The man that has acted as a voice for Kalispell Regional Healthcare for nearly four decades recently adjusted his silver handkerchief in his suit jacket as he talked about his Montana beginnings at a lumber mill.
Jim Oliverson never planned to move to Montana. When he felt he had to, he never expected that leap would land him in a position to watch health care unfold in Northwest Montana.
“I really learned the health system from the inside out, what it feels like to be a patient,” he said.
Both of Oliverson’s sons were born with health ailments. He and his wife eventually agreed to stop counting how many surgeries each child had.
The Oliversons had built a life in San Francisco. But during trips to Montana to visit family, the boys seemed healthier.
“They would get up in the morning in Pablo and walk outside, through the water, picking up the suckers that came in the night before with the irrigation,” Oliverson said. “When we would get back to San Francisco, you could almost set your watch to 10 days and we’d be back in the pediatrician’s office.”
So they moved.
Oliverson had spent years in an office. When he arrived to the Flathead Valley at 33, he joined his brother-in-law at the Plum Creek lumber mill. He saddled up on the green chain hauling timber next to 18-year-olds.
“The first night I recall we ran 4-by-6 timbers for the county bridge department. It near killed me,” Oliverson said. “I came home and told my wife, ‘I’ve never quit a job but I don’t think I can last a week...’ But I was desperate, I had to provide for my family and my sick children.”
Oliverson got an interview to run St. Luke Community Hospital in Ronan six months after his move to Montana.
He and his wife found the one suit that had made it into the moving truck from San Francisco. Oliverson pulled on the steel, blue-grey trousers but they fell off his waist because of the weight he had lost while at the mill.
His wife took the back of his trousers, folded them over and stuck a safety pin through the bunch.
“She said whatever you do, don’t take your jacket off during the interview,” Oliverson said.
He said God must “protect fools and children,” because he was hired.
His first week on the job, Oliverson received an 11-page document from the state with 92 codes the hospital needed to get up-to-date on. He had no idea where to begin and less than $30,000 to spare for the effort.
For help, Oliverson walked into the office of George Clark, the hospital administrator at St. Patrick Hospital.
“He called his secretary and said, ‘hold all my calls unless it’s my wife or the CEO,’” Oliverson said. “That told me a lot about his values. We sat down and he rolled up his sleeves.”
Two years later the duo pulled a car along Sunnyview Lane. Oliverson saw a screen for an outdoor theatre and rafters for a building that had never been completed. He said there were “more jackrabbits and tumbleweeds than anything else.
“But George had a vision,” Oliverson said. That’s where the city’s new hospital would be.
Kalispell Regional Medical Center had been born in 1910. It came together by the work of several businessmen and a collaboration with nursing sisters from Sisters of Mercy motivated by a vision and faith.
On January 17, 1976, the new Kalispell Regional Hospital at 310 Sunnyview Lane was complete. Oliverson said as the project wrapped up, Clark was already persuading the board to buy more land for its future replacement, “thinking 25 years out.”
Oliverson continued his work in Ronan, acting as the community hospital’s nursing home administrator as well as overseeing the Mission Valley Hospital and Nursing Home in St. Ignatius, which eventually closed.
In 1989, he moved his family to Kalispell to act as the center’s executive vice president and director of human resources and marketing. He had already been working for the hospital from afar for several years.
He didn’t mean to become Kalispell Regional’s main source for breaking news — but Clark didn’t enjoy talking to reporters. One afternoon Clark asked Oliverson to return a reporter’s call, and from there it became part of his job.
“I enjoyed the relationship,” Oliverson said. “It was important to ask what the valley needs, or what it values about health care.”
Oliverson’s job titles changed as the hospital did. He said he did a bit of everything, “except finance, I hate numbers.”
He’s held the title of the vice president of support services as well as the person managing ALERT, Brendan House and The Summit. He was charged with creating the center’s foundation.
When expansions began, he sometimes offered tours of the hospital to relators evaluating whether the valley was a smart place to move. Sometimes he was the guy who left notes on employee cars telling them they couldn’t take over neighborhoods as construction projects pushed the services beyond the hospital’s original blueprint.
Over the years, Oliverson also joined more than two dozen board of directors for community organizations and nonprofits.
“It was just to try and get out there, find out what people value and what can we do to make their, or their neighbor or their family’s experience better,” he said. “You look for patterns.”
In 2016, he gave the eulogy at Clark’s funeral. The same year, a study by the University of Montana announced health care had become the largest sector in Flathead County.
This year, after 39 years at Kalispell Regional, Oliverson retired. During those decades, Oliverson was there when every new hospital chief executive officer moved to town. And he was there as the hospital staff grew from a few hundred to more than 3,000.
On a recent summer morning, Oliverson talked about gardening a bit more. But it’s hard to kill a “39-year-old habit.”
“Thirty-nine years — that’s half my life,” he said with a grin. In May, he’ll turn 80. “Half my life. That was my goal.”
Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.