Updated Health care industry remembers Cooper CEO Sheridan #8212 ‘John was the guy who could get it done’

Beth Fitzgerald//September 29, 2014//

Updated Health care industry remembers Cooper CEO Sheridan #8212 ‘John was the guy who could get it done’

Beth Fitzgerald//September 29, 2014//

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(Editor’s note: Story was updated at 4:30 p.m. with comments from Robert Garrett, chief executive of the Hackensack University Health Network.) Dr. Paul Katz said he knew from his first interview with John Sheridan that he had found the perfect partner.

It was 2010, and Katz was meeting with Sheridan about becoming the first dean of The Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, the first new medical school in New Jersey in three decades.

Sheridan essentially had him at “Hello.”

“I came away thinking that this was someone I could really work with,” Katz said. “Beside being just a very smart guy and very affable, he spoke so passionately about what he was trying to help accomplish in Camden.

“It was infectious. I know from the first time I met John that this was going to be extraordinarily enjoyable, and I was correct.”

The school welcomed its first class in 2012, another remarkable achievement in the life of Sheridan, a quiet but forceful behind-the-scenes leader who brought the political skills honed during a career in Trenton with him to Camden.

Sheridan, 72, who died early Sunday morning with his wife Joyce, 69, in a house fire at their Skillman home, was remembered by friends and colleagues as the consummate professional — extremely talented and effective, but far more interested in getting things done than in taking the credit.

RELATED: Cooper CEO/President John Sheridan dies in house fire

Katz said it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Sheridan’s role as president and CEO of Cooper University Health System and the revitalization of Camden.

“To me, John was, ‘Mr.  Inside’ and he never really got credit for all the things that he did, nor did he ask for it,” Katz said. “John was the guy always behind the scenes, whether it was in Trenton, or in Camden or with different groups with whom he had relationships.

“John was always the man who was really driving the changes and he did so quietly and did so professionally and he did so without flair and ostentation. I always felt it was important to thank John on a regular basis, and I did so privately and publicly, because he never sought credit for all the great things that he did.”

George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey Democratic Party leader and Cooper board chairman who is credited with having the vision to bring a medical school to Camden, was quick to praise Sheridan for all he did to drive that dream.

“There was never a day that went by when he wasn’t focused on what Cooper could do to help revitalize a city that he loved,” Norcross said.

David Knowlton, the chief executive of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute who was deputy health commissioner when Sheridan was transportation commissioner in the administration of former Gov. Tom Kean, said Sheridan’s willingness and ability to work with people set him apart.

“John was the guy who could get it done,” Knowlton said. “John was an implementer and he did it by forming coalitions and making friends.”

Something that isn’t always easy to do amid the always contentious political world.

“He was a legend, just a wonderful, wonderful person,” he said. “Nobody was too small to go get guidance from him.”

At Cooper, Sheridan and Norcross “were really a team of two,” Knowlton said.

“The person who was able to implement George’s vision was again the practical, very common sense approach of John Sheridan. I think he deserves a lot of credit. A lot of the vision belongs to George Norcross, but a lot of the implementation in getting it from A to B belongs to John.”

Dr. Jeff Brenner, whose work leading the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers has earned him a national reputation for improving inner city health care, said Sheridan’s personal mentorship and the financial and organizational support from Cooper has been invaluable to his work.

“(He) used his time, his clout, his reputation, talent and connections to be a force for change in the city,” Brenner said. “A few people come along and change the history of a place and John has done that for Cooper and for Camden.”

Brenner cited Sheridan’s “political connections, his team building skills, his ability to work patiently through complicated problems. He was such an incredibly nice person and so thoughtful: He made friends and allies wherever he went.”

Richard Miller, chief executive of Virtua, which has health care facilities in Camden, said Sheridan was at his best when he was in a group looking for a solution to a problem.

“(He) had a quiet way about him, a statesman-like way to him,” Miller said. “He was a very good listener — he would never jump on topics quickly, he would listen and absorb information and then always calmly discuss it.”

Miller said the importance of the Cooper/Rowan medical school can not be understated.

“Is a real positive for us in South Jersey, and John played a key role in that,” he said. “When you try to do things on that scale, there’s always politics involved. And John being a diplomat and a statesman, he had to be able to sell that at the state level in a positive way. And I think he was integral in getting the medical school built in Camden.

Betsy Ryan, the chief executive of the New Jersey Hospital Association, said Sheridan was instrumental during his six-year term on the association’s board that ended in 2014.

She said along with the medical school, Sheridan’s accomplishments include the partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center (“bringing in a nationally renowned cancer leader into the state”) and leading a major construction campaign that transformed the area around Cooper (“It just looks like a whole new place”).

“John not only cared about Cooper, but he cared about the city of Camden,” Ryan said.

As a major hospital in Camden, one of the poorest cities in the state, Cooper is considered a “safety net” hospital that provides uncompensated charity care to the poor and uninsured.

“He was a strong advocate for our safety-net hospitals,” Ryan said. “He would push for more adequate reimbursement for the safety-net providers who see a lot of patients who cannot afford to pay and do not have insurance.”

Alexander J. Hatala, chief executive of the Lourdes Health System, said it’s difficult to define Sheridan’s vast legacy.

“We lost a valued leader who was a true partner in helping to create a lasting, meaningful impact on the lives of those we serve in Camden and in Southern New Jersey,” he said. “He helped transform our regional health care system for the better.

“John was fully committed to health care, education and economic development. He was a great partner in the city of Camden and his advocacy efforts toward its revitalization will be felt for many years to come.”

Robert Garrett, chief executive of the Hackensack University Health Network, served with Sheridan on the board of the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals; Garrett is  immediate past chair of  the group.

“He was an incredibly great listener as well as a contributor,” Garrett said. “He would listen very attentively to  peoples’ opinions around the table. John might not have been the first to speak up, but I’ll tell you, when he spoke, people listened, because what he had to say was very significant.”

Garrett said Sheridan had a knack for keeping his eye on the big picture. After a detailed discussion of an issue, “When he spoke, he would focus on the bottom line — ‘let’s cut to the  chase’ — type of thing, and that also is a real sign of an effective leader.”

And, like others, Garrett remembers Sheridan as “a true gentlemen — a class act who was respectful to everyone.”


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