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John Ferguson Jr., pioneering 'visionary' and former CEO of NGHS, dies at 82
John Ferguson
John A. Ferguson Jr.

LeTrell Simpson still remembers when John A. Ferguson Jr. asked her to stay behind after a hospital board meeting more than 50 years ago.

Simpson, a cub reporter for The Times, wasn’t sure if this impromptu meeting in May 1970 was about a story tip or about something she had written.

It was neither: That night, Ferguson painted her a picture of what the next 25 years would be like for the Hall County Hospital, which is now the Northeast Georgia Health System.

“Without exception, everything he said to me that day has come to pass and more,” said Simpson, who started work for Ferguson the next month as the public relations director.

Ferguson, a former CEO and president of Northeast Georgia Health System, died Sunday, Jan. 23. He was 82.

Simpson worked 34 years for Ferguson, a “very bright, very intuitive” man who “had such compassion for providing care but also for relationships with the employees in the organization.”

He knew everyone from the sub-basement to the top floor and was a humble man not out to seek accolades, Simpson said.

“It was his vision that, in my opinion, has brought the health system to what it is today,” Simpson said. “Now … he would be quick to tell you that other people have certainly made major contributions, but I think he laid a tremendous foundation for building this regional health care system.”

Joining the then-named Hall County Hospital in 1964 as the first hospital engineer in the state, Ferguson became the hospital administrator four years later.

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John Ferguson Jr. sits as his desk in an archival photo. Starting with the Hall County Hospital in 1964, Ferguson would spend 40 years expanding the hospital later known as Northeast Georgia Health System. Provided by NGHS.

Only 28 years old, Ferguson was the youngest hospital administrator in Georgia.

“As CEO, John was successful, not only in helping the organization grow through new technologies and navigating safely as new payment methods evolved, but also in shaping the health system’s culture through his genuine respect for the physicians, board members, employees and volunteers who helped the organization care for their patients,” according to Ferguson’s obituary. “He was a highly sought-after and respected leader because of his vision, intellect, humor, and ability to spot and grow the talent of those around him.”

When Ferguson joined the Hall County Hospital, there were 147 beds and 430 employees. NGHS now boasts roughly 10,000 employees and 799 licensed beds across four hospitals.

A decade into Ferguson’s job at the top, he had almost doubled the number of acute-care beds, including a 10-bed intensive care unit, 10-bed cardiac care unit and a 20-bed mental health unit, according to NGHS President and CEO Carol Burrell.

“Once, in an interview about the financial success of the organization under his leadership, he modestly quipped, ‘Well, insurance and the government started paying us, so for the first time we weren’t just trying to stay out of the red. There was a time when patients often paid in eggs or whatever they had, and the hospital bought everything at Army Surplus,’” Burrell said in a statement. “With all respect for John’s modesty, the system continued to thrive after huge cuts to those payment models. That growth was possible, in large part, due to John’s efforts to keep the institution nimble and ready for the future.”

In 1986, the hospital went through corporate reorganization in which the medical center was leased to a holding company, Northeast Georgia Health System, and led to more regional health care coverage.

Burrell joined NGHS in 1999, recruited by Ferguson from Jacksonville Florida to be the NGHS’ primary care network executive director. That network is now known as Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

“John’s leadership was magnetic, his vision for healthcare services in this region was palpable and his enthusiasm was contagious,” Burrell said in a statement. “I grieve John’s passing as a friend and as a member of a very grateful community, and my heart goes out to his wife Lydia and their family.”

A scholarship endowment in Ferguson’s name was established in 1994 to help people interested in health care careers.

Ferguson, of Gainesville, retired from the hospital system in 2004. That year, he laid out a $400 million capital expansion plan and led the selection of the Braselton hospital’s future site, Burrell said.

Simpson and former chief of medical staff John Darden both used the word “visionary” to describe Ferguson’s efforts for health care across the region.

Darden said Ferguson was easy to get along with and “really prided himself in the level of dedication of the employees in the system.”

He is survived by his wife, Lydia Waddell Ferguson, and four children.

A celebration of life will be held at 3 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, at Gainesville First United Methodist Church.

A reception will be held at the Chattahoochee Country Club immediately following the service.

The family has requested that people attending the service wear a mask.