Ex-UNMH CEO Johnson led hospital transformation - Albuquerque Journal

Ex-UNMH CEO Johnson led hospital transformation

Bill Johnson, former CEO of UNM Hospital

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Bill Johnson was a visionary with public service in his DNA.

For two decades, starting in 1977, Johnson served as chief executive officer of the University of New Mexico Hospital. He helped lead the transformation of what had been a county hospital then known as the Bernalillo County Medical Center, serving mostly indigent people, into a fully integrated university-affiliated trauma center and hospital.

Despite the size of the sprawling institution, he took the time to learn the names of everyone who worked for him, according to his wife of nearly 60 years, Gloria Johnson.

He subsequently served as the cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department, where his responsibilities included overseeing income support and Medicaid programs.

Johnson died on Oct. 29 – his 84th birthday – at his Albuquerque home surrounded by family.

Active in the community, even well into retirement, Johnson served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, ACCION New Mexico, Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, Association of Commerce and Industry, Rotary del Norte, Junior Achievement, United Way of Central New Mexico and the YMCA of Central New Mexico.

“He was very outgoing, social, community oriented and an exceptional volunteer,” said Gloria Johnson. “Bill just loved it here. He loved New Mexico and loved giving back to his community. Service to others was part of his DNA.”

Unfortunately, Bill Johnson did not get the death he wanted or deserved, said his wife.

Diagnosed in 2017 with ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Johnson had been a vocal advocate of the state Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act that would have provided medical aid in dying.

In fact, he made a powerful two-minute video for Compassion and Choices New Mexico, the organization championing the bill in the state Legislature to provide terminally ill people the option to receive medication to end their own lives. The bill was named for a former New Mexico judge who died from cancer and who supported end of life choices.

On camera, sitting in a wheelchair, Johnson described the struggles he already faced, as well as those he knew were to come. He said if he were well enough to address the Legislature, he would urge lawmakers to support the bill and he would remind them that ultimately only he has the right to make decisions about his life – and his death.

The bill did not make it through the last legislative session.

“Bill was frustrated that it did not pass and hoped they would continue to work toward that goal and that it will eventually happen,” Gloria said.

William H. Johnson was born in Brooklyn, New York. He attended the Jesuit Brooklyn Preparatory School before enrolling at Hofstra University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1957.

It was during those college years that mutual friends introduced Bill to Gloria at a Young People’s Republican Club. Upon graduation, Johnson took a job with the U.S. Army’s Medical Service as a medical operations officer and assistant administrator at Army Headquarters in Berlin.

“It was not immediately clear that he was ‘the one,’ ” Gloria said. “That took a while. We went out before he left for Germany and then corresponded for a year or so while he was there. Then a friend and I took a trip to Europe and my last stop was Berlin,” and where Johnson proposed to her.

Four months later, in January 1960, while on leave from his post, Johnson returned home and he and Gloria were married. “I went back as a new bride to Germany and our daughter was born there in January of the following year.”

The family remained there for three years, watching history unfold as the Berlin Wall was erected.

Subsequent medical and hospital administration jobs took Johnson to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where their son was born; then to Saigon, Vietnam; Tripler Medical Center in Honolulu, where Johnson earned a master’s degree in teaching; then to the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C.; and finally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, also in Washington, where he decided to retire from government service.

Johnson subsequently accepted a position as the assistant hospital administrator at the Bernalillo County Medical Center in Albuquerque, later becoming the CEO.

“Bill just had a vision of where he wanted the hospital to go, and he continually worked toward that goal of making it a premier institution,” said his wife. “He was a very hard-working man, had great love for his family and his country. He would tear up when the national anthem was played.”

Survivors include Johnson’s wife, Gloria, of the family home in Albuquerque; daughter Karen Ann Johnson of Chicago; and son William Jr., and wife, Michele, of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

A memorial Mass will be held for Johnson at Risen Savior Catholic Church, 7701 Wyoming NE, on Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. A private burial will take place at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Mourners are invited to make a monetary donation in Bill Johnson’s memory to the ALS Association of New Mexico or to any charity of their choice.

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