Author’s note: This is the fourth part of a multi-part series about the origins of Central Peninsula Hospital, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in June. In parts 1-3, battles between Soldotna and Kenai ran afoul of each other in their efforts to create a hospital for the central Kenai. More dust would have to settle before actual construction could commence. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
On the evening of Oct. 29, 1962, 15 months after a multi-community coalition had been formed to establish a hospital for the central Kenai Peninsula, the corporation known as the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Association (CKPHA) held a special meeting to select the building site.
The Site Committee had narrowed its choices to four — one adjacent to the construction site for the planned Kenai Central High School, one near Mink Creek just east of Mile 4.5 of the Kenai Spur Highway, and two in the vicinity of Sports Lake in Ridgeway.
Finishing in the voting with a two-to-one margin over the second-place choice was a 40-acre parcel called “Kenai A,” where today the Peninsula Oilers baseball park stands, just southeast of the intersection of Lawton Drive and Tinker Lane.
Almost immediately, the rift that had been generated in March, when a CKPHA board consisting almost entirely of Kenai residents was elected, grew into a chasm.
Dr. Paul Isaak, Soldotna physician and a founder of the hospital project, believed that centrality of location was crucial. The Kenai site, he said, was neither the geographical nor the population center of the area to be served. That center, he asserted, was Soldotna.
Shortly after this time, Isaak made the acquaintance of Milton W. Eckhaus, owner of the Los Angeles-based Hospital Designing and Building Company. Isaak and Eckhaus began a multi-year correspondence — initially a purely professional relationship that evolved into a strong friendship — and through their letters they hashed out the ever-changing details of Isaak’s hospital hopes and dreams.
By February 1963, Isaak was confiding in Eckhaus, in whom he had found a sympathetic ear and, he hoped, the future designer and builder of the hospital. “Our hospital association,” he wrote to Eckhaus, “has gotten no further since I talked to you, and it is doubtful that they will ever accomplish anything.” He began openly contemplating a new hospital effort, apart from the CKPHA.
Eckhaus urged caution. He told Isaak it was vital to involve the public. Local residents, he said, must have a strong financial stake in such a project in order to entice funding sources.
But a month later, after the CKPHA’s second annual membership meeting, Isaak was more dismayed than ever. Only 46 people had attended, he told Eckhaus. Interest in the project was plummeting, as was the energy of CKPHA membership, which only a year earlier had numbered nearly 400.
“It is now quite hopeless to depend on any action from this group,” Isaak wrote, “and I am fairly well determined to do something on my own.”
Be patient, Eckhaus said. He had witnessed such scenarios before. “You described a familiar pattern of interest by a community,” he told Isaak. “We have found that in most areas there is an initial upsurge of enthusiasm which wanes with the passage of time until the group is reduced to a handful of individuals. But generally it is that handful that proves to be the important nucleus for getting the job done.”
Isaak, however, continued his drift from the CKPHA.
In a letter to Lloyd Morley of the Alaska Department of Health & Welfare, he explained his exasperation and said he was spearheading a new hospital movement. In a moment of understatement, he told Morley, who had been an early CKPHA consultant, “I’m sure that this effort has come to you as somewhat of a surprise.”
The CKPHA itself sought to sustain momentum. Board members resumed fundraising plans, sought major business contributions for its “modern 26-bed hospital,” revealed an architect’s conception of the finished facility, and hired a project manager.
The project manager, an Anchorage radio/TV personality named Merrill Mael, released a flurry of announcements — each one in ALL CAPS and rife with exclamation marks — attempting as much as possible to keep CKPHA efforts firmly planted in the public consciousness.
At one point, Mael, in an effort to reconcile the differences of opinion concerning hospital location, called a meeting between Dr. Isaak and his medical partner Dr. Elmer Gaede and two members of the CKPHA board.
At first, there achieved cooperation. Each side agreed to hire its own outside consultant to survey the area and recommend the best location. But when the idea was taken to the full board, its members rejected this idea and opted instead to have Mael hire only a single consultant.
On Oct. 16, Mael was instructed to “engage an unbiased, qualified firm to investigate and study [Kenai A]. If [that location is] found unsuitable, recommend an alternate location, providing specific reasons as to the judgment in both cases.”
If there was a proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, it was this decision — no matter how innocuous it may have seemed at the time.
Mael consulted Anchorage physicians and hospital administrators and asked them to recommend a reputable firm to do the study. Then on Oct. 18 he picked up his telephone and called the man who had received their heartiest support: Milton W. Eckhaus.
When Isaak was told who had been chosen, he offered his approval without revealing his own Eckhaus connection.
Mael was ecstatic. He was making real progress for the CKPHA, and he had Isaak’s blessing.
Finally, the site location would be settled for good. Finally, Dr. Isaak would be back in the fold. Finally, fundraising would be revived. Finally, the communities would be unified in purpose.
A brand-new hospital seemed practically a foregone conclusion.
He rattled off a super-enthusiastic letter to the board, beginning with: “Blow the whistles! Ring the bells! Progress!”
By the end of the November, Eckhaus’s study was complete. By early December his conclusions had been rejected.
Later in December, Isaak and Gaede were called before the board, the members of which, Isaak said, “spent three hours criticizing the consultant’s report and insisting that it was our ethical and moral obligation to go along with their location [of Kenai A].”
CKPHA board member Dick Morgan wrote to Eckhaus to express his disappointment and disapproval. He complained that Eckhaus had failed to explain any real problems with Kenai A and had based his conclusions on conjecture rather than “hard, defendable facts.”
About a week later, Eckhaus fired back. In a three-page, typed, single-spaced letter, he said the unsuitability of Kenai A lay not in its physical nature but in the fact that it was not centrally located for most hospital users: “My experience and judgment tell me that if a hospital is not located in an area considered to be the geographical center of population, then it would not serve the best interests of the communities involved.”
In a separate letter, Eckhaus told Isaak: “I am sure that I have made no new friends in the Kenai area … I do not believe that anyone could have made a report which would have been acceptable to the Board unless it contained a recommendation the Board wanted to hear.”
“Although Mr. Mael blames me for part of the failure,” Isaak wrote months later, “I had no choice whatsoever in choosing the consultant. I had only agreed to go along with his recommendations.”
By January 1964, Mael had been fired and Isaak was hatching his own plans, including the creation of a new corporation: the Peninsula General Hospital Association (PGHA). In February, a PGHA press release announced that Isaak and his new board of directors had selected a property in Soldotna and were expecting to start construction in the spring.
The property — based on the recommendation of Soldotna surveyor and chair of the PGHA site committee, Charlie Parker — was 5 acres of Jack and Dolly Farnsworth property located near the Lutheran Church inside the highway junction in Soldotna.
The property was available as two 2.5-acre parcels at a cost of $6,500 per acre, for a total of $16,250 per parcel. The total price would later be trimmed to an even $30,000.
Then at 5:36 p.m. on March 27, 1964, the Great Alaska Earthquake jolted Southcentral Alaska, destroying roads and bridges between Soldotna and Seward and Anchorage. It disrupted communications and killed power. It liquefied lowlands in Anchorage and tore apart sidewalks and buildings downtown. It generated ocean waves that devastated parts of Seward and Whittier and took lives.
As the state struggled to reassemble and shore up its infrastructure, plans for any “ordinary” construction were shelved. Fundraising and lending possibilities dried up.