Houston Methodist Hospital will celebrate its centennial this year. Today, Houston Methodist is one of the world’s leading hospitals. It is a multi-billion-dollar operation, serving tens of thousands of patients each year. It has been in the forefront of medical research for decades and the home to many medical icons such as the late Dr. Michael DeBakey. But were it not for the talents, tenacity, dedication and no small amount of chutzpah of one Josie Roberts, Houston Methodist Hospital might not even exist today.
Roberts was born in Grimes County in 1891. She was the oldest of ten children. She married John Roberts at the age of 17. At 26, she had her first child, a daughter. Tragically, John Roberts contracted tuberculosis shortly after his daughter was born. He died in 1921, leaving a 30-year-old widow with a 4-year-old daughter.
Roberts worked various odd jobs including a stint at the telephone company. While there she met Sam Hay, the son of a prominent Methodist bishop. The Church tapped the Hay as the administrator of the hospital. One of his first acts was to recruit his former co-worker to be his assistant. Josie Roberts began her career at Methodist Hospital on February 1, 1924. She was 33.
The hospital was originally built by a Houston physician, Oscar Norsworthy. It was a 30-bed facility that he ran in conjunction with his medical practice. He sold the hospital to the Methodist Church in 1918 and the Church began an expansion to accommodate 100 beds.
But the heady days of the 1920s quickly evaporated with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and the hospital’s finances began to decline. By the end of 1931, the situation was so dire one trustee declared the hospital was “an absolutely hopeless proposition” prompting the then superintendent to resign. There was even talk of closing the hospital. While the trustees considered their options, Roberts got the job to run the hospital by default.
Roberts moved quickly to shore up the hospital’s finances and operations. She called together the staff and told them they would have to take a pay cut or the hospital would have to close. The fact that the entire staff stayed on is a testament to her leadership skills. She also called in all the hospital’s vendors and renegotiated the terms of their agreements. She revamped the hospital kitchen, recruited new doctors and donors and struck a deal to accept patients sponsored by the Shriners.
By 1936, the trustees said the hospital’s finances had never been in better shape. One trustee who served during those years said, “it was no exaggeration to say that Josie Roberts saved Methodist Hospital.”
Roberts went on to serve as the hospital’s chief executive for nearly another twenty years, before retiring in 1953. She oversaw the hospital’s move to the Texas Medical Center and its emergence as one of the premier hospitals in the country. During her career, Roberts won many accolades and awards from many hospital, nursing and medical groups; acknowledgements which were extraordinarily rare for a woman in those times.
After retiring, Roberts moved to Albuquerque where her daughter was living at the time. Tragically, her daughter died within a few years of her retirement. It is a sad irony that a woman who devoted her life to healing lost both members of her immediate family to disease.
After her daughter’s death, there is very little record of how Roberts spent her time. I suspect she stayed in Albuquerque to help raise her two granddaughters. The official Texas death records indicate she died in Houston in 1984, at 93, but so far I have not been able to locate an obituary or a grave site.
Houston’s history is rich with many such stories. In Roberts case, one of a young woman with no formal medical or management education. Yet she took on a monumental task and succeeded beyond all expectations. All while raising a daughter and sending her to college. And she did it alone.
It is hard to fathom the determination, perseverance, courage and resourcefulness she summoned to do so. It is also hard to imagine the condescension and underestimation she must have endured in a time when men, not women, ran large institutions.
But her story speaks not just to her character and ability but also to how deep meritocracy DNA has always run in Houston’s blood. Bob Lanier said it best, “In Houston no one cares who your daddy is.” If you can get the job done, if you have something to contribute, you will find a place in Houston.
Many of the buildings that now make up the Houston Methodist complex bear the names of our City’s legendary philanthropists and appropriately so. But to me, it might be even more fitting for one of its building to named of the single mom that saved the hospital. Her quintessentially Houston story is certainly one worth remembering.
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