75 years of healing

Thursday, January 9, 2003

If George Naeter and Louis Hecht could see Southeast Missouri Hospital today, three quarters of a century after they helped get it built, a relative of Naeter's knows exactly what they'd say.

"They'd wonder where all the money came from," said a laughing Grada M. Naeter, whose deceased husband, Harry Naeter, was the nephew of newspaper publisher George Naeter, one of the hospital's original trustees.

That's because money was so tight when Hecht, a Cape Girardeau clothier, and Naeter were on the board, that they once had to throw in $50 apiece to pay for $100 worth of groceries that the financially strapped hospital sorely needed.

"They kept it going until it could support itself," Naeter said. "A lot of people in town were doing that."

Today, Southeast Missouri Hospital is celebrating its 75th birthday, first opening its doors to the public on Jan. 9, 1928, after years of planning. The hospital has grown dramatically in 75 years -- a crane hangs over the Broadway hospital even now as an indicator of continuing growth. Those at the hospital say it's the direct result of community support from people like Naeter and Hecht.

"It's like our mission statement: 'Together, we make a difference,'" said Jim Wente, who has been at Southeast for 28 years, the last 12 years as administrator. "Think back to the size of the hospital and how much it's grown. It's really a testament to the trustees that they found a way to support us and help us become what we have."

History supports Wente's claims.

The idea of a non-denominational, community hospital was promoted as early as 1923. By the next year, the idea had blossomed into a hospital committee. The committee searched for a hospital site and turned its attention to property overlooking Fairground Park, where the fall agricultural expo was held each year.

That was the westernmost fringe of the city limits, and the direction the city would grow, the committee members believed. Growth would be pushed along by the creation of a new public school in that area that was to be built two years later called Franklin School.

About 20 doctors and businessmen signed promissory notes to acquire a 52-acre tract of land that overlooked what is now Capaha Park for $8,250. Later, they bought a nearby 5-acre tract where the hospital would be located. Before then, only about 12 houses were west of Broadway and Louisiana streets.

The group decided to form a subdivision, sell the lots and use the proceeds to pay off the balance of the purchase price and use the rest to build the hospital.

The road was often bumpy, and the hospital struggled through the Depression, two failed attempts to merge with Cape Girardeau's other hospital and constantly-changing technology.

But current board member Al Spradling III -- whose father was also a board member and whose mother volunteered for years at Southeast -- said the hospital always persevered.

"No matter what, it's always been a place to go where people could get excellent health care," said Spradling, a former mayor. "That's been sort of the beacon out there. It was in the middle of nowhere, but now everything's grown around it, and it's in the middle of town."

Spradling said that if the community can take some of the responsibility for the hospital's success, the hospital has returned that favor.

"It's always been a huge employer for Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area," he said. "With all the construction going on, it continues to feed the economy. It's been a very integral part of this community."

It's changed with the community, Wente said, and also kept up with the times. Most years see some sort of construction or expansion, he said, from the 1957 addition that doubled the hospital's number of beds to more than 150 to the $16 million expansion going on now that will create two new floors as well as renovate five existing units.

"The hospital has been dynamic," Wente said. "It's been customized to fit the needs of the patients and medical staff."

He also pointed to the $3 million Regional Cancer Center built in 1981, the open-heart surgery program that began in 1984, and Southeast's $19 million Clinical Services Building completed in 1994.

"Look at the technological advancements we've seen over the past 10 years," Wente said, "in terms of diagnosis and treatment of diseases. We've kept up."

Dave Niswonger retired as Southeast's administrator in 1991 after 14 years as administrator and a total of 30 years at the hospital. He led the hospital through many of its changes.

"In the olden days, people wouldn't go to a hospital because that meant they were going to die," he said. "But because of this wonderful refuge, they realized they would come and get well."

Niswonger also said he thought it was a good thing for Cape Girardeau to have two hospitals.

"We kept each other on our toes," he said. "When one got new equipment, the other had to get it. If there had been only one hospital, it may have gotten complacent. That's never happened here."

The hospital is planning various events to commemorate the birthday throughout the year.

Wente said he believes Southeast Missouri Hospital will continue to witness great advances.

"We'll only be limited by our imaginations," he said. "I hope we'll see solutions to cancer, a cure for Alzheimer's, ways to treat cardiac disease without opening a chest. That's going to happen, I believe. And Southeast will continue to bring that technology to the community whenever it comes to fruition. That's what our history has been."

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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