Cure for nostalgia: Former Burnham workers to reunite

Cure for nostalgia: Former Burnham workers to reunite

CHAMPAIGN – Karen Faler worked at Burnham City Hospital for years. She still remembers the upbeat spirit and teamwork that united hospital employees even when times were difficult.

This summer, demolition crews leveled the hospital, which stood vacant at Fourth Street and Springfield Avenue for 14 years. But former employees plan to remember their old workplace with a reunion from 2 to 7 p.m. Thursday at nearby Scott Park.

"It's a reunion celebration to allow former employees, patients, medical staff and friends to gather to celebrate Burnham's 97-year history as a health care provider," Faler said. "We felt like we needed to have a celebration to close that chapter of history."

Organizers of the event include Julia F. Burnham Nursing School alumni, a Friends of Burnham committee and the city of Champaign, said Faler, an orthopedic nurse.

"The atmosphere at the hospital was very upbeat," she said. "We were very much a large team, and everyone moved between departments easily. Sometimes several generations worked there. And we were proud that we were always on the cutting edge of medical knowledge."

- Faler and other people who worked at the hospital said Burnham was a pioneer locally in performing total joint replacements, performing heart catheterizations and implanting stents, having an organized trauma unit and owning an ambulance service.

"That was my hospital," said Dr. Robert Brunner, an independent physician who's now retired.

Brunner, a family practitioner, said he attended graduate school at the University of Illinois and in the early years of his practice, he decided to return to Champaign-Urbana and practice with a group of independent physicians, including Dr. Richard Adams.

"We took care of people from conception to the grave," Brunner said. "It was great. I delivered babies, I took care of them, I took care of the moms, I saw the dads. You followed everyone. You developed relationships that you don't see in other medical practices. But then specialties got more popular, and obstetrics became more and more risky legally. I, along with hundreds of thousands of other family doctors, got out of the business."

From 1969, when Brunner started in practice in Champaign to the early 1980s, when he stopped practicing obstetrics, he raised his fee gradually from $500 to slightly more than $2,000.

"That's for nine months, the whole spectrum of care," he said.

"Burnham was a wonderful hospital," he said. "The service to patients was excellent, and the people who provided medical care were excellent."

Brunner and other physicians and Burnham personnel staged protests in the late 1980s when the city proposed selling the hospital.

"We marched in the streets," he said. "We got the sale delayed from October to January. There were all sorts of grandiose ideas about what Burnham could be, but I suggested that we just try to be a good city hospital and survive.

"It was a no-frills place, just a good hospital with a glorious history that dates back to the 1890s. What was very, very upsetting and still is today (is) it was psychologically and physically abandoned by the city," Brunner said.

Burnham and Mercy Hospital merged to form Covenant Medical Center under Mercy's parent company, ServantCor, and the Burnham building was eventually vacated.

Burnham opened in 1895 after a communitywide effort that was started by the Social Science Club of Champaign. It was named after a club member and major donor, Julia C. Burnham, whose descendants still live in the area today.

"It was an effort by the family to provide services for the community," said Newton Dodds, who is one of Julia Burnham's descendants. "For that reason it was special. It was known for the caring people there and, before it closed, for the nursing school. That school provided nurses for all the hospitals in the area."

The nursing school closed in 1971, but many alumni still live in the community and they've been very involved in planning Thursday's reunion.

"I was a student from 1961 to 1964, and we got an excellent education," said Rosemary Smith, who was born at the hospital and whose mother also graduated from the nursing school. "I'm not sure we realized how good it was."

Smith worked in the hospital's emergency room after graduation, and she remembers a time before technology took over.

"You had to look at someone and decide whether they were sick or not," she said. "You really had to pay attention. Now we have monitors."

"The staff took an interest in the students," said Linda Flesher, who attended the nursing school from 1955 to 1958. "We had staff members and students from all over the United States because the University of Illinois attracted students and their wives. We learned about practices all over the country."

"We gave our patients wonderful care," said Mary Jane Walden, who worked at the hospital in the 1960s. "It was very personal. We had elderly people living there for long periods of time, and we fed them. We were like a family."

She remembers that few things were disposable in those days, so hospital personnel "autoclaved" everything, "including our gloves."

Martha Curtis, who graduated in 1953, said she went to the nursing school because a local doctor, the father of a childhood friend, urged her to find a career for herself.

"I had visions of doing missionary work, and that's not how it turned out, but at least I had the right attitude," Curtis said.

Audrey Irwin worked in labor and delivery, helped deliver a lot of babies – and delivered a few herself.

"In 1949, I helped deliver the smallest baby ever delivered at the hospital (at that time)," Irwin said. "She weighed less than 2 pounds. She cried and I grabbed her. Several months later when my own baby was born, they brought her to see me. She was almost ready to go home. She became a nurse.

"A year almost to the day after she was born, I helped deliver the biggest baby ever born at Burnham (at that time), about 13 pounds. The same doctor delivered them both."

"What's missing today is the on-call experience," said Marjorie Letot, a student from 1948 to 1951 who also worked in the hospital's obstetrics department. "Students in obstetrics and surgery were on call. They don't do that today."

Faler recalled that the hospital building itself had some physical quirks, such as a tunnel connecting it to a nursing home across the street, and some shortcomings, especially for her orthopedic patients.

"The emergency room was a high point of activity, and it had a very old, tiny elevator and beds didn't fit on it," she said. "We had to be very creative."

Dr. John Schmale, who joined Christie Clinic in 1971, practiced at both Burnham and Mercy because he was a medical oncologist, and he watched them both change.

"There was tremendous local support for both hospitals," he said. "People had personal ties to their doctors and their hospitals. Now people go where their HMOs tell them to go."

Like Brunner, Schmale observed doctors evolve from generalists to specialists as technology became available. But Schmale said Burnham also opened its doors to family physicians who lived in other communities such as Arcola, Sidney and Rantoul.

The hospital had the area's first blood bank, and Schmale brokered an agreement that resulted in the formation of the organization that evolved into Community Blood Services of Illinois.

"Burnham and Carle had independent blood banks, and the issue was getting them to agree to go together to form the Champaign County Blood Bank, which finally happened in 1972 after a lot of roadblocks, jealousy and animosity," he said. "Burnham and Carle were both worried about their identity. It took a lot of finagling."

Faler said Thursday's event will give supporters of the old hospital a chance to share their memories and mark the hospital's importance in the community. Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart will mark the event by giving Fourth Street between University and Springfield avenues the honorary name Burnham Boulevard.

"Burnham had something special, and we believe the community is still benefiting," Faler said. "Physically, the building's no longer there and we need to bring closure. It's not like we're pining for something we don't have because there's great health care in Champaign-Urbana."

"This is about where we've been and where we have yet to go."

Tax-funded plant will be razed this year

CHAMPAIGN – In 1988, Champaign City Council members voted to build a new $5 million heating and cooling plant for Burnham City Hospital.

Even though the hospital's gone, the plant still stands at Third and Stoughton streets in Champaign. But by the end of the year, it will be gone too.

It's hardly been used.

At the time, Burnham administrator Peter Goschy said the new plant was necessary, even though the city was trying to decide the hospital's fate, to replace 40-year-old boilers and chillers and to expand the hospital's emergency power, incineration and waste disposal capabilities.

Prophetically, Goschy said the only case in which the plant wouldn't be needed is if the hospital building were to be demolished.

The construction was expected to take 18 to 24 months.

However, in 1989, while construction was under way, Mercy Hospital's parent company, Kankakee-based ServantCor, acquired Burnham, and many services were consolidated at Mercy's Urbana campus under a new name, Covenant Medical Center. ServantCor closed Burnham in 1992.

Those actions launched a series of different plans for the Burnham property that lasted more than a decade.

Finally this summer, the city gave up its search for a purchaser and razed the old hospital.

City officials say the heating and cooling plant will be next.

"The council gave us direction July 13 to demolish it," said Colleen Braun, assistant to the city manager. "We'll probably start in the next few months and have it down by the end of the year. We held onto it because we thought the shell might be valuable and someone might be able to retrofit it, but as we worked with consultants and development plans for the area, we realized it really has no useful purpose."

Braun said the plant was used "for a brief period," but she didn't know exactly how long.

Dr. Robert Brunner, an independent physician who practiced at Burnham, said the plant was an expensive mistake.

"It's a $5 million boondoggle," Brunner said. "They just got it online a few months before the hospital closed. It's a tax-paid-for affair."

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at

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