape from repossession of its furnishings and equipment because of a $16,000 overdue note. He supplied the following hospital history.

The earliest hospital plans for the Ronan area date back to 1944. The community ultimately sold bonds for hospital construction, but no money remained to install equipment or purchase furnishings.

For two years, the building was leased to the Ronan School District as classroom space. In 1952, equipment was purchased after a successful fund-raising drive in the community.

Most of the interior work was completed with volunteer labor while the cash money was reserved for the necessary equipment to get the hospital operational. Supporters sewed curtains and linens for the rooms, and put on community theater productions to raise funds.

The hospital was scheduled to open March 15, but $10,000 was still needed on that date before the doors could open. An intensive one-week campaign for cash and pledges met the goal, and an open house and dedication were held March 21. The first patient was admitted the following day with the first baby, Alan Unruh, being born on March 23, 1953.

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Eugene Lasater had been hired by the board to help raise the funds needed to open the hospital and to lead the operation. In November of 1953, Lasater declared personal bankruptcy, leaving the head nurse and the board to operate the fledgling facility.

In 1954 the board chair, Tella Loman who was also the Ronan mayor, appealed to area residents to donate extra garden produce or canned or frozen foods to the hospital to facilitate the payment of construction debts and to meet state Board of Health requirements

A Pledge-a-Month campaign, suggested and initiated in 1955 by Dr. Charles Thornton of Missoula, kept the hospital afloat through the early years, and saved the hospital furnishings and equipment from a debt-repossession action by the A.S. Aloe Co., which was owed $16,380.

Nurses in those early days donated their first hour of work free to the hospital to help the cash flow.

From these early beginnings that included a nursing staff of four, St. Luke has grown to become the second largest employer in Lake County, with more than 300 on the payroll, and annual revenues in excess of $20.5 million, Fuchs said.

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