Steve and Wanda Wilkinson are blissfully relaxed on this Monday afternoon in late September, snuggled side-by-side on a cushy sofa in their Overland Park home’s hearth room. It’s unusual for the couple to spend time together on a weekday since Steve, president and chief executive officer of Menorah Medical Center, is typically in a conference room with hospital colleagues and physicians, visiting patients in their rooms or attending board meetings or new employee orientations, Monday through Friday, nearly every week of the year.
“This is my Saturday room,” grins Steve, “where Wanda and I sit and drink coffee, read the paper and catch up.”
|Steve and Wanda Wilkinson|
Wanda, a slim and fashionable woman with a quick smile and sparkling eyes, grew up on a farm near Williamsburg, Kan., and says the fact that she and her husband of 41 years rarely see one another during the week is just part of the deal.
“Steve’s job is very demanding and I accept that,” shrugs Wanda, flashing one of those knowing looks — characteristic of mates who have spent decades becoming intimately familiar with one another — toward her husband.
It’s safe to say the Wilkinsons are not only in love with one another; they’re in love with their lives, both separately and collectively. Wanda thrives on her community involvement and feathering the perfect nest for enjoying quiet time with Steve and friends and quality family time with their two grown children.
Steve is committed to his role as a husband, father and a leading healthcare executive, helping to deliver compassionate care to Menorah’s patients and to cultivating a five-star corporate culture with the hospital’s 800-plus employees.
But the Wilkinson clan’s star, grandson Miles, has ushered in an entirely new dynamic that took Steve and Wanda by surprise. His momentous arrival eight months ago profoundly changed the Wilkinsons’ lives.
“The cutest baby ever born at Menorah,” jokes Steve as 36-year-old Jared, the couple’s youngest child, brings a smiley Miles into the hearth room and plops his son between the proud grandparents. “Wanda and I heard from other friends with grandchildren how special the experience is. We really had no idea how true that is.”
Apparently Miles is enamored, too, as he steals a brief (and adorable) glance at Steve and Wanda and then erupts with a spontaneous squeal of glee.
The interview temporarily derails as Miles is repositioned on Wanda’s lap. He is, by all appearances, ready for his close-up.
A Matter of Care
Steve relishes going to work each morning knowing someone’s life, someone’s family, someone’s loved one, will be impacted by the physicians, nurses and support staff at Menorah.
“We truly make a difference in lives every day,” emphasizes Steve, who is known for a quiet and effective leadership style and an uncanny ability to recall employee names. “There are no unimportant jobs at Menorah.
Every single person is part of the family.”
The notion of family has almost devout meaning for the Wilkinsons. Growing up in small-town Kansas, they both experienced the joy of tight-knit families. The two met at Kansas State University where Steve was on a business administration/finance track and Wanda was a freshman studying early childhood education.
“We met in October 1969 and married in June 1971,” says Steve, squeezing Wanda’s hand.
The newlyweds lived in Clay Center, Kan., and then moved to Garden City, Kan., where they would spend the next 22 years. Steve worked for the Chamber of Commerce and after spending nearly three years on the board of St. Catherine’s Hospital, he was recruited in 1983 to take the COO position; two and a half years later he was promoted to CEO.
The Wilkinsons reared their sons, Jeff and Jared, with the same values they learned from their respective parents: family-centered activities, interaction, camaraderie, communication. They attended the boys’ countless football games and sporting events and became entrenched in the community. Wanda did what she is passionate about — creating a nurturing and welcoming home for her guys.
Steve, who grew up in Washington, Kan., — an hour north of Manhattan — knew he had found his life’s calling after taking the helm at St. Catherine’s. “There was an instant connection for me,” he says. “The importance that quality healthcare makes in people’s lives was a powerful realization.”
In 1996 Steve joined the American Hospital Association (AHA) as one of nine regional executives for the organization that represents thousands of hospitals and healthcare networks nationwide. He and Wanda relocated to Lawrence and for the next year Steve logged countless air and car miles serving a three-state area.
Then in 1997, Richard Brown, CEO of the former Health Midwest network, asked Steve to come on board as Menorah Medical Center’s CEO. Today Menorah, part of HCA Midwest Health System — Kansas City’s largest healthcare network — is one of the metro’s top hospitals, serving patients with advanced technology and award-winning cancer, women’s, stroke and heart care.
“I started on February 1, 1997,” says Steve, “and it’s been an indescribable joy.”
On November 15 during a luncheon at the Overland Park Convention Center, Steve will receive the Charles S. Billings Award, a prestigious honor given by the Kansas Hospital Association (KHA) that recognizes tireless and distinguished contribution and a lifetime of service. Named for the founder of the 102-year-old KHA, the award was established in 1971, and isn’t given every year.
“Steve has accomplished so much for not just hospitals in Kansas City but with national healthcare initiatives during his work with the AHA,” says KHA Vice President Cindy Samuelson. “He has served on the KHA board three different times since 1990, including chairman of the board of directors. Steve is a vibrant and engaging leader and is deeply concerned about healthcare and how it affects people.”
Steve says he is humbled by the award, but insists he doesn’t do anything extraordinary.
“I do my job,” he says.
The Wilkinsons adore living in Johnson County — almost as much as they adore Miles, Steve laughs.
“But truly — there are endless opportunities here for everyone — including civic, recreation and volunteer activities and an unparalleled level of education in both public and private schools,” says Steve. “Wanda and I want to retire here, make this our home base for pursuing the things we want to do.”
He and Wanda are well-known community participants, serving on boards and acting as event co-chairs. They helped launch the Wabash Cannonball six years ago, an annual gala that raises scholarship money for area students planning to attend K-State. The couple is also involved with the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas annual Snow Ball, which raises more than $1 million to help provide basic needs — such as food and utilities — to families and children in the area. They also serve on the committee for Johnson County Community College’s annual Some Enchanted Evening gala.
“We work well together,” says Wanda.
The Wilkinsons are also heavily involved with the Arts and Recreation Foundation of Overland Park’s Stems event, a yearly fundraiser held at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens that benefits different programs of the foundation.
Teresa Stohs, executive director of the Arts and Recreation Foundation, says the Wilkinsons touch the community in myriad ways.
“The first year of Stems, when it was just an idea in my head, Steve and Wanda stepped up to be the first co-chairs along with Greg Wolf and Kelly Duffy Wolf,” says Stohs. “They took that leap of faith and because of their continued efforts — they were honorary chairs in 2012 — along with others, Stems has raised $1.1 million dollars in five years. They are an exemplary couple, and serve the community with grace, humor and humility.”
Steve has also served as chairman of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce; chairman of the Blue Valley Educational Foundation; and serves on the board and the executive committee of the Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City. He is the board president of the Johnson County Community College Foundation.
At day’s end, Steve and Wanda Wilkinson count their blessings — for family, friends, community and their cherished new role as grandparents. Steve also reflects on his Menorah family and their unwavering support in delivering some of Kansas City’s finest healthcare.
“We all chose healthcare as a career,” says Steve, referring to the Menorah employees. “We have dedication and the desire to serve people. That’s what it’s all about.”
Suddenly Miles, who Wanda carefully dressed in blue for today’s photo shoot, decides the interview is over. And Steve and Wanda, being doting grandparents, oblige.
After all, it’s family first for the Wilkinsons.
photos: Jason Dailey