By Richard Gaines
---- — John Wolfe, a transplanted Californian who arrived from the U.S. Army in 1974 to join the Cape Ann Medical Center practice and became a leading defender of Addison Gilbert Hospital, died suddenly Wednesday morning at his computer at his home in West Gloucester.
He was 70.
“We were at Fort Knox (in Kentucky) then, and he was open to exploring,” his widow Susannah recalled in a telephone interview. “It came to Gloucester and Santa Barbara.”
She said that Santa Barbara posed hurdles due to the energy crisis — its patient base needed to drive long distances — and Gloucester called.
An internist, Wolfe became chairman of the city’s Board of Health soon after settling in, and led a campaign to fluoridate the water. But he seemed most destined to forge and lead a fierce defense of AGH when the local hospital’s future seemed especially insecure; it was 2003, after the arrival of Stephen Laverty to become chief executive officer of Northeast Health System.
Northeast had “merged” with AGH in 1994, but began stripping services on Laverty’s watch, intending to build a regional medical center based at Beverly Hospital. The Cape Ann community, which had given generously to create a $30 million endowment plus an art collection that went into the care of the Northeast trustees, looked on with increasing anxiety.
The breadth and depth of the community resistance was reflected in a public meeting called by state Sen. Bruce Tarr in the City Hall auditorium on May 7, 2003, that was attended by more than 300 people — but not Laverty. In his place, he deployed AGH’s CEO. But Wolfe, speaking for his Cape Ann Medical Center colleagues who worked on a contract with Partners Health Care but were on the NHS medical staff, said Laverty was a man “we do not trust.”
A week later, 26 AGH physicians — including Wolfe, their leader — purchased an unprecedented full page ad in the Times and its sister paper in Beverly to issue a professional challenge to the trustees; a warning, really, against using the endowment to build Beverly Hospital at the expense of AGH.
Rebutting claims by Laverty that the physicians had been disloyal by referring patients to competing hospitals, the physicians wrote that “... if patients cannot go the Addison Gilbert, they will have other options to consider besides Beverly Hospital.”
A year later, with the mistrust multiplying, Tarr and Mayor John Bell organized an ad hoc Task Force for the Preservation of Addison Gilbert. Wolfe provided inside information and expertise on the behind the scene machinations at NHS.
“People tend to forget how close we came to losing Addison Gilbert Hospital,” said Tarr. “The task force worked because John (Wolfe) brought knowledge to the effort. It depended on that for its implied moral authority.”
The task force which met regularly drew NHS to send representatives to answer questions from time to time, and quickly, the towns of Cape Ann, advised by Wolfe, built a working knowledge of health care law and came to be a worthy counterweight to the corporate force of NHS.
“It was almost like we were Minute Men assembling on the green.” Tarr said.
“He was soft-spoken but never shy,” Bell said of Wolfe.
Regina Villa of Manchester, a nurse who served on the task force and now serves on a citizens’ advisory board for Partners Health Care, said, “I think he was unusual for a physician because he was so broadly-based, with a bent for public policy.
“He was much more outspoken than most physicians because he already had facts at hand,” she said, “and he really didn’t care whose ox he gored.”
“Whenever John attended a meeting, he spoke with such clarity and truth about what was going on, and we were presented with a lot of misrepresentation and confusing information,” said Peggy O’Malley, a founder of Partners for AGH, a broad-based watchdog group that sprung up in the aftermath of the merger in 1994. “He did so because he never forgot what the hospital was all about — taking care of the people of Cape Ann.”
“He was my primary care physician,” said Beverly Quint, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Rockport. “He was so kind after my husband passed away 31 years ago.
“He treated each patient as if it was a book he had just opened, and had gained his full and entire interest,” she added.
Wolfe retired four years ago, and with Susannah began spending their winters in Puerto Rico, where he counseled alcoholics and drug abusers. Stateside, he also counseled physicians with substance abuse problems after his retirement. Together, they had two children, Stefan — born while Wolfe was still in the Army stationed at Fort Knox — and Tye, born at Addison Gilbert.
But his blood still boiled over what he considered the shabby treatment of AGH and the people of Cape Ann by the NHS trustees — especially when contrasted with the royal treatment the trustees afforded Laverty even after the Department of Public Health found in 2006 that Laverty, who was not medically certified or trained, had been witnessing surgical procedures without permission at Beverly Hospital.
Laverty resigned under fire in 2008, but it was not until 2010 that financial statements filed with the attorney general’s office showed the trustees paid him more than $1 million as separation payment.
Wolfe wrote to the Times that “we read ... that Laverty was allowed to resign with a golden parachute of more than $1 million, allegedly because there was no ‘cause’ for firing him.
“I would say the Northeast board had cause not to hire him in the first place,” Wolfe added, “and long before 2009 certainly had cause to fire him.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.