When it opened in 1947, Johnson County Memorial Hospital was like nothing that the people of this county had ever seen.

Stone steps led up to the grand main entrance. Inside, gleaming hallways and a comfortable reception area welcomed patients and their families to the state-of-the-art facility. People could get treated for major illnesses, have X-rays taken, deliver their babies in a sterile and safe environment, all without having to drive all the way to Indianapolis.

Bill Legan, 13 years old at the time, remembers how new and nice everything was during a public open house. Very quickly, the hospital became a centerpiece of life in the county, he said.

“You knew about everyone who worked there,” he said. “You felt like you were home when you went to the hospital.”

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The old wing of the hospital will start coming down in November, as Johnson Memorial Health starts construction of a new $47 million building that includes a new emergency department and outpatient services.

Those who spent time in the old wing, either as patients or as employees, remember it as a true community hospital. The hallways had a neighborhood feel to them, and that friendliness is what made it special.

“The thing about Johnson Memorial was that they gave the personal touch. Patients were treated like family. They were then, and they still do,” said Dr. William Province II, a longtime Franklin doctor whose family was instrumental in the founding of the hospital. “The nurses and the other support staff are really what made the place special.”

Even 12 years after retiring as a nurse, Shirley Newkirk can still picture every nook and corner of the hospital where she used to make her rounds. She worked for 47 years as a registered nurse, working in all capacities in the hospital.

The different wings, such as 1 Main, the hub of the hospital where many of the patient rooms were located, and the second floor delivery rooms and nursery, are clear in her mind. The small emergency room was located on the lowest level, just behind the kitchen.

“We didn’t have the emergency room manned like we do now, and have for quite a while. The nurse supervisor manned that, in addition to her other jobs. We had to call each physician, or the physician with that office if there was a partnership, to come in and see their own patients,” Newkirk said.

Small touches made the hospital a unique place to work, Newkirk said. A baker would come each night to make fresh bread and other goods for the hospital.

In the basement supply room, a seamstress would sit during the day sewing and repairing patients’ torn garments and gowns.

“She did all of that. That was really about the best service, because one person handled it all,” Newkirk said.

Every employee would chip in 10 cents from their paycheck, which went towards a fund to buy flowers for other employees who suffered a death in the immediate family. A babysitter service had been set up so that nurses could have someone to watch their babies.

“The thing that always impressed me about Johnson Memorial was that we were all one big happy family,” she said. “I made some very good friends there, and have excellent memories about it. Being a small community hospital like that, we treated our patients just like our families.”

Johnson Memorial Hospital was born in the early 1940s. After plans for Camp Atterbury were announced in 1942, community leaders started discussing facilities that would be needed to accommodate the influx of construction workers, military personnel and others who would come to staff the base.

One of the ideas was the need for a county hospital.

Before Johnson Memorial Hospital was built, most healthcare needs were met by local doctors. Franklin had a small hospital in the practice of the Province family. Dr. William M. Province founded the practice in 1867, and his sons Dr. Clarence Province and Dr. Oran Province founded a facility with three or four beds to provide surgical care.

Another small hospital on State Road 144 had five beds for patients. Small private physician practices had also been established throughout the county, where doctors made house calls to treat illnesses and minor issues.

But major health concerns required traveling to Indianapolis.

Legan, now 83, was born in Franklin, graduated from Franklin Community High School and from Franklin College. He was a teacher at Center Grove and Franklin schools, and lived in the community for 47 years, until he and his wife moved to West Virginia.

“I remember a couple of times I had to go up to Methodist Hospital because there wasn’t anything in this area,” he said.

More than two years of planning went into creating Johnson Memorial Hospital, before local officials finalized a plan for a small hospital with a 65-bed patient wing, 18-bassinet nursery, two operating rooms, an X-ray facility, emergency room and kitchen. Ground was broken for the new facility in 1945, and the hospital had a dedication ceremony on June 29, 1947.

Legan was 13 years old when the hospital opened, and remembers the excitement in the community was electric. The hospital had an open house to introduce people to its features, and he still remembers touring the facility. They saw the small waiting room when you first walked up the stairs and through the glass doors, and visited spotless, modern patient rooms.

“It was always a really nice hospital. That’s what sticks out to me,” Legan said.

Dr. William Province II, the great-grandson of William D. Province, was already familiar with Johnson Memorial Hospital by the time he was a child. His grandfather, Dr. Oran Province, was the head of surgery. His father, Dr. William Province, was the head of the medical division.

“I remember coming out to the emergency room with my father. There were no emergency room doctors, so doctors had to come out and take care of their own patients,” he said.

Dr. George Small, who has a medical practice in Greenwood, has practiced medicine for almost 50 years. But in 1958, he was hired to work as an orderly at Johnson Memorial Hospital. While assisting the medical staff at the hospital, he was mentored by a group of physicians who taught him how to be compassionate and attentive to patients.

“I learned how doctors treat patients,” he said. “I knew all the old doctors, and they were some fascinating, interesting people.”

Once he became a physician himself, Small spent many hours in the hospital treating patients who came in with maladies. He delivered countless babies, and scrubbed up when a patient had an operation to be ready to assist the surgeon, just in case.

Every time he came to the old hospital, he knew what to expect.

“Friendly people. Everybody was friendly, and they still are,” Small said. “So many hospitals you go to, you get treated differently. Here, it was in a friendly way.”

As Johnson Memorial expanded and grew to the west side of its property, the old wing of the hospital transitioned from patient care to offices, programming rooms and space for the Discover Child Development Center, a community daycare facility.

As plans for a new emergency department and outpatient services facility came together for the hospital, it made the most sense for the old building to come down, said Larry Heydon, president and CEO of Johnson Memorial Health.

Demolition is slated to begin in November. But with so much history tied to the structure, officials also want to recognize and preserve that heritage, Heydon said.

“(This building) means a lot of different things to different people. Many folks reference being born here, they’ve received care here. I worked there for 17 years, so it has a combination of feelings for people. It just depends what tenure you came through,” Heydon said.

Those who have worked in the old hospital, and those who have been treated there throughout their lives, will maintain fond memories of the building. But there’s great excitement about this next phase in Johnson Memorial Health’s history, Newkirk said.

“It wasn’t being used for patient care anymore,” Newkirk said. “We have to progress, and keep moving forward. If you don’t move, you’re standing still, and that’s bad.”

At a glance

The old Johnson Memorial Hospital building will be demolished in November to make room for part of a $47 million construction project. Here is what is planned for the hospital’s Franklin campus:

  • 20,400-square-foot rehabilitation facility on the west side of the campus, which will include physical, occupational, speech and rehabilitational therapy services. Rehabilitation services will be moved from a satellite facility on U.S. 31 back to the main campus
  • 17,400-square-foot emergency department, with a new ambulance drive and bay
  • 33,000 square feet for other outpatient services, such as radiology and laboratory services on the ground level of the building
  • New wellness suite offering counseling and other services for local employees for wellness services on the second floor of the new addition, with room for expansion
  • Current emergency department will be replaced by a new maternity services area, which will move from elsewhere in the building

Johnson Memorial Hospital History

Here is a look at the history of Johnson Memorial Hospital:

1942: The federal government announces funding for civic projects made necessary by the military mobilization of World War II. With Camp Atterbury being built in Johnson County, local leaders put together a list of potential projects, including a hospital.

Late 1942: County commissioners form a committee to put together a plan for a county hospital.

June 6, 1945: Ground was broken for the new hospital.

Oct. 21, 1945: The cornerstone for the hospital is laid.

June 29, 1947: More than 1,000 people attend a dedication ceremony for the new hospital.

1957: The first hospital addition increased the hospital’s capacity from 65 to 128 beds.

1970: Another hospital expansion added more than 60 beds.

1980: New patient tower, emergency entrance and space for offices is built.

1984: An X-ray lab and emergency room, plus 120 new beds are added to the hospital.

2003: A new cancer care center, women’s care center and main entrance opens

2013: Surgical center expansion adds two operating rooms, expanded the two existing operating rooms and added new private pre- and post-surgery recovery rooms.

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.