John Stackhouse is not a doctor or public health expert. But as the longtime owner of a business that put up electrical poles, he knew decades ago that the state needed a burn center.
Stackhouse had seen his own employees suffer serious injury from errant electrical lines, and he had struggled to find them adequate medical treatment. After one particularly harrowing incident, he vowed to help create a center dedicated to treating burns.
“I knew you couldn’t get people treated because I was in the business of burning people,” Stackhouse says.
Through years of tireless advocacy, Stackhouse helped found the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Healthcare, which opened in 1981 and is now recognized among the best centers of its kind worldwide.
Now, even at age 100, Stackhouse remains an avid supporter and driving force behind the center as it enters its 35th year. Last week, he was in Chapel Hill getting an update on its progress and accolades for his decades of support.
Bruce Cairns, who heads the center and holds the professorship bearing Stackhouse’s name, remembers buying jelly when he was a high school student as part of the fundraising effort in the 1970s. He says Stackhouse’s singular dedication to the cause is a key part of the center’s history.
“Stackhouse was so committed to making sure the best care was available to all burn victims, and he was tireless in getting people to join his cause,” says Cairns, who is also chair of the UNC-CH faculty. “It really required that sheer force of will to build what we have today.”
From CP&L to his own company
Stackhouse was born in the small South Carolina town of Mullins, son of the postmaster. He started working summers at Carolina Power & Light when he was only 15; his first job was washing streetlights for five cents an hour.
“Me and another kid would carry a tin tub from one pole to another,” he says. “Sometimes we were barefoot.”
He started studying electrical engineering at Clemson, but soon left his education behind to take a better position with CP&L, assured by higher ups that the degree wasn’t necessary.
Stackhouse later moved to Charlotte to work for one of the contractors hired by large companies to set up electrical systems.
It was around then that he married, and soon after, volunteered in the Navy, in hopes of getting to the front lines of World War II. From his telling, the move fueled his adventurous side, the same impulse that led him to race motorcycles.
Stackhouse led a pontoon-assembly unit in the South Pacific for three years. By the time he returned, his first wife, Katherine, had given birth to their first son, and he was eager to settle into family life.
He had saved most of the money he earned overseas, adding to his salary the proceeds from side projects such as washing other sailors’ clothes and making walking sticks.
Along with a small loan from his father, he invested his savings in the equipment he needed to start his own business contracting with electric companies to put up their power lines.
He settled with his family in Goldsboro, and became a respected businessman. He sold Stackhouse Electric in 1987.
Burns were an unfortunate reality during his long career in the power business. He recalls early on having a hard time finding adequate care for employees who suffered burns.
But it was the case of an 18-year-old who was badly burned during a snowstorm that was the final straw. Stackhouse pulled all the strings he could to get the boy the best care available, but he knew most burn victims weren’t that fortunate.
It was 1967, and he had owned his business only a few years. Stackhouse said he went out to the Gulf Stream in his fishing boat and just floated and thought for days. Afterward, he pledged to himself that he would help create a world-class burn center for North Carolina residents. At the time, the closest such centers were in West Virginia and Georgia.
Seeing a need and raising money
At first, the medical professionals he approached didn’t know what to make of Stackhouse’s offer to help start a burn center. He was willing to donate a good chunk of money, but only a fraction of what it would take to fulfill his vision.
Serious burns are especially difficult to treat, and many require long-term care. It was not considered a profitable specialty, says Stackhouse, and many of the existing facilities had been founded after large fires.
A deal was struck that with the support of the N.C. Medical Foundation, Stackhouse would donate $40,000 and work to raise a million or more to build the center. The Rural Electric Association matched his donation, and the state legislature put in $1.5 million.
From there, Stackhouse started barnstorming the state seeking support, often flying in on one of his own airplanes and calling local organizations from pay phones, meeting with whoever was available.
The Goldsboro Jaycees started selling jelly to support the effort, and volunteer firefighters were early and eager supporters. In all, this grassroots effort led to more than $6 million in donations from individuals, clubs, church groups and others.
He also traveled to Texas and other states to visit burn centers, and he talked to burn victims about their needs. For years, he was active in the International Burn Society, traveling the world to advocate for better treatment.
Stackhouse approached several area hospitals, but eventually it was agreed that the center would expand upon an existing set of beds that had been set aside for burn victims at what was then North Carolina Memorial Hospital.
The new center added more beds dedicated to burn victims, and brought in experts form a wide variety of fields that could aid in both healing them and helping them to adjust to life afterward, often carrying deep scars to mark their ordeal.
The center recently received certification with both the American Burn Association and American College of Surgeons, and now works on the issue of burns from every possible angle – prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, ongoing care for those who need it, cosmetic and hospice care.
The center also sponsors ongoing care for victims, particularly children, whose burns may cause lingering social issues. One of those efforts, Camp Celebrate, is the world’s longest-running camp for young burn survivors.
In recent years, the center has served veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trains Special Forces in burn care. It recently helped open a burn unit in Malawi.
Even at his advanced age, Stackhouse keeps up with new developments at the center, as well as in burn care in general, though he notes he has no specific requests for the center’s future.
“It’s already exceeded everything I could possibly imagine,” he says.
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John Woods Stackhouse
Born: December 1915, Mullins, S.C.
Residence: Morehead City
Career: Former founder and owner, Stackhouse Electric
Education: Studied at Clemson University
Family: Wife Marlys; children John, Charles, Wilson and Kitty; seven grandchildren; 15 great-grandchildren
Notable: Stackhouse was a widower when he married his second wife, Marlys; he was 92 at the time.