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A Hall salute

Tim Croft

This week over in Destin at the Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast hospital they will say goodbye to a friend familiar to Port St. Joe.

After 17 years with the company, a far longer career in health care, Hall is retiring Friday as president and CEO of Ascension Sacred Heart.

Consider what Hall shepherded in Gulf County and beyond during most of those 17 years, how central to the community then-Sacred Heart Health Systems and now Ascension Sacred Heart have become.

I use the word shepherd because from the outset of a long journey to bring a new hospital, heck, a decent clinic, to Port St. Joe, Hall has again and again reminded all that this was a ministry.

It was a ministry not only of the physical, but the emotional and the spiritual.

Likely not a mistake the chapel at the Port St. Joe hospital is right up front off the main lobby; and beautiful.

And Hall also set from the outset a theme: Health care was only as good as the community it was serving.

That community, or least three dozen or so county civic leaders, got on board a bus almost 17 years ago (at least it seems like it) for a trip to Destin and the hospital where Hall will be feted Friday.

A tour of the hospital and various presentations were provided.

But, what was most striking, at least to my pea brain, was the number of plaques throughout the hospital, from lobby to patient rooms honoring those that donated to the hospital.

This was a community facility; it was written on the walls.

And just to dial the way-back machine a bit further, it is worth noting that once upon a time between the west end of Panama City Beach and the current site of that hospital, all that existed were a few small businesses and trees.

One was getting close to Sandestin and Destin when passing the Donut Hole, at one time the place to eat.

Take that drive now and observe what has grown around that hospital, and the health care and economic drive that Destin facility brought to the area was astounding.

In any case, that long-ago bus drive was the beginning of a community fund drive which ultimately raised more than $2 million and which is written on the plaques that line the halls of Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf.

A state senator, Durell Peaden, ushered through the Florida Legislature a bill that carved out an exemption to state law to allow the hospital to be built.

The Board of County Commissioners pledged a half-cent sales tax.

The St. Joe Company provided land and $1 million in start-up costs and a decade ago a $38 million facility opened and demonstrated in just the opening months the life-saving capacity of the facility.

Where, before, there had been no hospital or clinic, at least to speak of.

The former community hospital, for years known as Gulf Pines battled finances and image for years, even proposing to make it a center for a renowned back surgeon, before the state had enough and shuttered the place.

The community had gone five years without even an urgent care clinic before Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf opened.

Drive by that hospital most any weekday and the parking lot is packed.

And on the same campus sits a Medical Office building that itself it doing brisk business Monday through Friday with a host of doctors and specialists.

The hospital even lured back to her hometown Dr. Rachel Bixler and her husband who have become the go-to family practitioners in Port St. Joe, particularly since Hurricane Michael wiped out Shoreline Medical.

Beyond, Ascension Sacred Heart has established clinics in Wewahitchka and Franklin County, bringing a quality of health care that rural communities are increasingly losing.

Ascension has become, behind tourism, as big an economic driver as this county has at this juncture in time.

And the man behind that wheel for the entire journey was Roger Hall.

If there is still such a thing, a key to the city would seem the least of plaudits the community owes this man.

May Mr. Hall enjoy retirement as much as he always seemed to enjoy talking about community health care.

And may we always be the community reflected in that hospital complex.