Pictured above is the Atkinson Veterans Wives Club members breaking ground at the location of Atkinson’s first hospital in 1930.
ATKINSON — Over the years healthcare has greatly changed and the facilities that administer treatment have progressed to provide patients with care in the best way possible.
West Holt Memorial Hospital (WHMH) in Atkinson has served the healthcare needs of the area for more than 40 years. Quality healthcare has always been a community priority for area residents, but one may wonder how WHMH came to be.
Before Atkinson had a hospital, the community rallied together to build, support and establish quality care, close to home for area residents because they knew that local healthcare was vital to a progressive community.
Healthcare in Atkinson began in the early 1900s with Dr. Sturdevant's sanitarium, located on the corner of First and Tuller streets. The sanitarium served as the first medical facility in Atkinson. Although it was not called a hospital, it served many of the same purposes as today's hospitals. It was even equipped with machines for giving steam heat and various treatments.
As time went on and healthcare evolved, Dr. McKee and Dr. Douglas provided care in a house on the corner of State and Carberry streets. Although sufficient for the time being, a group of wives of World War II veterans saw the need for a modern facility to serve the area. These women, known as the Atkinson Veterans Wives Club (AVW), are credited with the idea to build a modern hospital facility. This idea stemmed from discussions during their meetings concerning their growing families and a need for a modern facility for their families to receive excellent care.
In his daughter's book, Dr. McKee described some demanding women coming to his office to ask his support in building a local hospital.
"They didn't have a dime between them," he said.
While they did not have the funds in place, they did have determination and dedication. The effort began, committees were formed and additional supporters were sought. Three leading sponsors were Art Humpal, Carl Smith and Charles Chace. Smith was noted as being especially active in recruiting positive support among the rural community.
A fund drive was initiated and the whole community became involved on every level. One story in The Atkinson Graphic displayed two boys who donated the $15 they earned selling popcorn to support the cause. Donations went further than money; individuals donated their time and labor to the cause. Local men who helped with the cement work prior to the laying of the cornerstone were: Carl Smith, William Ahle, LeRoy Hoffman, Elvin Gans, Manuel Krieger, Joe Seger, Clede Trobaugh, Lawrence Kramer, Slim Shaffer and Ed Mlinar. These men knew that being an active part of the construction was just as vital as donating money.
Over the course of the project, the AVW Club kept a scrapbook, which they submitted to the State Federation of Women's Club's Project Contest. There it won first place and was forwarded to the national contest. The AVW members were: Mrs. Edward Humpal, Mrs. Lew Verzal, Mrs. Charles Chace, Mrs. Robert Gaylor, Mrs. Marcellus Schaaf, Mrs. Lane Griffin, Mrs. E.C. McKay, Mrs. Roy Dickerson, Mrs. Donald Carrol, Mrs. F.J. Mancusso, Mrs. Gerald Gondringer, Mrs. D.R. Davis, Mrs. Raymer Funk and Mrs. Robert Wilbern. These women knew that quality healthcare was not just important for the community and their families at that point in time but would be needed for many future generations.
As the project progressed more committees were needed. Named to serve on the hospital building committee were American Legion Commander E.E. Gotschall, Charles Chace, Dr. N.P. McKee, Dr. W.J. Douglas, B.H. Wilson, Leo Seger, Rev. E.G. Ihrig, Rev. A.A. Lahmen, Art Humpal, Mrs. J.L. Berigan, Mrs. O. A. Hammerberg, Mrs. Robert Martens and Charles Dvorak. These committee members set the initial goal of the hospital campaign at $25,000 for the construction of a one story, full basement building approximately 36x70 feet. In addition 10 acres of land were purchased for the site from Mr. and Mrs. Ottmar Poessnecker.
It was hoped that every adult person in the community would pitch in and help in some manner, either by doing at least a day's common labor or contributing money to pay for a day's work. Solicitors for this, representing local organizations were: John J. Dvorak, American Legion, E.V. Hickok, Odd Fellows Lodge, Roy Dickerson, Masonic Lodge, and Leo Seger, Knights of Columbus. These men understood that while not everyone may have the capacity to give a gift of money, labor was just as valuable.
By November 1951, as the hospital was in the finishing stages, Ernest E. Gotschall was nominated to chair a committee to solicit an additional $50,000 to purchase needed equipment.
Once completed the hospital was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Blessed Kunegunda with Sister Antonita appointed superintendent. Other nurses were Sister Mary Aquinas and Sister Felicia.
The need for a modern facility was soon proven as three individuals needed care before the official opening. Mrs. Ray Elsbury had the honors of the first baby to be born at the Atkinson Memorial Hospital, giving birth on Feb. 1 to a girl Ellen Marie, who today is known as Mrs. Don Ogden. Another early bird needing medical services prior to the hospital opening its doors was Frances Gotschall who underwent an appendectomy.
The need for services grew and in 1956 an addition was planned and a local campaign to raise a portion of the cost was launched. This addition was promptly finished in 1957. In an article printed in The Atkinson Graphic it is stated, “The key to the success of the Atkinson Clinic and Hospital was to provide quality medical care to the surrounding community at a minimum cost, while service rather than financial gain be attributed to its success.”
In the early 1970s, when hospital patrons learned the Atkinson Memorial Hospital could be forced to close its doors, Dr. Ramsay and his associate, Dr. R.A. Serbousek took action. They told the hospital advisory board that a new hospital facility would be a prerequisite for obtaining new doctors when the time would come that they needed to be replaced upon retirement.
Soon it was evident Dr. Ramsay was right. A growing need for a larger facility with more patient space, as well as facilities and space to permit more efficient utilization of modern technical equipment became apparent. The community needed a bigger and more modern hospital. The new hospital would soon be called West Holt Memorial Hospital.
A financial campaign to fund construction of a new 18-bed facility for a cost of $600,000 began. Donations and pledges were published in The Atkinson Graphic weekly.
Money collected during the drive was put into savings to buy certificates which could draw interest until needed for actual construction costs.
Solicitors in nine sections of the area were: Mrs. Lee Gilman, Fairview, Swan, Josie and Wyoming (townships); Ernie Gotschall, Green Valley, Holt Creek and Francis; Mrs. John Mohr, Sheridan; Mrs. Robert Cole, Emmet; Gene Livingston, Atkinson; Connie Frickel, Sand Creek, Belle and Pleasant View; Dick Galyen, Tri-county area; Dick Shearer, Cleveland and Dustin; Arnie Jauernig, Stuart; and Don Skrdla, Stuart Township.
Leaders of eight sections of the city of Atkinson for solicitations were: Ken Krysl, east addition; Jack Gideon, JLP addition; Mrs. John Keating and Mrs. George Verzal, north; Mrs. Ben Troshynski, Mrs. Ed Humpal Jr., Mrs. Chas. Hamik, and Mrs. Don Gokie, southwest; Maynard Coleman, northwest; Gene Livingston, Tuller to Main; Bill Dodd and Quentin Hickok, Main to Holt; and Orland Anson, Holt to Highway 20.
An article in the Norfolk Daily News on June 21, 1975 stated: “The Northern Nebraska Health Planning Council recommended the state agency approve a new hospital for Atkinson which will cost an estimated $1.2 million financed by proceeds of a fund drive by Atkinson residents and a Farmers Home Administration loan.”
“The present hospital does not meet federal Medicaid-Medicare standards with small rooms, narrow hallways and faulty humidity controls, which if not corrected would eventually force the hospital to close.”
The following month a $650,000 loan from the Farmers Home Administration was approved as a 25-year loan at a 5 percent interest rate.
On the fight for approval of the new facility, hospital administrator Gary Bieganski said WHMH was an example that showed the entire state that the people inside the hospital's service area were "unwilling to play dead and fought to get their approval.”
Local Atkinson and surrounding area residents proved just that and raised the $400,000 needed for approval to build a new hospital through private donations and local fundraising events.
In a Jan. 25, 1976 Omaha World Herald column written by Tom Allan it was stated, "The building (WHMH) is a monument to the faith of area residents."
To meet the Farmers Home Administration loan requirement, $385,420 in cash needed to be raised locally. West Holt residents did better. More than 100 workers went door to door. Individual gifts as high as $30,000 were given. One woman on Social Security gave $200. Civic organizations went all-out. The Lions Club sponsored all kinds of events. 4-H Clubs and other youth organizations pitched in with gifts of $1 and more. All of which were a declaration to the community’s investment in the hospital.
WHMH's ground breaking ceremony was held Friday, March 27, 1976 with Board President Elmer Olberding and Chairman of the Financial Committee Dean Gotschall turning the first shovel. Dedication of the new WHMH was held Feb. 13, 1977.
WHMH Administrator Gary Bieganski said, “The new hospital will have all up to date equipment needed for today’s health care and will be very serviceable and functional.”
A new outpatient clinic was the next big project for WHMH. The clinic was completed in 1997 with the help of donors sponsoring rooms or areas in the new clinic. The Dvorak Brothers donated land for the heliport and helped in several other ways for the hospital to be successful.
In 2003 it was evident WHMH again needed to upgrade its facility to meet new government regulations. On July 10, 2003 another fund raising campaign was organized, "Building a Strong Tomorrow," to raise $1.4 million to remodel the local hospital to meet new regulations. This included upgrades for patient rooms, an expansion of the emergency room, renovations to the cafeteria, a new entrance to the hospital, new business office rooms and enlarging the radiology area to accommodate new equipment.
Jay Wallinger and Mary Ann Kennedy were nominated co-chairmen of the fund drive. Pledged money was to be fully paid in a five-year-commitment. This campaign began Nov. 6, 2003. Groundbreaking was in 2005 and an open house was held on Sept. 21, 2006.
In August 2009 a $1.2 million campaign was launched in order to renovate the hospital nurse’s station, patient rooms and keep up with the rapid changes in medical technology by converting the hospital from paper charts to electronic medical records.
An eight-member council was developed to support the long-term growth and development of the hospital. They were Wayne Owens, Brad Rowan, Michael Coyle, Phyllis Langan, Curt Gotschall, Gerald Winings, Tim Willson and Bryan Rentschler.
The late Dr. James Ramsay noted in his thank you to the community after being voted 1986 Nebraska Family Physician of the Year, "As I hoped, the award ceremony honored the whole community not just an individual, because good health care has been a community effort through my years among you (in Atkinson)."
Although healthcare delivery, technology and government requirements have greatly changed throughout the years, one thing has remained true; West Holt Memorial Hospital is a testament to the community’s hard work, dedication, and support to provide high quality healthcare for area residents. This community can be proud of the hospital they have worked to build so that future generations would receive quality care close to home.