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‘Will Rogers Hospital is closing; 140 workers told of jobs lost’

(Enterprise headlines, Oct. 29, 1975)

Lucky for our readers and for local history archives, it was reporter Evelyn Outcalt who covered the story.

Evelyn was the best of the best in our old newsroom when the Enterprise was located at 76 Main St. We were all pounding out stories on our now-vintage typewriters: Remingtons, Royals and Coronas, later changed to Smith Corona.

It was music to my ears with the tap-tap-tap of the keys, the bell tingling when the words neared the edge of the page, and then the reporter would have to hit the little lever to return the carriage to the left margin as it also rolled the paper up one notch for a clean run across the page.

So, here is Evelyn’s story about Will Rogers Hospital:

“Will Rogers Hospital will close on December 31, the employees were told this morning.

“Dr. Lawrence Early, medical director, made the announcement as he was directed to do in a telephone call received late last night ‘from some close to the situation.’

“The closing will be a severe blow to the already depressed area economy. Saranac Lake will lose a more than $4 million payroll — one of the biggest in the area.

“It is not clear today whether the O’Donnell Research Center, part of the Will Rogers operation, will also close.

“Dr. Early said he did not know because he had not been in direct communication with the board of directors. Administrator James Gardner is in New York City and could not be reached.

“Other employees said they ‘are still in a state of shock’ and cannot think. At present there are 140 full time and 20 to 25 part time employees.

“The telephone operator at the Will Rogers Fund in New York City had not yet been informed of the closing, and Lois Lewis, the director, was not available this morning.

“There have been rumors for some months that the hospital would close, and for several years, the annual fund drive has been falling short of the $1-1/2 million annual operating expense.

“In 1973, the fund campaign produced $676,270, less than expenses for the year.

“The patient census ran between 35 and 40 patients this past summer, but it is now down to 25 ‘because of the situation.’

“Will Rogers grew from a cottage opened in 1925 in the village and supported by the National Variety Actors, for patients with tuberculosis. Over the years the center expanded to its present size and was named for the late actor. In 1936 the O’Donnell Research Center was founded. In 1962 the Will Rogers Summer Institute of Teaching and Training was inaugurated.

“Although at first all its patients had tuberculosis, in more recent years it has expanded its treatment to all the respiratory diseases.

“Will Rogers patients have included the famous. In recent years the restaurateur Vincent Sardi, Lila Lee and Bert Wheeler of the movies, and the baseball player, Larry Doyle. (Larry had moved to Trudeau Sanatorium and was the last patient discharged when the San closed in 1954.) Others, quite famous, have come, been cured and left without most villagers being aware of their presence.

“The movie industry took over the major support of Will Rogers and has annually conducted audience participation drives. In conjunction with the collections in theaters, a movie trailer showing the buildings and grounds at the hospital, the staff and the patients would be shown. Then the theater lights would go on and the canisters would be passed through the audience for contributions. (Been there, done that in the beautiful, 1,100-seat Pontiac Theater.)

“For the past several years, contributions have dropped. At the kickoff meeting of the 1974-75 campaign, for instance, speaker after speaker stressed the imperative need to increase collections.

“An annual drawing, contributions by industry employees, and some memorial gifts, rounded out the sources of income.

“As the circumstances worsened, the industry tried different and unusual ways to raise money. A golf tournament in Denver, Co., attracted stars Jan-Michael Vincent and Ben Johnson, football player Craig Morton, TV actors Greg Morris, Bob Conrad and others and earned $20,000 (equivalent today — $95,000) for the Will Rogers fund. A farmer who was unable to play in the tournament contributed 100 bushels of wheat, valued at $400, and appealed to other farmers to do the same.”

(Part II next week — more history and Will Rogers today)

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