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Fort Smith Sister of Mercy earns kudos for business savvy

Published: April 18, 2009   
Maryanne Meyerriecks
Of the St. Edward Mercy Health System improvements, Sister Judith Marie Keith, RSM, said, "I was the catalyst, but my board was the success." For 12 years she has worked at Trinity Junior High School.

FORT SMITH -- In 1972, Sister Judith Marie Keith, RSM, then the newly appointed president and CEO of St. Edward Hospital, decided to build a new building on a 40-acre field of dreams on the east side of Fort Smith.

"People said, 'You're too far out, people won't come,'" Sister Judith Marie said. "We had big mega giant Sparks (Hospital) and little St. Edward about to collapse."

With the help of a strong board of trustees and the civic community, St. Edward Hospital was built, and patients came to its new location on Rogers Avenue and 74th St., now the most heavily traveled road in the city.

Because of Sister Judith Marie's leadership at St. Edward Mercy Health System until 1997 and her current role as director of the Trinity Educational Trust at Trinity Junior High School she was recognized March 23 in the 25th anniversary issue of Arkansas Business as one of the top 25 women business leaders in the state.

In its article, Arkansas Business stated, "St. Edward won praise for innovations in rural health care, and by Keith's retirement was one of the state's top hospitals in terms of revenues."

Sister Judith Marie gives most of the credit to her board of trustees.

"When I took over, the board of trustees was all nuns, and I felt it was incumbent on us to have a board composed of people from the civic community, to identify the leaders and involve them in the mission," she said. "With a very strong board of trustees, we decided we were going to build one of the most innovative hospitals in the country."

As the new hospital prospered, the nearby rural communities of Paris, Waldron and Ozark asked for help. The board decided to build three satellite hospitals with 22 beds each -- Paris N. Logan Mercy Hospital, Mercy Hospital of Scott County and Ozark Mercy/Turner Memorial Hospital.

After a 25-year career in hospital administration, Sister Judith Marie retired in 1997, planning on taking a long sabbatical, but she was soon approached by the principal of Trinity Junior High School to do some strategic planning. She accepted because "as a religious that's what I was supposed to do. I thought I'd stay a couple of years, but we've been very successful with development."

Once again, Sister Judith Marie formed a strong board of trustees comprised of community leaders to help her achieve her vision.

The initial goals were to improve the building in the former St. Scholastica Academy at St. Scholastica Monastery and fund technology innovations that would keep Trinity competitive. They built an activities center in 2003, built practice fields and tennis courts and established technology, library, faculty improvement and capital improvement endowments.

There are now two scholarship programs, the Catherine McAuley Fund for students in their three partner schools, Christ the King, Immaculate Conception and St. Boniface, and the recently established Adopt a Student Program.

The Adopt a Student Program is for Catholic students attending parish religious education classes who are primarily first- and second-generation Americans.

Sicard, a Trinity graduate and treasurer of trust, credits Sister Judith Marie's leadership in building Trinity's enrollment, improving its education and facilities and reaching out to needy students.

"She's a true servant leader in that she inspires people with her compassion for the less fortunate, her compassion for children and the next generation," he said. "What differentiates her from a lot of visionaries is that most people don't know how to execute a plan to realize that vision. She is a visionary leader but also very disciplined and determined to make it a reality."

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