Former CEO of Hendricks Regional Health Shares Passion for People, Faith & Community

Photographer: Amy Payne

Dennis Dawes was in graduate school in 1972 when he began working as an administrative intern at Hendricks Regional Health (back then called Hendricks County Hospital). For two years, he reported to Harry Haver, the hospital’s CEO, doing various projects while completing his graduate studies at the IU Medical Center. When he graduated in 1974, Haver announced he was retiring.

Fresh out of grad school and just 28 years old, Dawes recognized that he was wet behind the ears, but he decided he’d apply anyway as what did he have to lose?

He landed the coveted title and held onto it for a whopping 38 years until his retirement in 2012. Throughout his 40 years at the hospital, he witnessed a massive amount of change. For starters, when he was hired in 1974, the hospital employed roughly 200 people who were all in one location in Danville. When he retired in 2012, however, that number had grown to 1,700 employees spread across seven different hospital locations.

Sometime in the 1980s, the name changed from Hendricks County Hospital to Hendricks Community Health. Years later, it changed again to Hendricks Regional Health (HRH), which it still is today.

When Dawes was hired, roughly 90 county-owned hospitals existed in the state. Today only 20 remain — HRH is one.

As hospital CEO, Dawes was responsible for the entire entity, which includes the employees, the facility and everything else that goes on within the hospital setting.

“The buck stopped at my desk,” says Dawes, who relied on a huge staff that consisted of doctors, nurses, administration, cooks and housekeepers. “It’s a big operation. A big undertaking.”

It takes lots of moving parts to keep it all running smoothly because a health care facility is more than just a business.

“You’re involved in taking care of people’s lives,” Dawes says. “I always made sure we had the right equipment, staff and doctors so that we cared for people in as quality of a fashion as we could given the services we offered.”

Those services evolved throughout the years. In the early days, there was only a part-time emergency room. Today, however, HRH has two full-level, fully-staffed ERs (one in Danville and one in Brownsburg). Technology in operating rooms has also drastically changed, as has the budget.

“The operating budget when I began was $3.5M,” he says. “Today it’s probably $400M. Also, when I began, we had two or three different payment mechanisms whereas today there are around 60. It’s a dramatic shift.”

Even though times were simpler four decades ago, Dawes distinctly recalls the stress of running a hospital at the tender age of 28.

“It was definitely overwhelming,” Dawes says. “Soon after I was named president, I remember telling my wife, ‘I’ve had a headache for six straight months.’”

Even so, he adjusted and settled in, taking comfort in the knowledge that if the hospital’s board of trustees had confidence in hiring him, he should have confidence in himself.

Dawes’ undergraduate degree came from Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, where he earned a degree in religion. Prior to graduate school, he worked with an organization called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship where he met his wife Yao-Hsin. After they married, Dawes was hired by the Indiana Department of Health where he traveled around the state talking primarily to high school students about health careers because in the 1970s there was a tremendous shortage of health care workers.

“The state felt it was important to promote healthcare occupations,” Dawes says. “In talking to high school kids about health care careers, I talked myself into a career in health care administration.”

As CEO at HRH, Dawes was the face of the hospital when he was out in the community. Therefore, he felt it was important that he get involved in all of the Chambers of Commerce in Hendricks County, including Brownsburg, Avon, Plainfield and Danville. He was also involved with the Hendricks County Economic Development Partnership. Post-retirement, Dawes has continued to remain active in the community, serving on the Brownsburg Police Commission and the Hendricks County solid waste district board. He sits on the Brownsburg Chamber board, is a member of the Rotary Club and is in his fifth year on the Brownsburg Town Council (he will serve an additional three years after this). In addition, he serves as Chairman of both the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization and the Life Centers Board. Plus, he mows his own grass!

A lifelong avid exerciser, Dawes has run in his fair share of road races, including 30 mini-marathons and 24 full marathons, the last of which he completed at age 65. Now 73, Dawes keeps fit by walking and bicycling.

“I used to always tell groups when I spoke to them about health care that the best and easiest way to lower your cost of health care is to become responsible for maintaining your own health through diet and exercise,” says Dawes, who felt that if he was going to talk the talk, he had better walk the walk. “I needed to set a good example since I was involved in the health care industry.”

In his free time, Dawes likes playing golf.

“I’m not any good, but I enjoy it,” he says. He’s also active in his men’s weekly bible study.

This year Dawes and his lovely bride celebrate 51 years of wedded bliss. They have two grown sons, R. Devee and Christian, two grandchildren (and a third arriving soon), and one great-grandchild. R. Devee is an IT consultant, and Christian just started his fourth year of an OBGYN residency.

All through graduate school and when he was employed at Hendricks, Dawes had a mentor named Alan Hicks who was the CEO of Community Hospital in Indianapolis. A tradition of Hicks’ that Dawes chose to adopt was to go into the hospital on holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving to thank the staff for their commitment to the patients even though it meant sacrificing time away from their own families.

“Health care is a people business. They are who make it happen,” says Dawes, who on Mother’s Day also delivered flowers to hospital staff who were moms. “I wanted to personally thank them, and this was just a small way to show my appreciation.”

Dawes has thoroughly enjoyed living and working in Hendricks County and has no plans to move anytime soon.

“People sometimes ask us if we winter in Florida,” Dawes says. “No. Our winter home is in Brownsburg. Our summer home is in Brownsburg. Hendricks County is our home, period.”