Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Outgoing St. Joseph CEO says Lexington changing for the better

Gene Woods, departing chief executive of St. Joseph Health
Gene Woods, departing chief executive of St. Joseph Health

When a search firm approached Gene Woods six years ago about applying to become chief executive of St. Joseph Health System, he hesitated. It was in Kentucky.

Woods and his family were living in Washington, D.C.. They had never been to Kentucky, and the 40-year-old son of an African-American father and a Spanish mother wondered if they would fit in and find community.

While interviewing for the job, Woods and his wife, Ramona, explored downtown Lexington and stopped in at Natasha's Bistro & Bar for dinner. "It was really a welcoming environment," he recalled. "We thought we might like it here."

They were back at Natasha's a week ago Saturday, and the place was packed. Everyone was there to hear the farewell performance of The City's lead singer and guitarist: Gene Woods.

Woods is leaving Lexington next month to take over a much larger Catholic hospital network in Dallas. Christus Health has facilities in 60 cities in eight states and Mexico and employs 30,000 people, including 8,000 doctors.

"I'm going to be focusing on my day job for a while," Woods joked last week when we met for coffee. I wanted to get Woods' perspective on Lexington, based on his relatively short but eventful time here.

Woods is proud of St. Joseph, which on his watch has built four new facilities, invested $80 million in technology, saved millions by streamlining processes and won awards for patient care. St. Joseph also has begun partnership talks with University Medical Center and Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare in Louisville.

Living in Lexington has been personally fulfilling for the couple and their sons, ages 10 and 16. "We've made some phenomenal friends here," Woods said. "My kids absolutely thrived. I had heard that Lexington was a great place to raise a family, and, boy, is that right."

Woods served on several boards, including Berea College and the Blue Grass Community Foundation. The family was active in the arts, including Ramona's work with Actors Guild and Gene's performing with The City, a band whose other members have day jobs that include architecture, business and journalism.

Woods said the civic work he is most proud of was helping with restoration of the Lyric Theatre, an icon in Lexington's African-American community. "I really believe strongly that the vibrancy of any community is its support for its arts," he said.

Community spirit has grown during his time here, Woods said, along with support for the arts and cooperation within the business community. "It has been a period of significant change," he said. "And the World Equestrian Games in some respects put a cherry on top."

Woods said Lexington has so many assets to build on, from excellent public and private schools and universities to a magnificent rural landscape. Early on a recent morning, Woods was running near his home and noticed horses grazing in a misty field. "I just stopped and took it all in," he said.

"I have lived in places, such as the Virgin Islands, that were physically beautiful, but Lexington has as awe-inspiring a beauty as any place I've ever lived," he said.

Woods said this city has most of the building blocks for future success. "This is a very easy place to live," he said.

There is little crime, it is easy to get around and people are friendly. But he said that while Lexington has done a lot in recent years to encourage and promote diversity, more could be done.

"I have always felt extraordinarily welcomed and comfortable in this community," Woods said. "But I think it's something you have to keep focused on. In order for Lexington to be perceived on the national stage the way it wants to be, I think there needs to be a continued commitment to diversity."

When recruiting minorities for St. Joseph, Woods said, "what I heard most was, 'What social networks am I going to get connected to when I come to Lexington?' There have got to be forums where people can feel a part of the community. And things to do."

Woods said a good start would be having more events downtown like last fall's Spotlight Lexington concert series.

"What was interesting to me when I walked around downtown was you had folks seemingly from all walks of life," he said. "People were enjoying each other, and I don't recall one negative incident. That speaks to the culture of this place. It's something you can build on — and other communities wish they had."