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Percy Allen II, a career hospital administrator and former CEO of the Bon Secours Baltimore Health System Inc., dies

Percy Allen II was inducted into the National Association of Health Services Executives Hall of Fame in 2006.
Percy Allen II was inducted into the National Association of Health Services Executives Hall of Fame in 2006. (handout)

Percy Allen II, a career hospital administrator and former CEO of Bon Secours Baltimore Health System Inc. who was a member of the Modern Healthcare Hall of Fame, died of pancreatic cancer Sept. 12 at his Virginia Beach, Virginia home. The former Mount Washington resident was 80.

“Percy was a straightforward hospital administrator who got things done that needed to be done despite the politics,” said Dr. Donald E. Wilson, who was dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine from 1991 to 2006, and earlier got to know Mr. Allen at University Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, where they both worked. “He was always saying, ‘We have to improve.’'

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“He was most caring and if he was your friend you had a friend no matter what,” said Patricia Coats Jessamy, who is retired in Kennesaw, Georgia, and was the first woman to serve as Baltimore City State’s Attorney. She met Mr. Allen through her husband in 1979, who was also a hospital administrator.

“Percy was warm, caring and a very wise person whose sage advice was always well received,” Ms. Jessamy said.

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Percy Allen II, the son of Percy Allen Jr., a forklift operator, and his wife, Esther Allen, a housekeeper, was born and raised in New Orleans where he graduated from Xavier University Preparatory School, a segregated high school, where he was class secretary.

“My daddy was a very positive man. He always instilled in us that you can be whatever you want to be. He said, ‘You are somebody,’” Mr. Allen explained in a 2012 oral history interview for the American Hospital Association Center for Hospital and Healthcare Administration History and Health Research & Educational Trust.

“My dad didn’t finish eighth grade, but he had a Ph.D. in life. He helped my sisters, brothers and me with our high school math – geometry – every evening,” he said. “I excelled at things, but basically because my dad was there, not in an overbearing way, but in a supporting way. My dad is my role model. Everything I do,I do in his honor, because he saw the possibilities in me.”

In his senior year in high school, he became active in the civil rights movement with the full support of his father, and in 1959 after graduating from Xavier enrolled at Louisiana State University in New Orleans.

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“I went to integrate LSUNO in Sept. ‘59, and stayed there until Dec. ‘59. It was pretty rough. This was the second year LSUNO was being integrated,” he explained in the interview. “They often called us names, and sometimes they would throw tomatoes at us. Most students who went there were expected to graduate, but when we got our papers back in class, they were marked up in red – I mean all red. I never got more than an F in class in most cases. My parents wanted me to hang in there, but I thought this is a road to nowhere.”

Frustrated in his attempt to earn a bachelor’s degree, Mr. Allen dropped out and enlisted in the Air Force where he was trained as an administrative assistant and assigned to Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan.

While in the service, he married the former Zennia McKnight in 1961, who was the mother of his two children.

Looking for a house in Oscoda proved to be a rude awakening for Mr. Allen.

“There were signs on houses that said, ‘Cats — yes. Dogs — yes.’ N word — no.’ I was appalled. I’m saying to myself, ‘My goodness, this is the North. I went to the base Advocate General and told him I needed a place for my family. I was always one to stand up for what I thought was right. ‘You want me to go to war for this country. I need a place that is decent.’”

After being discharged in 1964, he worked from 1965 to 1971 for Chrysler Corp. as a draftsman by day and as a janitor in a downtown Detroit office building at night.

Getting a college education nagged at Mr. Allen who said to his wife one day, who worked for a Chrysler auto stamping plant, that the couple would have to sell their home, cars and travel trailer.

“She said, ‘Percy, if you really want to do this, let’s do it,’ and we did,” he said in the interview.

Mr. Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in 1973 in economics from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and then began a summer internship at Detroit General Hospital. In 1975, he obtained a master’s degree in public administration from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

From 1975 to 1982, he was a senior assistant administrator at Parkview Memorial Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he was named vice president of administration and interim chief operating officer at Sinai Hospital in Detroit.

In 1986, he joined New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. and from 1986 to 1987, was senior assistant vice president, and was executive director of North Central Bronx Hospital from 1988 to 1989.

Mr. Allen was named vice president for hospital affairs and CEO in 1989 at University Hospital of Brooklyn SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn, New York, a position he held for a decade, when he came to Baltimore as CEO of Bon Secours Health System at a time it was financially troubled.

“I’ve taken over places that people ‘knew’ were going to go under,” Mr. Allen explained in a 2011 interview with Modern Healthcare magazine. “Nothing goes under under my watch. Nothing.”

“He invested in long-delayed capital improvements such as renovating the emergency room and furthered the broader mission of the sisters of Bon Secours by refurbishing 500 units of community housing and opening two new senior independent living facilities,” reported the magazine.

“You’re helping people and making a difference in their quality of life. To me, that’s what it’s all about,” Mr. Allen told the magazine.

He oversaw the closing of Liberty Medical Center, which had cared for African Americans for years, but had become a financial nightmare. He established a partnership with the University of Maryland that secured a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study health disparities.

Dr. Reed A. Winston, a Baltimore internist, is a longtime friend.

“Percy was an interesting guy who was very shrewd, had a lot of experience, and was efficient,” said Dr. Winston, who had worked alongside Mr. Allen at Bon Secours. “He knew how to walk around all kinds of personalities and was always very professional. He laughed a lot and was very personal, but when challenged, maintained both his authority and dignity.”

He recalled visiting his mother at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, who was given a number and moved up benches until, her number was called. “She was never called by her name,” Mr. Allen said in the oral interview, of the indignity and humiliation endured by his mother.

“Some of the people we served didn’t have the ability to pay, but (as a hospital leader) I always said you treat the customer with respect and dignity regardless,” he told the magazine. “You treat everybody as a VIP. People knew I meant it.”

He was an extraordinarily competent administrator and one of the best-dressed people I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Wilson, an Owings Mills resident. “He was very outgoing, but he had to get to know you at first.”

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Mr. Allen relished being a mentor, Ms. Jessamy said.

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“I always encouraged young administrators,” Mr. Allen said in the magazine interview. “I’ve tried to be a role model, to lead by example. My success has been because I’ve had the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of others who went before me. They opened the doors and made the path clear.”

In 2006, he was inducted into the National Association of Health Services Executives Hall of Fame.

He retired in 2006.

Mr. Allen was an inveterate collector of AfricanAmerican art and an avid golfer.

Funeral services were held Saturday at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Virginia Beach.

He was predeceased by his first wife, and is survived by his wife of 24 years, the former Fay Malcom, former chief operating office of North Central Bronx Hospital in New York City; a son, Percy Allen III of Detroit; a daughter, Merrily Marie Allen of Virginia Beach; a sister, Yolanda Allen of New Orleans; five grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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