James R. Walker announced yesterday that he will retire next year as chief executive officer of Baltimore Washington Medical Center - 38 years and a day after he went to work at what was then a four-year-old facility called North Arundel Hospital.
Walker has been CEO for 15 years, taking over for the hospital's founding chief, Alfred J. Bryan Jr. It was Bryan who hired Walker, fresh from graduate school, as his first assistant.
"He and Al were very much a part of creating the hospital," said Martin L. Doordan, chief executive of Anne Arundel Medical Center. Doordan came to his hospital - the other hospital in Anne Arundel County - 35 years ago, and has been CEO since 1989. "We sort of grew up together," he said of Walker.
Walker oversaw a period of growth. A $117-million, six-story patient tower is under construction and expected to open in about 18 months. It will bring the hospital to 333 beds - up from 107 beds when Walker arrived in 1969. He's on his sixth expansion of the emergency department.
He's overseen a change in the hospital's identity. After 35 years as an independent hospital, Walker helped merge it into the University of Maryland Medical System in 2000. And, reflecting the hospital's more expansive view of its reach beyond its Glen Burnie campus, he engineered the name change in 2005 from North Arundel to Baltimore Washington.
And, particularly since the affiliation with University of Maryland, he's added programs, including centers for cancer, diabetes and vascular care.
"He's a good strategic thinker, not afraid to take chances," said Victor Broccolino, CEO of Howard County General Hospital. "And, in the aggregate, the chances he has taken have paid off for the hospital and the community."
For example, Broccolino said, "Under Jim's leadership, they were very aggressive in their outreach to and alliances with physicians," becoming one of the first hospitals in the area to hire physicians, rather than just recruit self-employed doctors to admit patients to the hospital.
Walker said the hospital now employs close to 100 doctors - up from two pathologists who were on the payroll when he became CEO.
Walker, who grew up in western North Carolina, said he first became interested in hospital administration when he was a student at Georgia State University and made extra money by working at a large hospital in Atlanta, riding an ambulance and assisting with first aid.
He went to graduate school and took his first job at North Arundel. "I thought moving this far north, we would only stay a few years," he said. Instead, he said, he fell in love with the community and the work.
Walker said he's retiring at age 63 to do more traveling - he recently returned from a week-long horseback camping trip on the Lewis and Clark Trail in Idaho - and to visit his children and grandchildren, who live in Florida and Panama.