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  • Staff File Photo by Grant Morris

    St. Joseph's Hospital President, Peter Davis is greeted with a hug by Therese Hoyt during a going-away tea on April 2010 at the hospital. Hoyt, who worked in food services at St. Joseph's said, "He is a sweet guy, a nice guy to work for, a great boss."
  • Correspondent photo by Jodie Andruskevich

    Peter Davis
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Dr. Larry Learner talks about Peter Davis during Tuesday afternoon's memorial service at St. Joseph's Hospital in Nashua.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Donna Roe wipes a tear from her eye with a kleenex during Tuesday afternoon's memorial service for Peter Davis, the former CEO of St. Joseph's Hospital.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Dr. Larry Learner, left, and Deacon John Martin read the call to prayer, E-l Malei Rachamim, for former CEO of St. Joseph's Hospital, Peter Davis' memorial service at the hospital, Tuesday afternoon.
  • Staff Photo by Grant Morris

    Kathie Rice Orshak talks about Peter Davis during Tuesday afternoon's memorial service at St. Joseph's Hospital in Nashua.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Davis, longtime St. Joseph Hospital CEO of considerable stature, dies

NASHUA – He once fought for rebounds against college hoops legend Lew Alcindor, but Peter Davis made his mark running St. Joseph Hospital with the sort of kindness that earned him the nickname “Gentle Giant.”

On Tuesday, many hospital employees wore black armbands to mourn their former leader. The armbands highlighted his initials and “54,” his basketball uniform number at the University of Pittsburgh.

Davis died the previous night at the hospital from complications related to cancer. He was 65.

Davis stood 6 feet, 9 inches tall. He not only had a sight perspective unlike people shorter in stature but, according to colleagues, he had the foresight to expand and improve St. Joseph’s services in a way no other CEO could have.

“He was a man of clear vision. He knew where we wanted to go,” said Sister June Ketterer, who selected Davis to run St. Joseph in 1985, when she was provincial superior of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, the order that founded and had long operated the hospital.

“He was the kind of leader who expected people to do a good job and gave them room to do their jobs,” Ketterer said.

Among St. Joseph’s many accomplishments since Davis took over as president: the hospital acquired physician services in the region; opened outpatient centers focusing on breast, cardiovascular and diabetes care; and grew to employ more than 1,480 people. He retired in July.

For former colleagues, it wasn’t so much what Davis accomplished. It was how he did it.

“It was always quite striking. Peter could talk to you for a minute and you knew it was genuine,” said Larry Learner, a pediatrician at St. Joseph. “It made him a real role model.”

Learner joined more than a hundred other current and former St. Joseph employees who celebrated Davis’ life at a service held in a hospital function room.

Davis remembered colleagues’ birthdays, the health of their in laws and the sports activities of their children. He had a sense of humor, and could also say “no” without offending.

He attended far-off funerals of employees’ parents and offered to arrange for care of their ailing relatives. He donated his Red Sox and Celtics tickets to charitable causes without fanfare.

Terry Nault, one of the hospital’s chaplains, recalled how working one Christmas morning, Davis approached her on a hospital floor and gave her a big hug. “Merry Christmas,” he told Nault, making a favorable impression.

Nancy Daigneault, an executive assistant in the hospital’s legal department, for three years couldn’t answer the phone whenever Davis called. She was too nervous to talk to her top boss. Then, at a Christmas party, she sat next to Davis and learned she had nothing to fear.

“He was the most kind-hearted man,” Daigneault said. “And I avoided him for three years. I regret that.”

Psychiatrist Michael McGee spoke of how Davis “never once sacrificed care” because of costs or other mandates.

Davis also made a mark a mile down the road from St. Joseph’s Kinsley Street campus.

On paper, Southern New Hampshire Medical Center President Tom Wilhelmsen was Davis’ competitor, but in real life, they were friends and collaborators, arranging the sharing of services between the hospitals.

“Peter Davis was a wonderful friend to so many people, and as his colleague for over 20 years, I am greatly saddened by his passing,” Wilhelmsen wrote in a statement.

“He was a gifted health care executive, a devoted husband and a proud father. Peter embraced the goodness of life and sought to make things right. He will remain in our memories for years to come.”

Davis didn’t envision managing doctors after graduating from college; he considered becoming a doctor.

He played basketball at University of Pittsburgh in the late 1960s, and once went up against Alcindor, a UCLA star who later took the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. After earning his diploma, Davis mulled studying medicine or law, but took the advice of a cousin and pursued work in hospital administration.

When Ketterer and a search committee interviewed Davis in 1985, they knew they had found the person to lead the hospital on what would become a historic period of growth, she said in a telephone interview.

Davis liked to joke that a headhunter had told him a group of nuns in Nashua wanted to hire him. “You sure you got the right Peter Davis? Why would they want to hire me? I’m Jewish,” he recalled last year.

Just as Davis announced his retirement, he publicly divulged he was battling lung cancer. In October, at a ceremony at which he received the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year, Davis said the cancer was almost in remission.

After the ceremony, Davis reviewed his career. “My role was to get people invigorated and that’s what I love,” he said.

Davis is survived by his wife, Donna; two sons; and two grandchildren.

Services will be at noon today at Stanetsky Memorial Chapel in Canton, Mass. Interment will be at Sharon (Mass.) Memorial Park.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or