Ninety years of caring and health care at St. David’s

Austin families’ histories intertwined with hospitals, foundation.

Austinites Dr. Linda Prentice and Susie Jastrow share a multigenerational stake in St. David’s HealthCare and the St. David’s Foundation.

Ninety years ago, Prentice’s grandfather, Dr. Joe Gilbert, co-founded St. David’s Hospital. Later, he was joined by Prentice’s father, Dr. Joe Thorne Gilbert, who worked there for several decades, often as chief of staff.

She was born at the old St. David’s Hospital on West 17th and Rio Grande streets, and her appendix was removed there. She followed in her grandfather’s and father’s medical footsteps, becoming a pediatric specialist in endocrinology at St. David’s after it moved to East 32nd Street.

Her husband, Dr. James “Jim” Prentice, was a staff anesthesiologist there and now serves on the foundation’s board of trustees. As a member of the foundation’s scholarship committee, Linda Prentice helps select the Neal Kocurek scholars.

“I feel like my grandfather was a bit of a visionary,” Prentice says of the man who also founded student health services at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. “He and a group of physicians started St. David’s in a small house. Too small.”

For Jastrow’s part, her grandfather, Dr. John C. Thomas, teamed up with Linda Prentice’s grandfather — along with other doctors and clerics from St. David’s Episcopal Church — as the hospital’s pioneers. Her father, Dr. John F. Thomas, too, was an important St. David’s physician and is the namesake for its Thomas Library Fund.

Her grandmother was a founding member of the hospital’s volunteer group, originally called the Ladies’ Auxiliary. Jastrow joined the Auxiliary and nowadays is a member of the foundation’s community health access committee.

“As a child, I loved to visit the hospital with Dad,” Jastrow recalls. “It seemed to me that it was a caring, helpful place. My favorite floor to visit was the baby floor. And we always attended the Auxiliary Christmas party.”

After the Sanitarium

A handsome new book, “St. David’s: 90 Years and Counting,” reveals a lot more about the Austin families who built St. David’s from a church-affiliated hospital housed in a Victorian residence into a structurally innovative profit-nonprofit partnership that gives away $50 million this year to community health groups. It also runs a group of modern Central Texas medical centers as well as a heart hospital and another devoted to women’s health.

Written by John Morthland — with crisp photographs curated by Kathy Marcus — the book arrives in time for the group’s 90th anniversary, to be toasted at an invitation-only event on Thursday at the Austin Hyatt Regency. (The public can pick up free copies of the book at the foundation’s headquarters, 811 Barton Springs Road, while supplies last.)

Morthland traces the hospital’s origins to the Austin Sanitarium, which from 1895 to 1918 stood, with wide eaves and sleeping porches, at Congress Avenue and 14th Street on land now part of the Capitol complex. Purchased in 1915 and redubbed the Presbyterian Sanitarium, it burned in 1918.

Salvaged supplies were moved to a house that had been repurposed as Kenilworth Hall, a girls’ school, at 17th and Rio Grande streets in the Judge’s Hill district.

In 1919, Drs. Gilbert and Thomas — grandfathers of Prentice and Jastrow — joined partners, old and new, in taking over the Sanitarium as Physicians and Surgeons Hospital.

Several years later, Gilbert and Thomas proposed that the Episcopal parish form a charity and take over the struggling place. On Dec. 19, 1924, it was chartered as St. David’s Hospital, and the Rev. L. Valentine Lee signed on with the board of trustees.

A newspaper article reprinted in the book announces that George E. Christian Jr. was the first baby of 1927 born there. He later became press secretary for President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Christian’s widow, lawyer and philanthropist Jo Anne Christian, serves on the foundation’s board of trustees.

In 1928, a four-story, 46-bed masonry building, fronted by an elegant, distinctive arch above the entrance, opened next to the Victorian house.

“To a child, it was a threatening place,” Prentice recalls. “But I think it was an efficient place.”

In 1950, trustees voted to raise half a million dollars to build a boxy new hospital on five acres on East 32nd Street. Moving day came on an unusually hot Sept. 14, 1955, as patients were transported by ambulance to the current location.

According to a newspaper article about the grand opening: “A spokesman for the city’s traffic department believed a minimum of 12,000 people were conducted through the building in what he described as the largest open house ever held in Austin.”

A change of plans

The grand, old Victorian home, which for a while became a residence for the hospital’s nurses, is no longer there. The 1928 hospital is now part of the Rio House apartment complex, its former elegance hidden but still detectable behind a grille.

When the 1955 incarnation of the hospital opened, it came with a volunteer group known as the Ladies’ Auxiliary. It consisted of the wives of doctors and of prominent community leaders, former volunteer leader Ashleigh Jacobes told Morthland for the book. The Auxiliary opened the Cupboard, a gift shop that served coffee in china cups for five cents. Honoring that tradition, a cup of coffee at the Cupboard still costs a nickel.

The 1955 hospital expanded in all directions, including upward. Three more Central Texas medical centers were added in subsequent years.

For the next 40 years, the hospital followed a fairly traditional pattern of growth. In 1996, however, a partnership was brokered with Hospital Corporation of America, a national health care provider. A percentage of profits goes to community health care grants administered by the St. David’s Foundation.

Additionally, the foundation stages a series of parties in private homes — under the name Toast of the Town — that fund the scholarships named after businessman and civic leader Neal Kocurek, who acted as president and CEO of the St. David’s Foundation during its most crucial years.

He was known as a consensus builder.

“He was always the last to speak, and when he did, he solved everyone’s issue,” C.W. Hetherly says in the book. “He was a gentle person who never showed his temper but always got his point across.”

Kocurek, whose name adorns the Austin Convention Center, among other spots, led the foundation during its six-year court battle with the Internal Revenue Service over its proposed profit-nonprofit model. Kocurek was visibly relieved when a successful conclusion was reached.

“Neal became so relaxed,” says current foundation CEO Earl Maxwell in the book. “It was good to see him at peace.”

St. David’s leaders often say that Austinites don’t understand the medical outfit or the foundation. This book and this week’s celebration could help.

“I feel like St. David’s doesn’t toot its horn enough,” Prentice says. “But it’s a strong health care provider in the community. I hope it continues to be so.”

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