Described as “a prince of a man,” Lee Pridgen was instrumental in ensuring the highest quality local health care as the longest-serving leader of Sampson Regional Medical Center — a man who served nearly 30 years over four different decades, even coming out of retirement to lead for a second time during a vital transition.
Pridgen passed away on Monday at the age of 81 and was to be laid to rest Thursday. For the first 61 years of Sampson Regional’s existence, there were just three people who served at the administrative helm and Pridgen did so for the longest, from 1973-2001. As an encore, he acted as interim president and chief executive officer for nearly all of 2008.
“I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Pridgen during his time as interim administrator at Sampson Regional. I appreciate that he stepped up to the plate during a time when there was a leadership void,” SRMC’s current CEO Dr. Shawn Howerton said. “I also remember him calling to congratulate me when I became hospital CEO. I really appreciated that gesture — it spoke loudly of his character.”
During Pridgen’s early years as the hospital’s leader, he acted as the driving force in paving the way for the growth and advancements that would extend along Beaman Street during his tenure and those of his successors. His vision helped move the hospital forward, his former colleagues said.
Dempsey Craig served as chief financial officer from 1980-99, working with Pridgen for two decades of his time as SRMC’s head.
“It was never about him. It was always about others — the staff, the patients, the community,” Craig stated. “It was about what he could do to improve health care in this county. He was a low-key guy who really made you feel like you were part of a team. It was almost like a family. He was always thinking about how he could improve things and improve morale. That’s just the person he was.”
Born in 1934 in Charleston, S.C., Pridgen graduated from Wake Forest University and received his MBA from the University of Chicago in 1958. He served as assistant administrator at Pittsfield General Hospital in Massachusetts, Augusta General Hospital in Augusta, Maine, and Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Camden, Maine, before becoming the administrator at Sampson Regional.
Pridgen was honored by Sampson Regional’s Tree of Love in 2006 alongside those two other former CEOs, James M. Devane and Milton H. Woodside. At the time, Pridgen said Woodside, who served as administrator from 1952-73, had a stature and reputation in the medical field that drew him to want to work for the hospital.
Woodside, who passed away in 1973, was one of the first to recognize the importance of establishing a physician office building, Pridgen noted. It was vital to recruiting physicians, and under Pridgen, the hospital boasted some of the best ones, who dedicated themselves to the hospital for the bulk of their adult lives. That physician building was fittingly named after Woodside. Like Woodside, Pridgen knew the value of good staff and the primary role physicians played in offering services.
“He enjoyed working with physicians,” Craig noted. “He was able to sit down and talk with them. He was always there to work with them and listen to them.”
Upon the Tree of Love honor, Pridgen’s daughter Daphne Green said her father put “his heart” into the hospital. She recalled when a bond referendum to raise money for improving the hospital was up for a vote. Pridgen would come home late many nights following rounds of discussion with community members, lobbying for their support.
Craig called Pridgen a humble person who had “an incredible vision” for the hospital.
That forward-thinking vision included having a diagnostic center and expanding the emergency room and some of the ancillary services such as radiology and physical therapy.
“That was a major step for a small county hospital,” Craig remarked.
Fittingly, Pridgen, like Woodside, also has a portion of the hospital that bears his name. In 1997, a new diagnostics and treatment center was called the Pridgen Building.
“The leadership team under Lee Pridgen left the hospital in a very good, very strong position for the future of Sampson Regional,” current Chief Financial Officer Jerry Heinzman stated. “That speaks to his leadership and success as CEO of this hospital.”
Allie Ray McCullen served as on the SRMC Board of Trustees for more than 18 years, half of the time as chairman. When McCullen became a trustee, Pridgen had already served the hospital for a number of years and was on the homestretch of his career.
It was McCullen who, as trustees chairman, touted Pridgen’s exemplary status in the community and successes as the hospital’s longtime leader at the end of 2007, noting he would be a tremendous asset during the hospital’s transition following Larry Chewning’s departure in December 2007. Pridgen accepted and worked in that capacity until David Masterson’s hiring nearly a year later.
“The best way to sum up Lee is he was a prince of a man,” McCullen attested. “I had the privilege of working with him in two different segments of his career. He did such a good job in his tenure that we were delighted he would help us on an interim basis.”
At the time, McCullen said Sampson Regional was “fortunate to have such talent to assist the hospital” during the transition period. Pridgen said it was a privilege to return home.
Reflecting this week, McCullen echoed his words, saying the hospital was indebted to Pridgen and grateful for his service.
“He was a first-class gentleman,” said McCullen. “He did a good job for the hospital and the people of this county. And the personnel loved him. He was a people person.”
On the occasion of Pridgen’s retirement, Eugene Cochran Jr., then-director of the Duke Endowment Health Care Division, wrote an immensely complimentary letter calling Pridgen “a fine administrator, a good person, friend and true statesman for health care.”
Craig said all the glowing superlatives apply.
When Pridgen put retirement on hold to return to the hospital in 2008 at the tender age of 73, he joked with his longtime confidant Craig at their weekly lunches. He would cheekily attempt to recruit his longtime CFO back to the hospital.
“I’d tell him ‘I’m good, I’m enjoying retirement,’” Craig recalled with a laugh. “He clearly enjoyed what he did. He was just an all-around great person.”
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