Claude Harbarger | President of St. Dominic Health Services

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by MARILYN TINNIN

If you met Claude Harbarger on a Sunday morning where he is regularly in attendance at First Presbyterian Church at 1390 North State Street in Belhaven’s prime and historic location, you might just suppose a lot of things about him. You might be wrong on most of them. With his Ward Cleaver-like demeanor, who could guess that this soft spoken and somewhat reserved gentleman and Presbyterian elder is the confident, able president of St. Dominic Health Services, one of the South’s most prestigious Catholic healthcare institutions. In that role, he oversees more than 3,000 employees, 500 physicians, and a sprawling network of special divisions.

Although Claude is the first administrator of this healthcare system who is not a Dominican Sister, there are indeed common threads that bind them together. That would be a mutual love of the Lord and a shared vision in being part of a community committed to demonstrating a deep concern for the health of the total person—body, mind, and spirit.

So, it is a tribute both to the Sisters’ genuine desire to provide for the community and the equally genuine desire of Claude Harbarger to go where God led that the two came together, and are today working together, to enhance the quality of healthcare and meet the ever-growing needs of a diverse population in the entire central Mississippi area.

CLAUDE’S JOURNEY

As the oldest of six children—five boys and one girl—Claude grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. He describes a loving Christian home with supportive parents. He enjoyed success as an athlete in high school, both in baseball and serving as the quarterback of his football team.

Karis Harbarger, who has three older brothers, grew up in Miami and was likewise fortunate to have loving parents and a deep heritage in the church.

When they met at Auburn University in the mid 1970s, both were grounded in their faith and seemed to have an unusually strong resolve about what they were looking for in a mate. Claude describes noticing Karis early on in an accounting class they shared. He was so interested, in fact, he had a mutual friend do the legwork for him and find out whether or not Karis had a boyfriend and if she was open at all to an invitation from him. The rest is, as they say, is history.

Claude shares that although he began his college career in Pre-med, his grades quickly indicated that perhaps he was not as strong in the sciences as he needed to be to count on being accepted to medical school. He had already logged enough hours as a nursing assistant and operating room tech to realize he truly loved everything about the hospital setting, so, he wisely began to shop around to see what other options were out there for someone like him.

He discovered the field of hospital administration. The more he researched and the more he talked with people who were familiar with this field, the more he felt like it was a genuine fit for him. He completed a degree in psychology mostly because he could finish in four years (a BIG thing to his parents who had five more children to send to college), take some business courses, and plan to go on to master in healthcare administration. The “God thing” in all of Claude’s deliberations is how valuable that Psychology training has been through the years as his every single day revolves around dealing with people. Who but God could have arranged that?

Karis was a fashion merchandising major and went to work right after college with Pizitz, a historic and prestigious department store headquartered in Birmingham. (Pizitz was part of the group acquired by McRae’s and eventually became Belk.) Whatever her ultimate career ambitions, they were definitely put on permanent hold when she married Claude. She has not, after 34 years, regretted her decision to hang up her corporate aspirations to be his complete helpmate and the chief executive operating officer of the Harbarger household.

Karis and Claude married in 1978.

Claude and Karis married in 1978, and after he completed his academic requirements at UAB, they moved to Augusta, Georgia, where Claude was assigned to complete his degree with hands-on training at Humana Hospital there in Augusta.

The newly-wed Harbargers (and Claude laughs as he says, “Karis gave up the name Karis Adams to be Karis Harbarger—she must have loved me”) moved to Augusta and set up housekeeping. One of their first endeavors was to find a church home.

Both came from strong Christian roots and they shared a common priority of finding a church that was supportive, nurturing, and one that encouraged their spiritual growth. They were completely overwhelmed with the way God answered that prayer.

They settled into First Presbyterian Church in Augusta where the class for the young marrieds was pretty much wall-to-wall in attendance every Sunday. Karis describes a format that included teaching, along with substantial “mentoring and guiding” Both agree what they gleaned in those early years in that environment made a profound and lasting impression on their lives and all the years that followed.

Just as an aside, I had to ask if they ever attended the Masters. Oh, yes. A member of their church offered them tickets—the first time—two weeks before the birth of their first child. Karis wonders if she may be the only person who ever walked the entire Masters course while she was nine months pregnant! Their son, Claude, arrived two weeks later!

LATER CAREER

The Harbargers loved Augusta. They adored their church. The community was a comfortable one. When Claude completed his requisite year in the field in completion of his degree in Hospital and Health Administration, he was promoted to the Assistant Executive Director position at Humana Hospital in Augusta. But opportunity came knocking, and after a great deal of thought and prayer, the Harbargers left Augusta for Crystal River, Florida, where Claude took the reins as Administrator of Seven Rivers Community Hospital.

Claude and Karis did not immediately find a church to compare with the one they had left behind in Augusta. They had grown accustomed to such in-depth Bible teaching, and they continued to visit and search for something similar. When one of the physicians at the hospital shared his interest in planting a new church, Claude and Karis eagerly joined a group of eight couples who began to meet regularly and explore that possibility.

Although the Harbargers lived in Crystal River just two and one-half years, they did launch that new church, Seven Rivers Presbyterian, which today has grown to a membership of over 1,500 and also supports a school. There is nothing easy about planting a church. It speaks volumes about what matters most to Claude and Karis that they invested much of their time and effort to a cause, knowing that in all likelihood his job was going to send them elsewhere before too very long.

In 1984, soon after their second son, David, was born, Claude was promoted within his company, National Medical Enterprises, and sent to Lebanon, Tennessee, as Administrator of University Medical Center. Finding a church home in Lebanon proved to be, once again, not a simple task. With two babies in tow, they were driving into Nashville, a distance of 25 miles each way, week after week to attend church.

David and Emily Harbarger, Breck and Laura Harbarger Richardson, Karis and Claude, Rachel and Claude Harbarger

Claude was now in his seventh year in hospital administration, and although he knew the hospital setting was exactly where he wanted to be, he began to wonder if his particular philosophy and strengths might be best suited for a non-profit, faith-based, medical facility. He and Karis began to pray that a door might open in another location—a place where they might put down roots, find the right fit with church, schools, and community. When a good friend in healthcare administration at UAB called him one day and mentioned there was an opening at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, Claude promptly acted on the suggestion to apply.

The year was 1987, and the Harbarger family had just added daughter, Laura, to the brood, when Claude was invited to interview for the Senior Vice President-Professional Services position. It had come down to a decision between two finalists. Karis and Claude and two-week-old Laura traveled to Jackson for the interview. To this day Laura takes complete credit for her father’s winning the position. The sisters were won over by the little pink bundle in that blanket!

“St. Dominic’s and the Dominican Sisters have been a blessing for us every day we have been here,” says Claude. The Sisters would probably say the blessing runs both ways as they discovered in Claude one who had both a compassionate heart, and the necessary business acumen, to lead the organization they had poured their lives into building.

FAITH AND FAMILY IN JACKSON

Karis and Claude laugh over the fact that their three children are natives of three different states and that in the first ten years of marriage, they lived in five different cities. When settling into a new community, they were always looking for the same things—job satisfaction, spiritual nurture, Christian schools, and a community atmosphere where others shared their values. It seemed that they found everything they were looking for when they began to explore Jackson’s options.

Their joint decision had been made from the very beginning of their marriage that Karis would be a stay-at home mom. Claude says, “In a culture where that choice is not given much credit, I have always felt blessed that Karis was willing to do that. A lot of responsibility fell on her shoulders because my job has always been very demanding in terms of time.” As a Phi Beta Kappa, Karis certainly could have pursued a satisfying career if she had wanted to. As her husband points out, her choice to put her energy into full-time homemaking says a great deal about the kind of person she is and the kind of heart she has. She is indeed his supportive partner, and they make a great team.

As Claude, David, and Laura grew, Karis and Claude were quite intentional about parenting. Karis says, “I did tons of reading when they were younger,” reading everything she could find on the subject of parenting—specifically Christian parenting.

Enjoying the beach this past summer are (back) Breck, Claude, David, and Claude; (front) Laura, Jack, Karis, Emily, Rachel and Lois.

Although Claude did put in long hours at the hospital and often attended meetings that ran past five o’clock, it was always important that the family sit down and eat dinner together when he got home. Sundays were not like weekdays in that it really was a day of worship and rest. Claude actually taught all three children the Westminster Catechism on Sunday afternoons, and memorized all 100 plus questions right along with them!

Family vacations, traditional family photo Christmas cards, Boy Scouts,weekend sleepovers with school friends—the Harbarger household was a hub of activity as the children grew. Claude and Karis can laugh today about one of their most trying episodes as parents.

When their adolescent boys began to push the envelope and test their boundaries, one particular battle of the wills resulted in banishing the television. The Harbarger children did not get it back for about six years! Claude, who is today completing an ear, nose, and throat residency in Augusta, Georgia, says he credits his acceptance into medical school with the fact that during the years there was no television to entertain him, he became a voracious reader and a serious student.

Baby Jack Richardson and baby Lois Harbarger were born two weeks apart!

Karis established her own morning ritual with Claude, David, and Laura each morning as they headed out the door. She reminded them of Ephesians 4:29 which says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Karis says, “They heard those words a lot,” and it was just another way she and Claude took seriously God’s admonition to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6).

GROWING WITH THE ST. DOMINIC MISSION

When St. Dominic opened its doors in 1946, its temporary home was on President Street in an old building that had been the Jackson Infirmary. These brave Dominican Sisters from Springfield, Illinois, probably had no idea their ministry of Christian healing would become the tremendous entity that it is today. With six subsidiaries under the St. Dominic Health Services umbrella, their initial commitment to treating the whole person—the mind, the body, and the spirit—is more vibrant and visible today than ever before.

Claude and Sister Dorothea, his predecessor, have always worked well together. They share a commitment to Christ and a passion for the St. Dominic mission.

Claude explains, “St. Dominic’s is much more than a hospital as our outreach programs extend our ministry beyond our walls and into the community.” Claude arrived at St. Dominic’s with a real excitement over the prospect of working in an environment where his Christian faith was integrated into his passion for the field of healthcare administration. He talks about the privilege he has had to work through the years with his remarkable predecessors, Sr. Josephine Therese and Sr. Dorothea. In his 25th year, he continues to be inspired by those with whom he works and the culture that exists throughout St. Dominic’s. He cites daily occurrences of kindness or a little extra gesture of helpfulness among employees, patients, visitors, and physicians, who all continually reinforce his belief in the Christian healing ministry. There is something refreshing about working in an environment where the core of the gospel and the love of Christ are woven into the fabric of everything that goes on.

The 23-acre campus is impossible to miss as one travels the I-55 corridor through the heart of Jackson. St. Dominic’s is an impressive and beautiful community within a community, with professional offices, the hospital, a cancer facility, a behavioral health facility, a chapel, a fitness center, and a generous arrangement of parking places! But that campus is just a part of St. Dominic’s comprehensive mission to healthcare.

Claude has been much a part of the expansion efforts and says, “Our family of services and caregivers not only serves the needs of patients but actively establishes relationships to meet people where they are to improve the quality of their lives. That includes: St. Catherine’s Village in Madison County which provides independent living, assisted living, an Alzheimer’s facility and nursing home care; St. Dominic’s Community Health Clinic which has provided free care to the indigent and underserved in the Stewpot area of Jackson since 1996; St. Dominic’s Care-A-Van program with its 42-foot mobile screening bus which travels throughout Central Mississippi conducting both screenings and education programs for school-age children, the elderly and other underserved in our community; New Directions for Over 55 wellness program designed to meet the unique needs of mature adults by providing social interaction, enrichment opportunities and wellness education to help promote healthy, active lifestyles.”

Healthcare reform has been a huge political football in recent years. Reforms, though undeniably needed, present an array of challenges to every individual in every age, stage, and economic tier. Claude is optimistic as he looks at the future for St. Dominic’s. The sponsorship of the Dominican Sisters and the mission that drives from their sponsorship will keep St. Dominic’s focused on the high calling of Christian healing honoring God and loving those entrusted to their care.

“It’s easy to have a Christian mission statement,” says Claude, “but how do you make that alive to people?” That, he explains, is the challenge he and the Dominican Sisters grapple with and take seriously every day. It is clear there is a consensus among Claude and the devout and dedicated Sisters who have allowed their hospital to transition to lay leadership that the best healthcare system will always be one that is a strong, faith-based model where the life and dignity of every person is the first priority.