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story.lead_photo.caption Gary L. Bebow, chief executive officer for the White River Health System, stands on the third floor of the White River Medical Center in Batesville. Bebow, who will retire at the end of the year after 28 years as CEO, will be honored with a reception from 2-3:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Josephine Raye Rogers Conference Center. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

— When he moved to Batesville in 1991, Gary L. Bebow said, he never thought he’d spend 28 years there and retire in the city.

Bebow, 68, who became chief executive officer of White River Medical Center in Batesville in January 1991, will officially retire Dec. 31 after 28 years with the medical facility in Independence County. Bebow will be honored with a reception from 2-3:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Josephine Raye Rogers Conference Center.

Bebow’s replacement, Gary Paxson, was named White River Health System successor CEO in August.

“I didn’t anticipate that I’d retire here 28 years later,” said Bebow, who is a native of Michigan. “We’ve had a great career of progress. I’ve had wonderful people to work with — the management team, the board of directors, rank and file employees, and the medical staff. I never felt I had to move someplace to have the challenges that I could create right here.

“As I looked over my career, I have never lived in a place, as an adult, that long. I left Michigan when I was 31. So much of that 31 years was developmental. [Batesville] is home now. This is where I spent most of my time. We have a lot of great friends here.”

Boris Dover, chairman of the WRHS Board of Directors, said Bebow has done well in expanding the hospital.

“When Gary became the hospital administrator 28 years ago, White River Medical Center was a nice small rural hospital,” Dover said. “Today, we are a regional health care provider that is highly acclaimed in the top 100 hospitals in the United States.”

Bebow said that when he came to Batesville from Venice, Florida, White River Medical had 470 employees. Now White River boasts a staff of more than 1,700, making it the largest employer in the region.

“The hospital, at the time, was quite a bit smaller,” he said. “I thought, given that it was the only hospital in our geographic area and the range of services was similar to a secondary-level hospital, that this would be a great start for my career as a CEO and to see how I would do in that role.”

Bebow earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Michigan State University. After graduation, he worked for the Ernst and Ernst accounting firm, which is now Ernst and Young. Many of the clients he worked for were hospitals. That got him interested in the medical field.

“One of the hospitals I did the audits with hired me to come work with them in Jackson, Michigan,” he said. “It was a nonprofit, previously city-owned city hospital, and they purchased the only other hospital in the area, a Catholic hospital. They hired me to come on and merge the business offices. I went to work for them in 1975.

“I worked for them for about a year, and I decided I really wanted to get into hospital administration. I applied and was able to get into the University of Michigan, which is where I got my master’s degree in hospital administration.”

Once he completed his degree, Bebow took a job in Venice, Florida, working as a chief operating officer for a hospital, but he knew he wanted to try his hand at being a CEO.

“When I came to Batesville, we had 27 doctors on staff,” he said. “One of the things coming out of Florida, which was a very competitive environment, I recognized that for this community to grow, one of the things we had to focus on was physician recruitment.

“We got some 27 doctors on the medical staff to 110. Some of them came and left, so we’ve probably recruited 140 or 150 over the 28 years.”

Bebow said expanding the services WRHS offered was important.

“If there is anything that led to the growth of this system, it was the importance of recruiting specialties,” he said. “That allowed us to expand our services.”

Bebow said he was impressed with members of the medical staff and their willingness to go to the outlying offices for WRHS to service patients.

“We’ve got a great medical staff,” Bebow said. “One of the things that really impressed me when I came here was the willingness or the desire of the physicians on this staff to travel to other locations to see patients, rather than have those patients come to Batesville. When I first came here, we had a general surgeon, an orthopedist and an internal-medicine doctor who held a clinic up at Cherokee Village. That’s pretty unusual.”

However, Bebow said, that has led to the growth of WRHS.

“We’ve got a medical staff that has been very supportive of serving a region instead of just a town,” he said. “That’s why we hear when people come into Batesville, ‘A town of 10,000 people has a hospital like this?’ The fact is that we don’t serve a town of 10,000 people. We serve a lot of people. We’re the No. 1 provider for Sharp, Independence, Stone and Izard counties. That’s true not only of creating a presence but of the medical staff, which has seen this as a real opportunity to serve, too. That is a real positive for us.”

While there have been some positives for the hospital during Bebow’s tenure, he’s seen some things he wishes he could have done differently.

“Back in 1999, we acquired Stone County Medical Center in Mountain View and the nursing homes that were associated with that system,” Bebow said. “I really looked forward to the challenges of having long-term care as part of our system, but I soon realized there are hospitals, and then there are nursing homes. What works at hospitals doesn’t necessarily apply to the nursing-home business. In retrospect, it would have been better if we had kept our focus on the short-term acute care and left the long-term-care market to those who do it for a living.”

Bebow said WRHS eventually sold the nursing homes a few years later.

He also said the tornado that hit Stone County Medical Center in February 2008 was tough to deal with. It also took too long to rebuild, he said.

“The ironic part is, we had just finished a renovation three months prior to that,” Bebow said. “We had to tear the hospital down and rebuild again. We were finally able to open the hospital back up in 2012. During that four years, we dealt with insurance companies. We dealt with the redefinition of what that hospital should be about. I wish it could have gone faster, but we’ve got a first-rate hospital up there now.

“For three or four years, we provided care out of mobile homes.”

With his retirement date approaching, Bebow said he’s not sure what he’ll do after he leaves the hospital.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I guess that is what retirement is all about, not having to make that decision. I’m evaluating some things because I won’t be able to stand not doing anything, but I plan on not doing a lot for a little while.”

Bebow and his wife,

Dr. Verona Brown-Bebow, have a house in Rogers, where his daughter, son-in-law and grandson live.

“I guess we’ll spend more time in that area,” Bebow said, “but I don’t see us leaving Batesville. My wife has a family practice here. She intends to keep going into the future, but we’ll be more flexible to come and go.”

The Bebows have three children between them, including daughters Ella Shelton and Clare Brown and son Tim Brown and grandsons Graham Bebow and Thayer Shelton.

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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