In 1970, doctors, nurses and administrators opened the doors to Whidbey General Hospital for the first time.
And then they stood around waiting for their first patient, Bob Zylstra recalls.
When a patient finally appeared, he was a man from out of town who wasn’t very sick at all, but he got some very attentive care nonetheless, Zylstra said with a chuckle.
It may not have been the most exciting case, but it marked the start of both a community hospital and the career of a man who guided the essential institution for 29 years.
AS THE first CEO, Zylstra worked tirelessly through a period of exponential growth of Whidbey General, as well as complex changes in health care. It was a job that required a lot of late nights and a wide variety of skills.
Mignon Zylstra, his wife of 60 years, said he even had to be a taxi driver and drive nurses to and from the hospital during snow storms, which made for some very long days.
“And they didn’t forget his kindness and dedication to the hospital,” she said.
For his role in shaping medical care on the island and for compassion that extended beyond the doors of the hospital, the Whidbey News-Times awarded Zylstra the 2017 Best of Whidbey Publisher’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.
“The lifetime achievement award is given to those who demonstrated great dedication and gave back in a way that changed the direction of the community for the better,” said News-Times Publisher Keven Graves.
Previous recipients of the award were former News-Times publisher and co-owner Wallie Funk and, last year, former mayor Al Koetje.
“Bob Zylstra is definitely joining an esteemed group, and is a fitting recipient of the honor,” Graves said.
ZYLSTRA, WHO is 83, is the oldest of four brothers; the younger brothers are Ray, Mel and Roger. They remain close, literally. They all live on Whidbey Island and for the last decade they’ve met bright and early for coffee in Oak Harbor more mornings than not.
Their koffee klatsch now meets at Whidbey Coffee, their new hangout after the closure of the Daily Grind.
They talk politics, fishing, local news, doctors’ appointments and, of course, family.
“It’s just good to get together,” Bob Zylstra said. “I’m thankful we’re all here.”
The Zylstra brothers are part of one of Oak Harbor’s pioneering families. Their great-grandfather arrived in 1896 and homesteaded. Their parents are Henry and Gertrude Zylstra.
Bob Zylstra says that he and his wife now live 30 feet above his old bedroom; their condo happens to be built on the site of his family home.
OAK HARBOR resident Debbie Skinner said her father, the late Ted Zylstra, and Bob Zylstra are first cousins and remained close, even rooming together at Whitworth College — where they were pranksters and Bob Zylstra was nicknamed “Animal.”
“People can infer what they want from that,” she joked.
She has many fond, idyllic memories of “Uncle Bob.” She remembers her father, Uncle Bob and other members of the extended family raking in countless smelt, then enjoying bonfires on the beaches and the pan-fried fish.
The cousins waterskied in the bay and went ice skating when Dugualla Bay flats froze over.
“He is one of the dearest, most talented, compassionate, soft-spoken but strong men that I have ever had in my life,” she said.
AFTER COLLEGE, Bob Zylstra worked for a time as business manager for Whitworth, then he and Mignon moved to Anacortes so he could work as assistant administrator for Island Hospital.
He got his chance to return to Whidbey Island after the community decided to build its own hospital in Coupeville. The designs for the hospital were already completed before he was hired as CEO, but he was able to help guide the construction and even dug the first shovel of dirt on the project.
Whidbey General Hospital also took over the ambulance service on the island. Before that it was run privately.
Zylstra loved the job, he says, which could be both rewarding and challenging.
Because it was a community-owned hospital, Zylstra answered to an elected board. He created budgets and kept abreast of ever-changing health care laws. One of the most difficult aspects of the job, he recalled, was recruiting doctors to come to a small, rural hospital.
He was there as the hospital expanded both physically and in the number of personnel.
IN FACT, Arlene John-son, a 20-year former administrator at the hospital, says Zylstra was instrumental in the hospital’s impressive growth and its accreditation with JCAHO.
“He wanted to have high-level health care on the island and he did everything he could to make that happen,” she says.
Part of Zylstra’s success, she says, was that he always kept a true open-door policy and was well known throughout the hospital.
“He had a presence in each department,” she says. “I think that’s pretty powerful for an administrator. No one doubted that he cared.”
He was also respected statewide, she says. He served on the Hospital Association Board for both the state and district. He was chairman of the Northwest Hospital Council — and became the executive director after retiring — and served on the board of the Washington Casualty Company.
Arlene Johnson and her husband, Dave Johnson, presented the lifetime achievement award during Thursday’s sold-out Best of Whidbey banquet at the Whidbey Golf and Country Club.
LOCALLY, ZYLSTRA was active in Rotary International and was a recipient of the Paul Harris and Joe Hopkins awards. And he was an elder at the First Reformed Church and participated in the Navy League.
Zylstra says he couldn’t have been able to accomplish so much without the help of his “wonderful wife, Mignon.”
The couple had three children — daughters Heidi and Wendy, and a son, Scott, who passed away. The couple will celebrate their 60th anniversary this summer.
“Mignon had to put up with my schedule while raising children and still managed to be encouraging,” he said.
“She gets the credit for supporting me all those years.”