Parkston man's career is longest among CEOs at single facility

PARKSTON -- Gale Walker, in his 28th year at Avera St. Benedict Health Center, will soon be the state's longest actively serving hospital CEO at a single institution.

PARKSTON -- Gale Walker, in his 28th year at Avera St. Benedict Health Center, will soon be the state's longest actively serving hospital CEO at a single institution.

The 60-year-old president and CEO said he has no plans to retire any time soon.

"I've got a great team and I'm pretty happy where I'm at," he said. "I still enjoy going to work every day."

Bud Jones, spokesman for the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, the professional body that tracks such statistics, said that Walker and Jim Russell, CEO of St. Mary's Hospital in Pierre, both began their present positions in 1978 -- Russell in January and Walker in July. Russell will retire from his position July 7, passing the title of longest actively serving CEO at one institution to Walker.

Walker began his career in hospital administration in Nebraska in 1967 and then became CEO of Tyndall's St. Michael's Hospital in 1974. He was hired at Parkston in 1978 and ran both the Parkston and Tyndall institutions until 1992, when he shifted his duties completely to the Parkston facility.


He's remained at Parkston ever since. He and his wife, Jan, who handles hospital marketing and public relations, raised four children.

Much in the healthcare field has changed since the beginning of Walker's career. One modern problem, he said, is the cost of treating the uninsured.

Walker said the 40 to 50 million Americans without health insurance are not neglected by hospitals. They are being cared for, but they don't have a payment source. As a consequence, other segments of society must pick up the tab.

Also, the uninsured frequently wait too long to seek healthcare, Walker said. When care is finally sought, it's often sought at emergency rooms, which is a less economical means of healthcare delivery.

"We're going to have to do some things to tame the unfettered need for healthcare," Walker said. "We can consume more healthcare than we can ever pay for."

Walker said the public must be reoriented and empowered to take more personal responsibility for its own health needs.

"We need to take better care of ourselves," he said. He does just that by exercising regularly during the early morning hours at his own facility's wellness center.

One of the new challenges of Walker's career is exploring the possibility for universal healthcare coverage in South Dakota. He is set to tackle that topic, he said, during his work as chairman of the Governor's Health Advisory Task Force.


"I don't know how we could afford it," he said, "but I think we have to investigate and see if there isn't some option there."

Walker says he would favor a universal system if the consumer had some "front-end responsibility" or deductible that would encourage some restraint.

"Americans would have quite a learning curve with such a system," he said, adding that the mechanics of managing such a system could be administratively daunting in such a mobile society as America's.

In addition to his work with the governor's task force, Walker has served in many official capacities for the South Dakota Hospital Association. He currently serves as a delegate for the small rural hospital segment of the American Hospital Association.

Raised on a farm and ranch south of Roscoe, Walker said his healthcare career resulted from heeding his mother's advice to get a back-up plan to farming. He began as a laboratory X-ray technician and later got his training in healthcare administration through the University of Minnesota in 1977. He still, on occasion, helps out his brother on the farm.

Though the years, Walker said, Parkston has assembled a range of services many communities would envy.

"We're a fully-integrated healthcare delivery system," he said.

Hutchinson County's population has significantly declined, but Parkston's population has been solid and staff turnover has been low at the hospital. Walker credits a progressive board of directors and staff with a cooperative team concept for St. Benedict's success.


Parkston had a 30-bed acute care hospital when he started, Walker said. With multiple additions and renovations over the years, the complex now includes a 50-bed nursing home, a 25-bed assisted living facility, a cardiac-pulmonary wellness center, a new healthcare clinic, a licensed daycare center and a newly remodeled critical care hospital with all private rooms.

"I'm happy doing what I'm doing and I'm looking forward to new challenges as they unfold in the ever-changing healthcare industry," Walker said.

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