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Chuck Bianchi receives his hon­orary degree from Hillsdale College in 2007. His daughter Eliz­abeth Bianchi rests on his lap. Courtesy | Doug Coon

Chuck Bianchi had a saying: “I don’t know the right way to do things, I just know what works.”

His uncon­ven­tional yet visionary lead­ership allowed him to see the best in people and inspire them to achieve more than they thought possible. 

Bianchi died peace­fully at his home on Feb. 15 from com­pli­ca­tions of prostate cancer and kidney failure at the age of 78. He is sur­vived by his wife Michelle and four children, including junior Eliz­abeth Bianchi.

Whether it was during his 16 years as CEO of Hillsdale Com­munity Health Center (now Hillsdale Hos­pital) or his years of service throughout the com­munity, Bianchi is remem­bered for his service-ori­ented heart, natural lead­ership abil­ities, and his honest, matter-of-fact char­acter. He is also the only local recipient of an Hon­orary Doc­torate Degree from Hillsdale College. 

Moving to Hillsdale in 1991 to run the hos­pital, Bianchi trans­formed the facility overnight. He entered the role with only a few days of cash on hand and impending closure on the horizon, according to family members. Through his vision and ability to inspire and push the people around him, Bianchi retired from the job 16 years later with $14 million in the hospital’s bank account. It took him 30 days to turn the facility from failing to cash-positive.

Not only did he turn the medical facility around, but he made a lasting impact on Hillsdale through a schol­arship program he created that put more than 90 local stu­dents through college and into suc­cessful medical careers.

Bianchi was born in Norwich, New York, on May 27, 1942. He grad­uated from high school as a mediocre student and worked as an orderly at a local hos­pital where he cleaned dishes. Soon, he made friends with a fresh-out-of-school radi­ol­ogist tech­nician who con­vinced him to go to school to become a radi­ol­ogist himself.

Quickly falling in love with the material, Bianchi led his class. After school, he moved between dif­ferent hos­pitals in New York and Mass­a­chu­setts, quickly climbing his way up the ladder.

The work that came to define Bianchi’s career earned him com­men­da­tions from the gov­ernors of Mass­a­chu­setts and Michigan, along with one from the United States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, according to family members. 

One of Bianchi’s traits stands clear to those who knew him: his ability to see talent in people before they saw it them­selves. He had high expec­ta­tions and was hard on those he loved, but opened doors for people they would have never tried to open.

Jason Walters said he knows this all too well. 

During his high school years in Hillsdale, Walters worked full time as an EMT. After Walters’ grad­u­ation, Bianchi inter­viewed him for a role “that I was not qual­ified for,” he said.

But Bianchi saw some­thing in him and he was hired. Walters, however, said he hung around the wrong crowd and got involved with drugs. A year into his job, Walters butted heads with his super­visor and was going to be fired, so he quit. 

Two weeks later, he was in jail for an attempted robbery. 

Walters served 10 years in prison for the crime, but kept in touch with Bianchi throughout. According to Walters, Bianchi partly blamed himself for the sit­u­ation, as he didn’t help him sooner. But there was hope: the hos­pital CEO promised Walters a job if he behaved in prison. 

A decade later, the promise was ful­filled. Walters worked in various depart­ments at the hos­pital, working his way up to patient care coor­di­nator in the emer­gency department.

“My story is a good example of the type of person that he was,” Walters said. “The energy that kept him inter­ested in me through all those years was that he was mad at himself. He didn’t catch and stop me, and I was one of his people — he would do any­thing for his crew.”

Chuck Bianchi on a fishing trip with Jason Walters. Courtesy | Jason Walters

The two developed a close rela­tionship. Father figure, mentor, and best friend are all terms Walters uses to describe it. Bianchi even insisted that he bring his girl­friend to his office to be vetted.

Walters is now married and runs four busi­nesses, including the Local Eatery downtown. He gave one of the eulogies at Bianchi’s funeral on Feb. 20 at St. Anthony Catholic Church. 

“He was good at getting people to do more than what they thought they were even capable,” Walters said. “He found the indi­vidual that had a good work ethic and moral compass that just needed some better direction. He was good at iden­ti­fying those indi­viduals and putting them on the right path, it was an art that he had that acquired.”

Walters has a quote from Ronald Reagan on a white­board in his restaurant that he believes sums up Bianchi: “The greatest leader is not nec­es­sarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

These lead­ership abil­ities may have come nat­u­rally, but Bianchi had a long career of practice before ending up in Hillsdale.

His first job post-radi­ology school was at a com­munity hos­pital in Syracuse, New York, where he worked as the special pro­cedure tech. One day in 1965, an out-of-town radi­ol­ogist visited the small hos­pital and observed Bianchi’s work, quickly asking him to become the chief x‑ray tech at his hos­pital in Platts­burgh, New York. 

Bianchi agreed to move, largely because of the ideal hunting and fishing in the Adirondack Moun­tains. This love for the out­doors would occupy his free time and retirement in the years ahead. He moved his family up north, a few dozen miles from the Canadian border, and bought a house. 

He later moved out of New York and became a radi­ology admin­is­trator at one of the largest hos­pitals in Mass­a­chu­setts, St. Vincent Hos­pital. He led a team of 70 – 80 employees, and they took more than 80,000 X‑rays a year.

He started a school of radi­ology at St. Vincent, teaching stu­dents the ins and outs of the pro­fession. The school moved to the local com­munity college and Bianchi kept teaching. He went on to earn teacher of the year. 

But a problem arose. Bianchi did not have the proper edu­cation for this role, and for that, the college wanted to fire him. The stu­dents, however, unan­i­mously threatened to withhold tuition if Bianchi was fired. The admin­is­tration relented.

Like his stu­dents, people looked up to Bianchi throughout his life and sought his instruction. His wife, Michelle, said it was because they trusted him and loved him deeply. 

“He had people around him always; they would seek him out,” Bianchi, who serves as the Hillsdale probate court judge, said. “Even in his later years, he would say ‘Why are these people calling me? I’m almost an 80-year old man!’”

During his time at St. Vincent, Bianchi was flown to coun­tries like Denmark, Germany, and Sweden to look at designs of radi­ology floors. Back in America, Bianchi worked with archi­tects and builders to redesign his floors with more pro­gressive designs. His inno­va­tions helped transform the way hos­pitals in America lay out their radi­ology depart­ments to this day.

For years, Bianchi moved up in his roles, even­tually becoming assistant director of the hos­pital in the early 1980s. He was respon­sible for all inpa­tient and out­pa­tient care. He even won the pres­ti­gious Oliver Merrill Award for Out­standing Con­tri­bu­tions to the Field of Radi­ology in Massachusetts.

In 1981, he was asked by the Platts­burgh, New York, hos­pital, where he had left 10 years prior, to come back, but this time as a vice pres­ident. He returned to upstate New York and even­tually became chief oper­ating officer at the hos­pital, which is now called the Cham­plain Valley Physi­cians Hospital.

In 1987, Bianchi was asked to become CEO at a failing local hos­pital in Great Bar­rington, Mass­a­chu­setts, called Fairview Hospital. 

“He would save dying local hos­pitals. He really focused on local com­mu­nities,” his daughter, Hillsdale College junior Eliz­abeth Bianchi, said. “He got out of the state hos­pital game because he wanted to focus on smaller, local places.”

Fairview hadn’t turned a profit in more than 10 years and in Bianchi’s first year as leader, it paid off its debts and turned a profit of $1,800. 

“He was really happy about that,” Eliz­abeth Bianchi said with a laugh. 

He left the once-sinking Mass­a­chu­setts hos­pital with $1 million raised and the title of “best hos­pital in the system.” 

A call came in December 1991 about another failing hos­pital in a small town called Hillsdale. Seeing the oppor­tunity to buy land on which to fish, hunt, and raise beagles, he applied for the job.

Bianchi’s lack of proper edu­cation bothered him throughout his life, but when inter­viewing for the Hillsdale job, he beat out a Harvard graduate for the role.

“I don’t have the edu­cation. I don’t have the degree. I just know what’s right,” Michelle Bianchi said her husband would retort. 

Once he got the job and moved to Michigan, Bianchi soon bought “his second love”: a cottage on a channel that con­nects to Lake Erie. 

“He loved, loved being on the big water,” Michelle Bianchi said. “He was an avid walleye fisherman.”

Eliz­abeth Bianchi said she fondly remembers the trips to the lake­house when she and her father would blare music by Elvis Presley and Abba.

Those who worked under Bianchi didn’t always have it easy, but the tough-love was for the bet­terment of the guest experience.

“Hillsdale Hos­pital would not exist in its current form were it not for Chuck Bianchi’s vision and lead­ership,” said Janet Marsh, asso­ciate vice pres­ident of human resources for Hillsdale College. “Chuck resisted mul­tiple offers to merge with other systems so that our fiercely inde­pendent, local hos­pital would be there to serve the com­munity for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

Marsh reported to Bianchi when she served as director of human resources at the Hillsdale Com­munity Health Center. She called those years “some of the best of my career.”

In his first year at Hillsdale, Bianchi hired 25 new doctors and turned the oper­ation prof­itable in just one year. 

Just as important to Bianchi as bottom lines was the culture of the hos­pital for the employees. 

For instance, he turned the standard cafe­teria in the building into a restaurant where fam­ilies and members of the com­munity would come every day for lunch. 

Bianchi paid for the hos­pital cook, Stephen Hickman, to attend culinary school and become a chef. In time, the cafe started pro­ducing high- quality meals and developed the feeling of a restaurant. 

Each day, the line for lunch would wrap through the halls and the envi­ronment was warm. Fam­ilies of doctors and employees would come eat during their loved one’s shifts, fos­tering a family-ori­ented envi­ronment. Bianchi himself would dine there each day and con­verse with the com­munity members.

“You can’t under­stand the value of people from the com­munity eating alongside the doctors that work on them,” Walters said. “And the value of employees eating with their fam­ilies in the middle of their shifts.”

The food was better than sur­rounding restau­rants and the prices were lower, according to Walters. Bianchi dis­played a sign that said their meals were 50 cents cheaper than McDonald’s value meals. 

“He did so many uncon­ven­tional things,” Walters said, referring to the decision to invest in a cook to transform the cafe­teria. “How many hos­pital CEOs can share a story like that?”

Per­fecting the envi­ronment that his workers and guests expe­ri­enced was vital. He made a point to per­sonally read every comment card that came through the hospital.

“He created a culture there,” Eliz­abeth Bianchi said. “It was very familial and he made everybody know they were cared about.”

Those who knew Bianchi often recall how he treated everyone the same, regardless of status or position. “He was very, very just and caring to everyone,” Eliz­abeth Bianchi said.

His wife said he could identify “with both the CEO and the common man.”

Chuck Bianchi. Courtesy | Michelle Bianchi

“And he appre­ciated both of them equally,” she said.

When the hos­pital was under­going ren­o­va­tions, he moved his office into a trailer in the parking lot and refused to move back until everyone else moved into their offices first.

Bianchi’s heart was evident in his cre­ation of a schol­arship program through the hos­pital called Tech­ni­cally Advanced Per­sonnel, which over time sup­ported 90 local stu­dents at college. 

The high school stu­dents inter­ested in schol­ar­ships would take classes where they became cer­tified EMTs and cer­tified medical assis­tants. The program was pur­pose­fully tough in order to weed out can­di­dates. Upon com­pleting the classes, those who suc­ceeded would receive jobs at the hos­pital and even­tually receive schol­ar­ships to go college.

“The purpose of the program was to mold and grow his own people,” Walters said. “Chuck was really good at getting the most out of people.”

Hillsdale College Dean of Men Aaron Petersen saw Bianchi’s com­passion through schol­ar­ships when his then 3‑year-old son Aidan suf­fered a trau­matic incident in 2004.

Petersen’s young son was standing on bleachers at a football game when he fell backward and plum­meted 20 feet toward the pavement.

A local high schooler named Sean was walking under­neath the bleachers when Aidan fell. Sean reached out and broke the child’s fall, undoubtedly saving him from life-altering injury and pos­sibly death.

“When Chuck heard about that, he called my wife and I,” Petersen said. “He said he was moved by what the young man did to save my son and that he was going to reward him with a scholarship.”

This is a perfect example of Bianchi’s com­munity-mind­edness and “strong sense of taking care of his own,” Petersen said. 

Michelle Bianchi said people would come up to them fre­quently to thank Bianchi for giving them a chance. 

“People came up to us all the time and said, “You gave us our start. I wouldn’t have done this without you. I would have never gotten my degree,’” she recalled.

The dynamic that Bianchi built created a strong bond among the staff. A statement from current Hillsdale Hos­pital CEO J.J. Hod­shire credits Bianchi’s lead­ership for a “true turn­around” of the facilities. 

“He led the orga­ni­zation out of some of its toughest financial cir­cum­stances, starting his role as CEO when the hos­pital had just a few days cash-on-hand,” Hod­shire said. “In an era where the number of rural hos­pital clo­sures increased so sharply that the federal gov­ernment inter­vened with new leg­is­lation, Hillsdale Hos­pital stood strong under Bianchi’s leadership.”

After retiring from the hos­pital, Bianchi could not sit still. He advised several local busi­nesses and served as a member of the Hillsdale Kiwanis Club, Hillsdale Preparatory School Board, and Hillsdale Sal­vation Army Advisory Board.

“He was like a 24/7 admin­is­trator and he had to keep doing stuff,” Eliz­abeth Bianchi said, laughing. “He also just loved to serve and wanted to help people all the time.”

Bianchi struggled with health problems dating back to 2008 when he overcame a grim diag­nosis of prostate cancer. Since that remarkable recovery, he dealt with various health issues, like dia­betes and kidney problems. But he always did what he loved, like shooting, fishing, and spending time with loved ones.

Bianchi will be remem­bered for his lead­ership and inspiring others to achieve great things. 

“He really just nat­u­rally saw the good in people and believed in them,” Eliz­abeth Bianchi said. “Those people who he thought could do some­thing, he was hard on them and he held them to high expec­ta­tions. But that was the way he knew how to get results, and it worked.”