A Tribute to Joe Warner
Printed Fall 2002, Heritage Operations Group Corporate Newsletter The Enterpriser.
He headed one of Illinois' oldest nursing home companies, helping it grow from a small local operation to a statewide network with 32 facilities and more than 3,300 employees. Along the way, he also became one of the state's most influential voices on long-term care. He topped the call list when lawmakers needed advice on issues ranging from funding formulas to regulatory reform.
As president and CEO of Heritage Operations Group, he shepherded a $2 million renovation project that provided new corporate offices and also helped kick-start the rebirth of downtown Bloomington. For a decade, he controlled the Republican Party in one of the state's hottest GOP strongholds. He steered local races and hosted dignitaries that included then-President George Bush and presidential nominee Bob Dole. He also lent his time to a variety of community-based initiatives, including the current effort to raise $3 million for a Challenger Learning Center at Bloomington-Normal's Prairie Aviation Museum.
But those achievements aren't what co-workers, friends, and colleagues remember most about Joe Warner, who died July 21st when his private plane crashed shortly after take-off at Central Illinois Regional Airport. Their reflections are more fundamental, rooted in chats around the water cooler rather than meetings in the boardroom. While they admire and respect his many public accomplishments, they say his real legacy is more one-on-one. They recall his humanity and compassion, his honesty and sincerity, his dignity, and fairness. Mostly, they remember his genuine care for people - family, residents, caregivers, administrators, coworkers, political allies, and foes, even strangers on the street. Warner, they say, was a nice guy who finished first.
"He believed in the dignity of the human spirit," said Cheryl Lowney, Heritage's then executive vice president of operations and a friend and colleague of Warner's for over 30 years. "Joe Warner believed in every human being, and that's how he ran things." State Sen. Bill Brady said that approach was the key to Warner's success, whether in the nursing home industry, politics, or community fund-raising efforts. "He was a lover of mankind," said Brady, a longtime friend, and political colleague. "He enjoyed life and always worked to bring out the best in people. It's the nature of the business he was in. If you don't care about people, you shouldn't be in it."
And, from the halls of Central Illinois nursing homes to the halls of Congress, people are returning Warner's sense of caring in the wake of last summer's tragedy. "We are blessed to have even known him," said Judy Madara, a nurse at Heritage of Streator who worked with Warner for 28 years. U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson called Warner "one in a million," and said he has never worked with "anyone more effective or a nicer guy" in his two-plus decades in Springfield and Washington. "I would say, unequivocally, that Joe Warner was one of the most intelligent, effective, compassionate and classy human beings that I ever had the privilege to be associated with," Johnson said.
Born July 3, 1942, Warner grew up on a farm near Shannon, a village of about 800 southwest of Freeport. He earned a bachelor's degree in business from Northern Illinois University and later an M.B.A. from the University of Illinois. But while his education and horizons broadened, his values remained steeped in rural America.
"He was a farm boy from up north," said Bill Froelich, chairman of the board of Heritage Operations Group and one of the people who hired Joe Warner. "He believed the values he had as a kid growing up were important values." That small town, where everyone knows your name and people watch out for each other, left a lasting mark on Warner. "He was very comfortable to be with," said Vela Hogue, who worked with Warner for 26 years, the last six as the administrator at Heritage Health of Minonk. "When he was headed up to visit, I didn't feel like the 'big boss' was coming. He was an all-around good guy." Former Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart chuckled when he recalled the lengths Warner sometimes went to as he connected with people. "He was always so friendly. You could be a half a block away, and he'd run over just to shake your hand," Smart said.
That friendliness was genuine, not an act, Lowney said. She recalled a Heritage worker who wanted to check on Warner's dog after the accident. The two had talked about their pets, and he knew Warner's dog would be missing its master. "There are lots of people who cared a lot about Joe Warner," Lowney said. "The guy just had an impact at every stop along the track."
Indirectly, the Vietnam War brought Warner to Heritage Operations Group. After graduating from NIU in 1965, he came to the Twin Cities to work for Country Companies. But he was drafted in February 1966 and spent two years in the Army at Fort Rucker, Alabama. When he got out of the service, he returned to Bloomington and worked briefly for a small advertising agency. Then, in December 1969, he accepted a job with Heritage. "I took it until I found something I wanted to do," Warner said in a 2001 interview with The Pantagraph. "I found I loved working with the elderly."
The union of Warner and Heritage spanned more than 32 years and brought unparalleled growth and visibility. Founded in 1962 by Craig Hart, William Froelich, and Thomas P. Jefferson, Heritage had just three facilities when Warner joined the company in 1969. Today, the company owns 22 nursing homes, manages ten, and operates two as joint ventures.
Froelich said Warner, who meshed well with the three owners, was a quick study on nursing home issues. "We had great faith in Joe," he said. "Early on, we were involved in day-to-day operations, but it wasn't long before we knew we had a fantastic employee who could handle our affairs for us. Joe and the three of us always seemed to get along really well together," added Jefferson. "We never had any spirited disagreements. Joe was a leader who respected us as the board, and we respected him as the CEO."
Over the years, their jobs became more complex because of the company's growth, dwindling government funding, and cumbersome regulations. Bob Dickson, retired director of operations for Heritage, called Warner a visionary whose energy and expertise were keys to the company's growth. "He was always looking to grow the company," Dickson said.
While he pressed ahead on expansion and lobbied for funding and regulation reform, Warner's primary focus remained unchanged, Madara said. "He truly cared. He cared very much not only for the residents but for their families and the employees," she said. "Everything he did was because he wanted Heritage and the people who had anything to do with it to know that they were safe and well cared for." That approach sets Heritage apart from other nursing homes, Madara said. "There is no comparison. It's a patients' home. They care about patients' rights and patients' needs. Those rules come from the top," Madara said.
Lowney applauded Warner's ability to maintain the delicate balance between the patient's needs and the company's profits. If the scales tip too much in either direction, she said, both ends can suffer. "You had to have sort of a split personality when running the business side of such a tremendous human service business. If you don't care, you aren't going to be successful on the business side. You have to be able to combine a passion for the elderly with the business side of things, and he did that with a special skill," Lowney said. Warner was equally skilled at foyering for the nursing home industry, Brady said.
His prime targets were government funding and regulations because both ultimately affect the quality of patient care. Less money means fewer services, while excessive regulation requires paperwork that takes away from time that should be spent with patients. "He was the most highly regarded person in the state when it came to advising Democrats and Republicans alike on nursing home issues," Brady said. Though often frustrated by the legislative side of the nursing home industry, Brady said, Warner always maintained his glass-half-full approach. "He was an eternal optimist," Brady said. "If the nursing home industry wasn't going well, he always made the most out of it."
The Republican Party
Warner's lobbying efforts for nursing homes dovetailed easily with his passion for politics. He was a longtime precinct committeeman in Normal and served ten years as chairman of the McLean County Republican Central Committee. Brady called him "a Republican through and through with high principals." Those principals led Warner to step down as county GOP chairman in 2000.
Brady was locked in a tight primary race with Johnson and Twin City dentist Jeffrey Jones to replace Tom Ewing in Congress. Warner backed Brady's bid for the nomination, but rules prohibit the party chairman from endorsing specific candidates. Rather than break the rules, Warner resigned the post and threw his support behind Brady, who ultimately lost the race to Johnson.
"Even when he was working against me, he did it with dignity and style," Johnson said. "Then, literally within hours of the election, he called to congratulate me, offered to help in any way he could, then came through."
Brady, who was appointed to replace retiring state Sen. John Maitland last spring, said he and other McLean County Republicans would miss Warner's insight, counsel, and support. "I miss the opportunity to pick up the phone and bounce something off of him," Brady said. "I miss the advice he gave me and the comfort of knowing he was there with me. I think it's a great sign of respect that you always wanted to be like him."
The Middle Ground
Lincoln was the great emancipator. Bryan was the great orator. And, to everyone who knew him, Joe Warner was the great compromiser. It's a tribute that flows easily any time his name is mentioned, whether among employees, bosses, political associates, or even mere acquaintances. Rather than an iron fist, Warner ruled with compassion and empathy, they say. Instead of "my way," he sought the middle ground.
"The ability to compromise is what made him so successful," said Craig Hart. "He had strong opinions, but he never tried to force them on people. That was true in his dealings with Heritage, in politics, and in Springfield. He could get along with everybody." Others think his art of compromise was rooted in the same core values that guided his care about people.
"He was an easy-going guy and didn't like to say no," said Dickson, Heritage's retired head of operations. "He was always concerned about people's feelings. He liked people and liked to make them happy. So if there was a way to compromise, he would." Sometimes, he may have compromised so much that people missed the compromise. "I can't think of too many times I didn't get my way," joked Vela Hogue, administrator at Heritage's Minonk facility. Or there's Brady's predicament: "The only time we had arguments was when he wanted to compromise more than I did," he said.
Flying had become a passion for Warner, passed along from his son, Jeff, a captain for United Airlines. It also will become another of his legacies.
Smart said an advisory committee has decided to honor Warner in some form when the new Challenger Learning Center opens, in honor of his fund-raising efforts. Under Warner's leadership, the project is now more than halfway toward its $3 million goal. The tribute honoring his leadership was held on October 10, 2002, at the Radisson Hotel in Bloomington.
Joe Warner had a very extended circle of friends, but family was at the center of his universe. He doted over his grandchildren and was a devoted husband, father, son, and brother. Shortly before his accident, he and wife Rose Stadel attended family reunions both in Tennessee [the Warner family] and Illinois [the Stadel family]. Warner regarded those occasions as very special. His close friends say he was happiest when he was with family.
From long-term care and politics to education and urban renewal, Joe Warner left a mark on Central Illinois. Along with that legacy, friends and colleagues say his death also leaves a distinct void:
"It leaves a big hole at the museum with the Challenger project, a big hole in the nursing home industry, and a big hole in Republican politics."
- Former Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart
"He was a great advocate and was always honest and forthright. Not only that, but he promoted the community he lived in. His death leaves a tremendous hole in the Central Illinois area. He was a leader in the party, in the nursing home industry, and the business community."
- U.S. Rep Tim Johnson
"You can have other staff who are certainly going to continue the way Heritage should be run, but you're never going to replace a guy like Joe. I still can't believe that we've lost him, but what he helped build will keep us going."
- Heritage co-owner Thomas P. Jefferson
"There's no question that Joe Warner's unique spirit left a mark on Heritage. We have an able and experienced management team. Our business is fine."
- Steve Wannemacher, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for Heritage Operations Group, Inc.