Life Stories

Durham hospital leader brought a common touch

CorrespondentApril 2, 2012 

  • Born: Sept. 11, 1918, in White Hall, Illinois

    1941: Graduates from University of California at Santa Barbara.

    1944: Marries Susanne Lynas.

    1947: Graduates from Columbia University with a master’s degree in hospital administration; later moves to Durham as administrator at Watts Hospital.

    1971: Becomes CEO of Cumberland County Healthcare System.

    1984: Retires

    Died: March 16, 2012

On his days off, John Moulton could be found roaming the corridors of Watts Hospital – one of the original hospitals in Durham whose campus is now home to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.

The CEO, he would bring in roses clipped from his garden to put in vases on secretaries’ desks and nurses’ stations to show his appreciation.

It was a way for him to stay involved from the ground up. It was his policy that everyone at the hospital, from janitor to chief resident, should feel comfortable coming to him with their issues.

Moulton would sometimes bring his four children — all daughters — during these Sunday strolls, and in this way they were able to gain an appreciation for the kind of man their father was. For one, he did not see race. He oversaw the integration of Watts Hospital.

“He not only talked to everybody, but he listened to them, and if they had good ideas he would follow through with them,” said his daughter Lynn Wright of Savannah, Georgia.

Moulton died last month at the age of 93.

He left behind a wife of 67 years, his children, six granddaughters and seven great-grandchildren, as well as his legacy as the state’s first trained hospital administrator, his family said.

Moulton was born in Illinois, the big brother to three younger sisters in a rural community.

His father was ahead of his time and in the 1910s knew mechanization was the future of farming, said Sandy Moulton, the third of his three daughters. Her grandfather operated a business selling John Deere equipment, but was killed when a faulty engine exploded in his shop.

Moulton was just 12, and immediately took on the responsibility of helping support his family. His mother was pregnant with her fourth child. She sent her three other children off to family that first summer she was widowed so she could attend beauty school – and therefore earn an income as a single mother.

Moulton’s daughters attribute much of their father’s respect for women – as well as his work ethic – to his mother. The only day of beauty school she missed was the one when she gave birth.

One of the ways Moulton showed his appreciation of women was his support of the Watts School of Nursing. He had a particularly strong respect for that vocation , and under his leadership the school became one of the first RN diploma programs in the state to offer associate’s degrees.

Moulton put himself through college in California where he earned a degree in mathematics. He then immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army and served overseas during WWII, stationed in North Africa in a hospital unit. It was there that he came to value efficient healthcare, as he helped set up MASH units. He met his wife, Army nurse Lt. Susanne Lynas, and the two were wed in Lucca, Italy.

Upon their return to the U.S., Moulton earned a master’s degree in hospital administration from Columbia University on the GI Bill. Shortly after receiving his masters, he and his wife were living in New York when he learned about the administrator position at Watts Hospital.

He started at Watts in 1947, working under Sample B. Forbus, who is said to have run the hospital as a “benevolent dictator.” Moulton, despite a military background that included 35 years in the Army Reserve, took a more egalitarian approach.

“John chose to change the culture of the hospital when he became the CEO,” said Ed McCauley, Moulton’s assistant at Watts Hospital and eventual CEO of Durham Regional Hospital. He was “quite interactive with the staff, with the people. So it was a significant improvement.”

Moulton was also known for his sense of humor, keeping a list of punch lines on hand for whenever a situation needed diffusing, or a reception was too dull. But his desire to keep things light did not interfere with his ability to run the hospital efficiently.

“I would say he was probably one of the most detailed-oriented people that I ever worked with or for,” McCauley said.

He had a strong sense of morals at an early age.

This trait only deepened as he aged, as seen in his policies towards minority workers at Watts Hospital – well before it was formally integrated in 1964.

Hospital desegregation

Early in his career he was put in charge of the annual Christmas party. The first year he was at Watts, he planned separate parties for the white and black staff members as was the custom, and attended both, making all things equal. He found this practice both absurd and inefficient, and the next year lobbied for a joint party. His efforts were a success, Sandy Moulton said, and segregated holidays parties were no more.

As CEO, one of the first things he did was equalize the salaries amongst the black and white workers. And when his children visited the hospital with him, they were under strict orders to call everyone – regardless of their color – “Ma’am and Sir.”

Moulton headed the hospital during its official desegregation in1960s, and also fought to pass the bond issue that would create what is now Durham Regional Hospital – a union of Lincoln Hospital, Durham’s historic African American hospital (now home to the Lincoln Community Health Center), and Watts.

But Moulton had no interest in building hospitals, and in 1971 he chose to take his career to Cumberland County where he became CEO of that health system until his retirement.

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