Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox
Will Henderson: Life Lessons
Original air date: Tues., Nov. 19, 2013
In honor of the late Will Henderson, PBS Hawai‘i presents this in-memoriam encore of this episode recorded in September 2013.
The former longtime President and CEO of Queen’s Medical Center talked about the importance of staying active. He also discussed the “very high” expectations he set for those he mentored — and how every one of them achieved those expectations.
This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Dec. 18 at 4:00 pm.
I swept in at a time when there was a big cultural change that had taken place here from Haole running everything to now all of a sudden it’s young, inexperienced Japanese, our 442nd heroes and the likes of that. And life changed totally in this community.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Will Henderson grew up in poverty and isolation on the plains of South Dakota and worked in the sawmills of Oregon to pay for college. Through hard work and education he bettered his circumstances and earned a Master’s Degree in hospital management, which was a brand – new field in the1950’s.
In Hawai‘i, the year 1959 was a milestone as we became the 50th state. With the Democratic Revolution of 1954, the leadership and status quo throughout the islands began to change. This was the backdrop as Will Henderson, a young hospital executive from the UCLA Medical Center, was recruited to save the struggling Kauikeolani Children’s Hospital. While Will came to Hawai‘i intending to make major changes to the hospital, it was the people of Hawai‘i who forever changed his life.
I think I can say this without even a second thought. Everything I am and everything I’ve learned, I learned in Hawai‘i. Because it brought a whole new dimension to my life that I didn’t know anything about. Different cultures, different beliefs, different religions, different lifestyles that I had never seen or anything. I was somehow or another fortunate to get into a new career that was being developed in the United States and that was hospital management. And we had the opportunity of seeing things so differently than in Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i was magnificent, lovely place but fifteen to twenty years behind in healthcare, in every … every aspect. And the opportunity then of coming here … what a magnificent gift. What a magnificent challenge.
Will Henderson’s first challenge in Hawai‘i was getting the troubled Children’s Hospital out of bankruptcy. With strict financial controls and his new approach to hospital management, things began to turn around rather quickly.
It started with the medical staff. And I was saying to the medical staff – the President of the medical staff was a big strapping young guy in pediatrics and I said to him we’ve got to find a way to make this hospital whole again. And I said, medical staff is the key. If you don’t bring in patients, it doesn’t make any difference what you do, we cannot succeed. And so magnificent as he was – he was with Straub Clinic, he said we will back you up. We’ll work with you. And we started then. In nine months we recovered the hundred thousand dollars we owed the bank.
In 1961, Will Henderson became President and CEO of The Queen’s Hospital, a post that he would hold until his retirement in 1983. Will set out to update Queen’s into the modern health care center that is today.
And so, a malihini was put in charge of a medical center founded with a mission to provide quality health services to improve the welfare and well – being of the Native Hawaiian people, and all the people of Hawai‘i. But it has a Native Hawaiian mission.
Started by royalty, Queen Emma —
We were — at a hundred and one years, we were a long way from your description. A long, long way from it. Mind you the healthcare system here in the hospitals — not saying the doctors, saying the — in the hospitals, twenty — twenty years behind time.
There was nothing going on that every person knows today. There was not a single intensive care unit in this community when I came here. Everybody is treated in outpatient care now. I started that hel — outpatient care in this community in hospitals, never done. Well, it’s about 19 … 67, 68.
Are you saying that it was all or nothing, they either took you as a patient to stay over, or they didn’t treat you?
You went to a doctor’s office. That was the only place you got treated. Not in outpatient. Or you could have gone to the Queen Emma’s Clinics.
But most patients were not going there. Those —
Did you have trauma —
— were free patients —
— centers? You know, you know the word trauma —
No trauma center.
No. But we did have a — at Queen’s, an emergency department, but it was not a trauma center. It was a far cry from that.
So, did you …
— help bring it along to make up those twenty years of lag?
We changed it. We redirected from a hospital, and started the move toward a medical center.
Through Will Henderson’s leadership, The Queen’s Hospital was transformed into The Queen’s Medical Center in 1967. Will credits his success at Queen’s and in Hawai‘i to the multicultural friendships he made. Not only did his new friends acquaint him with the island lifestyle and the Pacific Asian cultures, they also accepted Will into their families. In turn, Will embraced and accepted their cultures as well as their families.
As you know a lot of people, who come to … who have had great success other places and come to Hawai‘i to take jobs – often it’s not their cup of tea. They don’t cut into the culture — they have a hard time fitting in, they … some feel unwelcome. This may not be true, I mean I’m not making a gross generalization, but this has been a pattern of sorts.
It is true. It is very true because I had a problem keeping executives here because their wife would be very unhappy, and they’d go back.
But what made it so easy for you?
I swept in at a time when there was a big cultural change that had taken place here from Haole running everything to now all of a sudden it’s young, inexperienced Japanese, our 442nd heroes and the likes of that. And life changed totally in this community whether most people realize it or not. But when you’re integrated into the total society, you see things much differently. And it’s with great pride that I became close friends with all of these people whether they are Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, whatever it might be … many, many close friends. And so I got here and a doctor by the name of doctor David Pang, he’s a pediatrician.
He delivered me.
Well then you, he did the right thing at the right time because he delivered me as well.
Thirty eight years old I didn’t know a single thing about getting along anyplace in Hawai‘i. He told me, he took me under his wing and he started counseling me about all kinds of circumstances and individual things to be aware of. Dr. David Pang was my friend ‘til the very day of his death and he always kept advising me and I would constantly thank him for doing this and he said, I didn’t do anything for you. And then now I got the Hawai‘i side I mean the Hawaiian side and I sorta got the Chinese side and my very first close friend was Dr. Clifford Kobayashi, pediatrician again that came in and he had four daughters, four little girls and I became a part of that family and today I’m still family with them. As a matter of fact, I just talked to mother yesterday. All of a sudden, I have a cadre of people taking care of me and showing me how to get along in this community and I still didn’t know I’m supposed to be working with haoles all the time. Now you can chuckle about that, but it’s a problem.
So that’s, and it really did boil down to a Caucasian triumvirate ya know a ruling party.
It was at that time. Absolutely everything was. But I had friends that came along and involved on the haole side as well. Couple of them being legislators and early on I met – I had a telephone call from a senator. And that senator later I met him. Became very good friends. I’m very fond of him and his wife — George Ariyoshi. George Ariyoshi was a wonderful friend to me, helped me in many ways. If nothing just being a friend in a Japanese controlling community now. And so as I just progressed through each of these groups. Think about to be a haole in this community at a time that it had changed from being run by haoles and now basically Japanese democratic party is in control of everything. So now I’m sitting pretty good eh …
Sounds like it.
I got the community, I’m acquainted with all the community and everything. But now when you take Queen’s, now Queen’s Medical Center, it’s almost one hundred percent haole board and many of the people, so finally I got a young Chinese lady on the board. And then there a couple more that we managed to bring onto the board. Now I have to say to you on my board, there was no prejudice. They … they were – I think between somewhere in the system, someone dealt out a hand of cards that said look okay you’re Chinese, you’re Japanese you’re this and you all meet together and work together.
Will Henderson retired after 22 years as the President and CEO of The Queen’s Medical Center. For many years in retirement he continued to serve on Boards and in community leadership positions. Over the years he has had an audience with world leaders such as the Crown Prince of Japan, the Queen of Thailand, and the King of Jordan. Will also spends his time passing on his wisdom to aspiring or successful business and community leaders.
You — you’re known for mentoring people. You’re generous with your time and your wisdom. You take time to listen, and you make some very strategic comments. What kind of advice are you giving out these days? Can you give us an example?
[CLEARS THROAT] First, let me say that I have fifty – one protégés. Two of them became multi multimillionaires. I made it a specific effort to bring Japanese women into the healthcare field and — and to provide opportunity for them. And so at this time, I have an array of — I have about ten of my protégés that I’m still in very close touch with, one in Connecticut, just retired, he was a hospital executive. Oh … one of the local boys that I’m very proud of is Gary Kajiwara at —
President and CEO of Kuakini Medical Center. Who says you arranged for a special internship for him, which really set the stage for what he does now.
And has done for decades.
Absolutely. And he was at Queen’s Medical Center; he was a capable young man. And so I’m proud of him today. Quite proud of him. I think he’s my only remaining protégé in the healthcare field, if I’m not mistaken.
Well, what do you tell people? I mean, how do you give them new tools to succeed?
Leslie, I would be misleading you if I went into a big story about how I do and what I do. One thing. I come up, I pat you on the back, and I tell you, You know what, you’re doing a great job.
Even if you’re not? [CHUCKLE]
Even if you’re not. So really, you gotta start with — most … most people need someone to stand beside them. And I’m a great one to walk up and put my arm around you and say, You know what, you’re really looking good today, you’re looking great. And women, the same way and each of those people are — are so appreciative that — that I think it doesn’t make any difference how much you think you have grown up in family, et cetera. Every person needs a pat on the back that simply says that you’re doing a good job. Secondly, and yet there is another one; I set very high expectations for them. Very high. Beyond — they will say, I can’t do that, I’m not capable of all of that. And every one of those protégés achieved that expectation.
You didn’t get a lot of pats on the back when you were a kid. There wasn’t a lot of affection at all in your family.
Too much hard work.
Or among any of the families. They — we all grew up without —
— without praise and —
So, you know what it’s like —
— to have none.
Yeah. That’s why it’s so important to me.
That, whether this — this crew here, I pay attention to what they do, I watch them. Whomever they may be, I watch them. I selected my executives that way in my training programs. I created a whole training program that was called Vertical Horizontal Participative Management, and taught my people what that meant. Most people do not know what that means. And taught them what that meant. And those people, so many of them have gone on to be very, very successful, not only in Hawai‘i, but onto the mainland, and et cetera. It was always to be there for them. If I would say, I’ll be your mentor, I’m your mentor, and I am there twenty – four hours a day for you.
And so, they can come to you with any little problem, something they might consider big, but you don’t.
M – hm.
But you’ll help them with it?
Always listen; always listen. And I try never — depending. Try never to tell; them what you should do. Say, you know, somethi — have you thought about this? Have you done any long – range thinking?
And what do you get out of mentoring people?
Ah; the greatest excitement, satisfaction. I do it for free; I do it for free. Not only I would do it for free, but I do it for free.
Will Henderson still keeps a sharp eye on the changing social – economic climate of Hawai‘i and he still contributes advice when younger people seek it.
So it’s a magnificent time of life, and a trying time of life.
It’s a trying time of life?
Yes, it is.
Well, think about it. We’re all in the recession again. Many, many people have lost their homes. Many, many people have migrated from Hawai‘i to the mainland and to other places. Many of our Hawai‘i graduates cannot get jobs. In the last two weeks, I’ve talked to at least ten. I tell them to take any kind of a job you can get; doesn’t matter what it is. Work at night, and then still try to do their job hunting in the daytime and —
And I’ve tried to also to explain to them, This is the one time in your life you’re going to learn to give back. And that is, you go to someone who has a company, you really want to work in their company, and do as I did. I worked for free. You tell them, I’ll work for a year for free if you’ll give me an opportunity for a job in your company, I’m the first one that comes along. They won’t know what to think with a — coming from a young graduate, that you are saying, I will work for free. Because, you see, our young graduates, they’ll work for free for years. They walked out and got a job any time, any place.
M – hm.
And more power to them. But that is a downside that’s now in our society, and we’re back, this is the repeat, life repeats itself, history repeats itself.
M – hm.
So, what I grew up in, these young people are going to have more. But their parents have lost their home, parents have lost their jobs, parents can’t get a job because now they’re now forty – five, fifty years old, et cetera. It’s a trying time —
If you were to see Will Henderson doing his fitness routine, you’d have a hard time believing he’s in his nineties. In fact, he may be in better physical shape than many people who are but a fraction of his age.
I saw this amazing picture of you. It was an article written about you when you were eighty – eight years old, and you were doing a one – handed pushup with a twist, and holding onto like a twenty or thirty-pound ball with the other hand.
And you were eighty – eight.
And like, that happens every day?
That happens every day. Still happens. I —
Tell us about your fitness routine, and how long you’ve done it.
Well, basically, fitness isn’t just working out in the gymnasium, so to speak of. But I — I’ve sort of been on that side of it; track, basketball, been a lifeguard, and then hanging out on the beach for twenty – two years here in Hawai‘i with all of the guys. And I got pure evidence that I did that, ‘cause I get those skin cancers —
— In the da — I go in to the doctor, et cetera. And so, you do – it — it’s important to do something all of the time. And if you do, you’ll be surprised what you could do at ninety years of age. And so, I’ve ha — long had two separate programs. I have one at home that I do every morning; and that is a stretch program, and then these rubber band things that you work with.
M – hm.
I work with those. I have a lanai that’s a hundred and eighty feet around, so I — I do a run four or five mornings a week. Not very far; enough to support flexibility, et cetera. And then, I ride the elevator down, and I walk up twelve flights of stairs without stopping. And that’s my morning exercise. But I go to the Honolulu Club and to a second club that I have joined. They’re quite different, even though they are fitness clubs. In the Honolulu Club, I work out more with weights and multiple machines that work many different parts of your body. And I imagine you could still work to develop muscle, but when you’re this old, you’ve lost your muscle and a lot of your strength, so you always work within what your muscles can do and what your — what weights you can lift, and the likes of that. Yeah, and —
What about the other gym?
The other one’s exactly the same thing. But it’s very small, it’s quiet, and the payoff is, I can go there, and in forty – five minutes complete a workout. It’s an hour and a half to two hours.
Because you chat, or because you have to wait —
All the time.
— for machines?
You’ve got all of your friends, and you — yeah, and that’s a great part of my social life now, because I have stopped and gotten off of all of the board of directors I’ve been on, and all of the groups that I participated in. An — and I — I’ve brought it home to — my commitment is to health; my health and your health. If I see friends that — I won’t badger them, but I will suggest to them that you should be doing an exercise program —
M – hm.
— for your health, and the likes of that. But there’s a payout, an unexpected payout.
What is it?
You’ve got all of these handsome, husky guys that are around there, and these ladies. They’re — some of them have been there for thirty years with me. And they are fit, and they’re in good shape, and they are marvelous. And they come up to you and say … You’re my hero, you’re my idol, I want to be just like you. Some of ‘em, the chuckle [INDISTINCT] are the ones that come up and about — they’re overweight, and the likes of that. And they said, When I am your age, I want to be just like you. [CHUCKLE]
But the way you get to be your age is to —
It’s a long trip —
— be working out.
— for them. [CHUCKLE]
So, you’ve always maintained a fitness regimen?
No, not in the way that I do it now. But I was always sort of in athletics, and swimmer. And so, you get to the point that you’re committed. And it takes that commitment. And it becomes a joy that you are out there, and you still … can race the bus at ninety years old.
[CHUCKLE] I gave that one up.
[CHUCKLE] But you were doing it until recently?
Racing the bus.
Two years ago, last time.
Do you feel ninety – two? I guess — do you feel the way you felt when you were sixty – two or forty – two?
Think about it; I feel better.
And his mental shape, equally better. Mahalo to Will Henderson for sharing his story with us — and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.
I was in my car and stopped at a red light and a lady rear ended me and almost killed me. And and so my recovery started by going to Honolulu Club. These big husky guys would come along and grab me by the seat of the pants and get me up on my feet — cause I couldn’t get up off the bench — and get me up on my feet and say, you look wonderful. You look great!
Original air date: Tues., Nov. 12, 2013
Will Henderson is former longtime President and CEO of Queen’s Medical Center. In the first of two episodes, Will talks about his humble beginnings in South Dakota. Raised in poverty, Will could not speak until age 3, and spent much of his young adult life taking remedial education classes. Determination paid off, and he eventually began his career in health care administration – a career of which he says his mother could never conceive.
Work hard, be honest, and work hard again. I’ve worked hard all my life. I enjoy it; I enjoy hard work.
I mean, have you always thought you were in the process of becoming?
Always. Even almost to this day, I have things I’m becoming.
As a young boy facing poverty and isolation, Will Henderson’s early years were bleak. How did a disadvantaged child grow up to be a respected leader in Hawai‘i? Sometimes, the toughest situations in life set us up for our greatest successes. Retired healthcare executive, Will Henderson, next on Long Story Short.
Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.
Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Will Henderson served as president and CEO of the Queen’s Medical Center for much of his career, retiring as a respected leader and mentor in the community. Ninety – two years old at the time of our conversation in 2013, he remains akamai and fit. He first came to Hawai‘i in the late 1950s, when he was recruited to lead the struggling Kauikeolani Children’s Hospital in Honolulu. Will was the first hospital administrator in Hawai‘i to have specialized education and training in the new field of healthcare management. But Will says education, leadership, and success did not come easy.
So … where did your life begin, and what was your life like as a kid?
Leslie, if you’ve heard of the plains of South Dakota, you may have heard of it, but you don’t know what it was like. Barren, and wind – blowing all of the time. And in the late 1800s, our government established some land grants be given away, Oklahoma land rush. Well, there wasn’t a rush to South Dakota, but people did go there, and my mother and father went to that godforsaken country, and started their own life. And it is a lesson in the future. I feel, I would not change my life, as poverty – ridden as it was, no education, whatever it was. I would not change it, because there two things about my mother and father that were so important now in my later years of life is, hard work and honesty. And I have carried those with me to the point that sometimes honesty has gotten me into a little bit of a disagreement with top leadership and the likes of that. My closest neighbor was about six miles away. As a child, you didn’t know anyone there. Your parents did. My father, I hardly knew him, because he was always out trying to get work —
As a …
— to have a little bit of money.
What did he do?
Just any kind. Because in those days … I don’t know of anyone that had any training, any background. They had only a sixth grade education. And yet, mathematics, he could do anything with his hands, he could build buildings. Almost anything that could be done, he could do it. And my mother was a beautiful lady; beautiful lady. And she was a lady. [CHUCKLE] She should never have been out on those desert plains; that’s all there is to is. Because that wasn’t her life; she wasn’t cut out for that.
You had siblings?
Two brothers; both younger.
And they were your playmates, because there weren’t any other kids close by.
Well, think about it. At three years old, I was still unable to talk. Because my brothers were younger, and my father wasn’t there and my mother was working to take care of the farm and everything, so you were alone all of the time. So, even at three years of age, I basically had no vocabulary.
So then comes the chance to go to school.
They decided that they would test me to see what grade I should be in. Now, mind you, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to count anything. So, for the first time, the ABC chart was put up in front of me.
And how old were you? Six?
I was seven, going on eight. Yeah. And the principal, starched up and everything, was pointing to this, and this, and this. I did not know a single one of them. And he said to my mother, We’ll have to put him in the first grade. I can remember that.
Did it make you feel you were at the back of the class, and in the hole? How did you feel?
Leslie, I was so uninitiated with other people, there was no thought. The only thing you do; oh, they’re gonna put you in class. So they put you in a seat, and you just sat there. You didn’t have any idea what was going on, and all you knew is, oh, class is out. Oh, so you left, and you’d go home.
So, at this point, your educational prospects do not look strong, Will.
Not at all. Did you ever read The Little Red Hen?
I think so.
Well, [CHUCKLE] that was a year before I could read that book, The Little Red Hen. And that’s how difficult the future would be.
To catch up with his education, Will Henderson would feel he had to take remedial classes, even into adulthood. But his early years on the farm did teach him valuable lessons.
And then, by this time, we’re in the Black Hills. And this was the beginning of a turnaround time in my life. Those were good, enjoyable years. And schooling was a challenge to me, always. I always had to work hard. And this is how I said earlier; I was blessed that my parents believed in hard work, because that translated to me. And I thought nothing of going to school, and I had to work for it. That was just a part of life. And that went on to my third grade, my fourth grade, my fifth grade.
As a young boy, Will Henderson didn’t have much socialization. But during his high school years, a path towards friends and popularity started with a simple footrace.
I remember an event, that I was just in my ordinary big clopper shoes. You always wore shoes that were probably up to your ankles and the likes of that. And I happened to be standing out on the track field, and our school champion, he was a runner, his name was Squeak. And Squeak says, Hey, come on, run with me. And so, okay, we got started at the line. We were just practicing. And so, we went down the first hundred yards, made the turn, headed back the next hundred yards. And at fifty feet, I passed him, and he quit. And I went on and ran on in. Hey, he said, what’s going on here? I hadn’t run before, I didn’t know anything about it. So, I got into track. But, just a little bit of leadership began to develop, and as good fortune would have it, I went on and then played basketball as a major sport.
When you say leadership, you mean leadership by example? Because it sounds like you haven’t been a big participant at this point.
I was elected vice president of the senior class. And that was my first time of ever being in a role of being a leader.
And why do you think you got elected?
[CHUCKLE] Because I was the best basketball player, the champion in that, and then I was the best runner. So, athletics paid off in that time.
While in high school, Will Henderson’s family moved from the plains of South Dakota to the forests of Oregon to find better work opportunities. Life didn’t get much easier for Will, but he began to take charge of his future.
Oregon was … great poverty, as much as that I had been in. This is why I basically was in poverty most of my life. But Oregon was cold, rainy most of the time, foggy. Lived right on the edge of water.
Did your parents better their circumstances by moving, would you say?
I think so. Better for them, because we were now able to be together as a family. Both my mother and father worked. Jobs were very hard to come by, and so you basically took any job that you could get. My father worked in the sawmills. And I started working in the sawmill at sixteen years of age to have money to go to pay for my clothes to go to school, that sort of thing.
And go to school, or did you take off from school?
Oh, no; at that time, at sixteen, I was in school. This is when I was being a campus hero. [CHUCKLE]
Okay. And so, you’d go after school and work in the sawmills?
Well, that would be on weekends and in the summer.
When I would work in the sawmill
And it sounds like tough work. I don’t know what you do in the sawmills, but it doesn’t sound easy.
Yeah; it’s hard, hard work. It’s always hard work to be doing manual work like that.
And did you have career day, where you could consider what you might want to do for a living when you grew up?
Never; never once. You had no one. Mind you, in those days, not one single person among all of my friends and everything had gone to college. And when I laid out fifteen months from my senior year, in that fifteen months, yes, I worked the entire time in sawmills.
Why did you do that?
To get money to go to college. ‘Cause I said I was going to go to college.
So that was right after your senior year?
After my senior year. Every single person told me, You will not go on to college, you’re laid out, you’re finished. This is hard work, and commitment. I went to college. I earned the money; I went to college.
So, you got exposed somewhat, but here you are as a young kid saving money for college. What made you do that?
What made me do it? [CHUCKLE] Leslie …
Working in the sawmills. [CHUCKLE]
What would you do if you were working in the sawmills and logging camps, road construction, and longshoreman? Those jobs are hard jobs. They don’t pay a lot. In the sawmill, I made forty – three cents an hour. That would be in 1939, 1940.
Was that good for a teenager to make?
[CHUCKLE] Oh, it was great. Nobody else had any money. They were doing the same job.
People were supporting families on forth – three cents an hour, you were saying.
Yes, they were.
After all his hard work raising money for college in the sawmills of Oregon, Will Henderson attended the University of Oregon. However, after only one year, he put his college plans on hold.
There was a timeout period. I put four years into the timeout period. That’s World War II.
That’s quite a timeout. So, did you get drafted, or did you volunteer?
If you didn’t volunteer, you were going to be drafted. So, I volunteered. [CHUCKLE]
And where did you serve?
That was from 1941, 1946, and I was Navy. And by accident, I was put into the medical corps. And I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be my future.
So, what does a medical corpsman do on a ship?
Well, you’re the basic doctor on ship. And I was on one that did not have a physician. The big ones would have a physician to back you up. But I was alone. I served on the LST. LST is about the worst ride you can get on the ocean. It’s flat – bottomed, so it’s like this. All of the time, I was seasick all of the time. Four years.
And probably, that’s what you treated a lot of; right? People came in for seasickness.
Amazing, the other people didn’t get seasick or anything. But they had almost everything else. Gonorrhea, everything that.
So, you were treating conditions that were above your pay grade?
[CHUCKLE] Let me tell you something. My pay grade was thirty dollars a month, I think. So, whatever I was doing was probably above the pay grade. [CHUCKLE] It was an eye – opener to meet, at about age nineteen, twenty, twenty – one, all of these kids thrown together. And now, I look back, when we were called the greatest generation. Well, I believe in that. We earned it, and I accept it with great pride. But all of these guys, as rough as they were, and most of them totally uneducated, in my early gang that I was with, there were only two of us. One had finished college, and I’d had one year. And so, you think about it, these were all of these poor kids that their families were poor, they came out of the teens, the 19 – teens, the 20s, the 30s. And there wouldn’t be many in the 30s there, because we were at war in 1940. But that was an education.
During Will Henderson’s military service, he continued his remedial education through a chance encounter with a schoolteacher.
I met a very old schoolteacher — she was forty – two years old, [CHUCKLE] at the USO, and became acquainted with her. And she had done something for me once, so I wrote her a letter of thanks. The next time I came in, she grabbed me by the ear and she said, Come over here, we are going to start teaching you grammar. And we started. First two words we worked on: then and than. That lady had three boys, almost the same age as myself and my brothers. And that became extended family for me. And the youngest son, he and I are still in hanai brother relationship now.
How long did she tutor you?
I knew her over a period of four years.
And it helped you?
A great deal.
After the end of World War II, Will Henderson went back to Oregon and fulfilled his dream of a college education and bettering his circumstances.
Came back, and this time I knew a little bit more about [CHUCKLE] going to school. And I went to Willamette University, a small private university in Oregon. And that was a magnificent experience. Magnificent.
How was your college experience? I mean, you’d had a rough time with schooling in the past. What was it like after the war? And after your tutoring.
Number one, I continued my remedial classes through all of this time. And all my faculty would tell me, You don’t need this, you passed. Well, the psyche, you needed this. And so, college was magnificent. Magnificent. This is your really coming out time. I was president of my freshman class, president of my sophomore class, president of my junior class. And when it came around to senior, one of the girls in the class said, Will, you’ve had everything, someone else should be president. I said, Okay. I was vice president.
[CHUCKLE] What happened? What turned you into the student government president?
I guess you begin to grow up, and you begin to learn about socialization, and you begin to learn about participation. After Willamette, I went to University of Oregon for a year of graduate work. In the graduate work, I decided to know something I don’t know anything in this world, except something about being a pharmacist mate in the military. And stupidity is still a part of my [CHUCKLE] career, because I decided I will try to go to the university, and I found out there was a new career developing in universities. And that was a career in being a hospital executive. And applied to one school — talk about not being very smart, University of California Berkeley. And by good fortune, finishing that, I got the opportunity then to go into assistant vice president at UCLA Medical Center, brand new medical center being built. And so, I went on the management team in the school faculty. And all of a sudden, you’re in a role that you either have to grow, or you have to get out. And you had people who were available to you, that you could go to. And in those training years, those people became my personal supporters.
The future was looking bright for Will Henderson, now an administrator at the UCLA Medical Center. His decision to enter the newly formed career path of hospital management began to open opportunities for him. One day, Will received a call that would alter the course of his life. Kauikeolani Children’s Hospital in Honolulu, Hawai‘i was a financially troubled institution interested in him as its prospective president and CEO.
So, you’re in Hawai‘i, and you’re about to meet the people who are looking at you for this new job.
Children’s Hospital; today, no one knows where Children’s Hospital is.
I remember where it was; it was on the grounds of the Rehab Hospital, where that is now. Right?
On Kuakini Street.
Yes, indeed. I met the chairman of the board and the vice chairman of the board, and we talked at length. They were very, very honest. They told me in the first sentence, We are bankrupt, we’re going to close, but we wanted from your friend in San Francisco — he told us about you, and so, we decided that we wanted to bring you here and wanted to talk to you. But he says, We’re going to go bankrupt, we’re closing up. And I spent a week here, and talking with them often, and et cetera, et cetera. And finally, I said, Well, I don’t know, I’m very, very uncertain about this; I have a magnificent job at this brand new medical center. And the old chairman of the board said, You go home, and you think about it. Ten days, and you call me. And about eleven hours before the ten days were over, I called him and said I’ll take the job.
Why? Why would you join a hospital that the head has told you is going to go bankrupt? Why would you do that?
There was such an appeal. And I looked at this, and I said, I can make that go.
Will Henderson turned around Kauikeolani Children’s Hospital and took them out of bankruptcy within his first year on the job. His leadership did not go unnoticed, and soon, he was recruited to become the president and CEO of the Queen’s Hospital, which became the Queen’s Medical Center.
You know, I was thinking that your family, most of them have passed on; right?
All have passed away. I’m the last remaining. I have a story I have to tell you about my mother. And I hope there’s a way that you will understand this. I brought here five times during the time that I was president at Queen’s. And then, the fifth time she was here — and all the prior times, all through the buildings, and introduced her to the people, and everything else. We stood out in front of the Queen’s Medical Center, and she turned to me and she said, Will, what do you do here? She never could conceive …
That her son grew up to be the president and CEO of a major medical center.
From poverty; from poverty.
What did you tell her? What do you there?
The best I could explain to her was to say, Mom, I’m responsible for everything here, and I’m responsible for everyone here, and I’m totally committed to it. Now, she understood that.
Will Henderson retired in Honolulu after twenty – two years of service to the Queen’s Medical Center. He’s credited with helping to transform the hospital into the modern medical center it is today by putting in place many of the practices and healthcare concepts that are now commonplace. At the time, Queen’s Medical Center board chair Malcolm MacNaughton said that Will set the standard in hospital leadership with compassion, understanding, and dedication. Will still humbly attributes much of his success in life to the lessons he learned as a child on the harsh plains of South Dakota. Mahalo to Will Henderson for sharing his story with us; and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.
For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.
But there was nothing; we didn’t have any toys.
You didn’t have a TV to keep you company in those days; right?
[CHUCKLE] We didn’t even have a telephone. Was nothing. And I think from that kind of venture, it’s with you for the rest of your life. Because I can look back and see that the things that I do, commitment to hard work, I’ve worked hard my entire life.