The first three attempts to build it failed miserably, and when a bond issue finally passed by a scant 272 votes, those same voters decided against paying to operate it.
But today the supporters who wanted a new hospital in New Hanover County look back at the construction of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, which opened 40 years ago on June 14, as a crucial point in Wilmington’s history.
“I think it was the turnaround for the whole community,” said Dr. Bertram Williams, who practiced 50 years in Wilmington and served in almost every conceivable role in medical staff and hospital leadership.
“Everything was running downhill. The Coast Line had left. The first bond issue had failed. But since that time, everything has been going up.”
Today, New Hanover Regional, which now includes the Cape Fear campus and standalone hospitals for psychiatric care and inpatient rehabilitation, is the region’s referral hospital for specialty care in cardiac, cancer, orthopedic, women’s and children’s, vascular, trauma and numerous other services. The hospital is by far the region’s largest employer, with a workforce of 4,571, and contributes more than $1.2 billion annually to the county’s economy through its presence.
This was not the case in the early 1960s. Wilmington had segregated hospitals and the facilities were the most obsolete in the state, according to a state hospital study. Its largest employer, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, had moved its headquarters from Wilmington in 1960. Tourism was yet to be an important industry – Dr. Williams recalls oceanfront lots at Wrightsville Beach available for about $3,000.
Just a few years earlier, just 29 percent of the county’s voters had supported funding a new hospital. This represented the community’s third attempt to build a modern hospital in Wilmington. Some community leaders began working for another bond issue, and their champion became Seymour Alper, a transplant from New York about a decade earlier who had co-founded Queensboro Steel.
Alper would become essentially the founding father of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. He and other committed volunteers – notably his wife Millie, a “pink lady” at James Walker Memorial who deplored the conditions there – rallied support.
The proposed new hospital would close the two current segregated ones and open as an integrated facility. Black leaders, led by Dr. Hubert Eaton, believed a bigger hospital would simply become a bigger segregated institution. Three prominent black civil rights groups opposed a second bond issue, scheduled for Nov. 7, 1961.
But Alper and friends quietly worked all corners of the community, and black leaders began to trust them. However, as the evening wound down, the bond still trailed by 200 votes with one precinct – a downtown, heavily black precinct - left to report.
“We were despairing,” Mr. Alper said. “It would’ve been just like the previous attempt. We would have folded our tents and gone home.”
But Ward One came in overwhelmingly in support of the new hospital, and the bond issue won by 272 votes. On the same ballot, voters rejected funding the operation of the new hospital, a situation that exists today.
By June 14, 1967, what was then known as New Hanover Memorial Hospital was ready to open. The first patients were prematurely born infants transferred in cardboard boxes. The first pediatric patient was accepted at the new hospital by Helyn Lofton, a nurse who had graduated at Community Hospital, the black hospital, the year before. She went on to work at New Hanover Regional for 35 years and today sits on the Board of Trustees.
Dr. Williams, now 87, said the hospital’s impact has continued to grow over the 40 years since that day.
“I don’t believe the average person in the community understands what they have here,” he said. “The quality of care that’s given here, the coverage of the various specialties, the facilities around here – it’s so much better than it is in communities this size in other places.”
Alper, now 92, said the area would never have attracted the industry it has without a modern hospital. His role in making it happen has been, outside his personal life, his proudest achievement.
“I think when we built it, we were very happy and proud of ourselves for having it done,” he said. “When we look at its success, it’s mind-boggling we could ever get to this point.”