Great Living Cincinnatians
L. Thomas “Tom” Wilburn, Jr.
1928 - 2015
Awarded in 2015
No area of American society has arguably changed faster over the last 50 years than healthcare. In greater Cincinnati, L. Thomas “Tom” Wilburn, Jr. worked at the center of that change and molded its direction.
Mr. Wilburn was born in 1928 in Virginia, and graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Tech). When he joined Bethesda in 1971, Bethesda North had just opened as Cincinnati’s first suburban hospital. That was just the beginning of many changes, in part because Wilburn “never missed an opportunity to advocate for excellence or challenge the status quo,” according to John Prout, the current President and CEO of TriHealth. In 1980, Bethesda opened the first free-standing emergency department near Lebanon and then the first free-standing outpatient surgery facility in the region, all in an effort to move out beyond the walls of the traditional hospital to deliver services where people live.
In 1977, Bethesda assumed sole responsibility for Hospice of Cincinnati, one of the first of its kind in the nation. Through its care for those who are dying and their families, as well as through its Conversations of a Lifetime program, Hospice has grown into a national model for grief support services as well as outreach education.
In the early 1990s, at a time well-before collaboration came into vogue, Wilburn pursued a relentless quest to improve the region’s healthcare through it. In 1992, he helped create the Health Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati, one of the first health collaboratives in the United States. He chaired the Collaborative through 2006.
In 1995, Wilburn worked with Sr. Myra Bradley, SC, then President of Good Samaritan Hospital, to form TriHealth. Together, they worked to merge the cultures of the two venerable institutions and agreed to split surpluses of the two hospitals 50/50, no matter how well each hospital performed in any one year. The result was both a financially strong health system and one with common goals that could do more together than apart.
Extending even beyond his 27-year career at Bethesda and TriHealth, Wilburn served on many national and community boards. In 1993 he was elected Chairman of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber Board of Trustees, the first ever from healthcare.
The real legacy of Tom Wilburn according to Prout is that Cincinnati in 2014 enjoys a national reputation for leading the transformation of modern healthcare because of “Tom’s ceaseless advocacy for new ideas that have become benchmarks for quality, value and service.”
“While a man of great pride, he is almost without personal ego,” John P. Williams, retired president and CEO of the chamber, wrote in the nomination letter for Mr. Wilburn. A coal miner’s son, Mr. Wilburn understood the value of quiet success, Williams said.
“He avoids the spotlight and encourages it to shine on others,” Williams said. “He is a tireless promoter of those organizations he believes in, but never of himself.”
Tom Wilburn died December 27, 2015, at age 87, surrounded by family.