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May 6, 2013

My pal Brucie, savior of Sidney's hospital

By Big Chuck D'Imperio
The Daily Star

---- — Ask any hospital administrators if they’ve ever heard of a closed hospital in New York state that has ever been re-opened. They will say, “Impossible.” In a half-century of records, you’d be lucky to find any.

But there is one.

The Hospital in Sidney closed “for lack of funding” many years ago. Sidney took a lot of smart-alecky jabs for that. “Gee, they can’t even keep a hospital there!” “What’s next? Are they going to close the school?” “Hey, no wonder it closed. Look at its name!” Well, for sure the hospital did have a quirky name: “The Hospital.” Nothing fancy. That was it.

But the closing of The Hospital was no funny matter for the residents of Sidney. A hospital is the beating heart of any small community. All of a sudden, fear was afoot in Sidney. Any small backyard accident could turn into a parent’s worse nightmare. Any uneventful pregnancy that all of a sudden became eventful brought anxious thoughts to moms-to-be of hurried drives through a snowstorm to Oneonta or Binghamton. A senior citizen, who’d relied on the trusting staff at The Hospital for decades, now faced the confusing and daunting predicament of changing family doctors at age 70 or 80.

It was not a good time for Sidney.

Enter Bruce Wilhelm. I knew Bruce for 40 years. My dad gave Bruce his first job as a teenager at our family grocery store. Bruce lived five houses down from us and went to school with six of my siblings. He always called himself “the ninth D’Imperio.” After college, Bruce began a long career in hospital administration. And this led him to Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown.

Mike Stein, vice-president of development at Bassett, recalled meeting Bruce.

“We started nearly the same time at the hospital,” Stein said. “Bruce was the first friend I made there. I was a guy from the city, and Bruce, well, he came from Sidney. We hit it off immediately and stayed friends for 30 years.”

Bruce was one of the most liked and most likable people I have ever met. He was my greatest audience, too. When I saw Bruce I would say, “Hi ya, Brucie,” and he’d dissolve into fits of laughter. Why, I have no idea. He was just like that. Immediately our conversations would turn to the good, old days. He was jovial, funny, armed with a quick wit and a quick mind.

After decades in administration at Bassett in Cooperstown, the fates of Bruce Wilhelm and that of his former hometown hospital collided. Dr. William Streck, president and CEO of Bassett Healthcare Network, tapped Bruce to shepherd the closed Sidney medical facility back to its former vital condition.

Bruce tackled the task with a seriousness coupled with a missionary’s passion for his work, for Bassett and for his beloved hometown. “To open up a closed hospital was unheard of,” Dr. Streck told me. “Bruce was key to its reopening. It was an incredible achievement.”

On Feb. 5, 2008, Bruce cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the former The Hospital, now called Tri-Town Regional Hospital. He was named its first CEO.

Sidney got its hospital back. Sidney got its heart back.

Bruce Wilhelm died on April 16, 2012, after a battle with esophageal cancer. He was 52 years old and left a wife and two children.

Last week more than 100 family, friends, classmates and colleagues joined for a celebration of his life at his hometown hospital in Sidney. After a yearlong fundraising campaign that netted more that $150,000, the TTRH Specialty Services Wing was officially named in honor of Bruce Wilhelm.

Lorna Wilhelm reflected on what her husband would have thought of the day. “Bruce would have loved this. Our kids, Kristin and Brett, are here. And to see so many of his Sidney Class of 1977 classmates here, so many friends and all his co-workers from Bassett, well, I just know he would be absolutely thrilled at what this day means to all of us.”

In closing the ceremony, Dr. Streck reminded us all of the final words he spoke almost exactly one year earlier in the eulogy he delivered at Bruce’s funeral. “I said then that we can all take with us from this day two words that once made us all smile and will forever bring a smile to our faces. Those two words are ‘Bruce Wilhelm.’”

You are missed, Brucie. Rest in peace, old buddy. Your hometown thanks you.

I’ll catch you in two. ...

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.