UPMC Passavant celebrates 50th birthday

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The doors of Passavant Hospital in McCandless opened on Feb. 24, 1964, culminating years of work by North Hills volunteers to have the new facility built in their area in a campaign dubbed “Bring It North.”

Fifty years later, the campus barely resembles the original facility, but hospital and McCandless administrators continue to recognize the importance of the hospital to the region.

“This started as a small community hospital that was the right thing at that time and has grown and changed along with the changes in our community to be the outstanding hospital that it is,” said Toby Cordek, McCandless manager.

In 1849, the Rev. William Passavant and a young seminary student who treated soldiers returning from the Mexican War founded the Pittsburgh Infirmary on the North Side. After a cholera outbreak, the hospital moved into a former school building in Lacyville, which is now the Hill District.

The name of the hospital was changed in 1899, according to Kristina Harris, an intern with the Passavant Foundation at the present hospital, UPMC Passavant. She has been researching the hospital’s history since August and has created a showcase in the lobby.

She said the hospital decided to move out of the lower Hill District because of the pending construction of the Civic Arena and in recognition of the number of young families who were moving to the suburbs.

Patricia Kutcher of the Passavant board of trustees was one of the volunteers on the campaign to bring Passavant to the North Hills and said they worked very hard to get the attention of that board.

She credited a petition by the group that contained more than 16,000 signatures as a major factor in the decision to move the hospital north.

As a new mother in 1960 who lived in Pine, Mrs. Kutcher said supporters believed the north suburbs needed a hospital to serve young families.

Another important factor was the donation of 42 acres by the Robert G. Jackson family in memory of Mr. Jackson's aunt, Sarah Jackson Black, she said. The family donated 65 adjacent acres in 1970.

Linda Lear was a college student when her parents, James and Henrietta D. Lear of Shaler, were active in the campaign.

“My father had been approached by the Lutheran sisters who were running the hospital to help them find a location. When the north was suggested, there were a lot of people very angry and opposed to the move out there,” she said.

Ms. Lear, who lives in Maryland, remembers that officials at other hospitals in the city were angry because they feared that moving a hospital to the suburbs would mean a loss of patients.

“They had worked so hard," Ms. Lear said of her late parents. "My father served as the head of the campaign and then was the first president of the board of directors. My mother ran a shop with the women’s auxiliary in Etna.”

Construction on the 123-bed, three-story hospital began in 1962. Mrs. Kutcher said the community and the women’s auxiliary raised funds to help make the hospital a reality.

“We were committed to $100,000 to help build the lobby," she said. "We would sell home-baked goods at Gimbels [department store].”

Getting the doctors to believe in the project took some work, she said, recalling that it was difficult for her father and others to convince them to relocate their practices.

Ralph DeStefano, a member of the board of the Passavant Foundation, has served in various capacities with the hospital since 1976. An attorney, Mr. DeStefano became CEO and president in 1990.

“They asked me to fill in for six months, so I took a leave of absence and ended up serving in that role for 10 years,” he said. Part of his tenure included overseeing the merger with UPMC, which, at times, was difficult, he said.

“Things weren’t going so well, and it took two years for it to be complete. Those were turbulent times, but after fierce arbitration, everyone kissed and made up and there haven’t been any problems since,” Mr. DeStefano said.

The merger was three-pronged, he said, involving Passavant Hospital, UPMC and the hospital's nonprofit Passavant Foundation. UPMC acquired the Cranberry facility in 2002.

“We have expanded in ways we could never have dreamed of," he said. "When you look at the services we offer on this campus — the hospital, assisted living, senior living, the foundation and the Children’s House [child care services] — it is remarkable.”

Mr. Cordek agreed.

“The way the hospital has grown, with changes in technology and patient care, it really reflects the way our community and those around us have grown and changed," he said. "It is a community hospital but a world class health care provider.”

Celebrations will be held throughout the year to mark the hospital's 50 years, and free birthday cake will be offered Monday in the hospital cafeteria and on Wednesday at UPMC Passavant Cranberry.

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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