Eva P. Craig shunned the limelight. She was much too good at her job, though, not to be noticed.
As one of the first women executives at a U.S. public hospital, Craig earned national attention while helping transform a modest Akron facility into an outstanding institution.
Akron General Health System, which was incorporated as Peoples Hospital on Feb. 20, 1914, is marking its centennial in 2014. For 25 of those years, Craig was a driving force in Akron health care.
She was born about 1894 in New Brunswick, Canada. Craig’s Scottish ancestors initially settled in New York, but her family sympathized with the British in the Revolutionary War and fled to Canada.
Craig’s parents wanted her to be a teacher, so she tried that for a couple of years, but her heart wasn’t in it. She left the schoolhouse behind to train as a nurse at St. John’s General Hospital near her New Brunswick hometown of West Richfield. The hospital recognized her leadership and hired her as assistant superintendent of nursing upon her graduation in 1920.
“They probably picked someone right out of school because she knew all the tricks,” Craig once told the Beacon Journal.
She couldn’t admit that she stood out in her class. Humility would not allow it.
A few years later, Craig transferred to Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended Columbia University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in nursing education and later a master’s degree in hospital administration.
Craig served at hospitals in Gloversville, N.Y., and New Kensington, Pa., before being hired in July 1932 as superintendent of nurses at Akron’s Peoples Hospital.
She held the position for only three months before being promoted out of necessity. Hospital Superintendent Raymond E. Kepler suffered a heart attack and was no longer able to serve. At the height of the Great Depression, the hospital board voted to enlist Craig as acting superintendent in November 1932.
“We are rather up in the air at the present,” Peoples Hospital President Edward S. Babcox explained to the Akron Times-Press. “The hospital is not in a position to go out and employ a high-priced man for the position, and Miss Craig is doing splendidly.”
Colleagues described Craig as shy, gracious, compassionate and thoughtful — and firm when she needed to be. She made an immediate impact, although she usually credited others for her successes.
A desperate time
Hospital trustee J. Penfield Seiberling, president and chairman of the Seiberling Rubber Co., later hailed Craig’s hiring as the hospital’s “greatest breakthrough” during “a desperate situation.”
“Quietly, gently, smilingly, efficiently she instilled a whole new spirit in the nursing staff and in the entire hospital,” Seiberling noted. “It came as little surprise to anyone when she was chosen in September of 1933 to be superintendent of the hospital.”
The hospital admitted 2,777 patients that year and averaged about 70 a day.
Craig oversaw little details, such as the purchase of rugs for maternity rooms or the planting of bushes to beautify the landscape. She didn’t just direct improvements. She rolled up her sleeves.
According to hospital historian Ludel B. Sauvageot in 1986: “Miss Craig insisted that paint, plaster and repairs would be the first step in boosting morale of employees and attracting patients; but there was little money.
“Weekends — and even some evenings — found trustees and a few doctors at the hospital painting, doing repairs and patching plaster. This went on for months until the whole place took on a bright appearance.”
Craig understood every aspect of hospital work, including finances and operations.
When she first arrived, the hospital had difficulty paying its employees in a timely fashion. Peoples Hospital held off creditors until it could retrench. As the health of patients improved, so did the health of the hospital.
As one trustee mysteriously noted in board minutes: “Miss Craig’s careful supervision of the hospital’s finances may be because she is Scotch-Canadian.”
Under Craig’s guidance, the hospital reorganized management, modernized equipment, expanded services, remodeled facilities and earned accreditation. It opened a 24-hour emergency ward and introduced paid vacations for employees.
“The task of operating this hospital is not a single-handed affair but one lightened by many willing hands and cheerful hearts,” Craig told a gathering at the Mayflower Hotel. “Through many ordeals, the board has been a comfort and has given encouragement as well as being of invaluable help in carrying on the business of the hospital. Bravely and unitedly, the men and women of Peoples Hospital face the year ahead.”
Although the medical and nursing staffs were reduced during World War II, hospital admissions surged to new highs. The complex opened a 60-bed addition in 1944.
That wasn’t enough a decade later with the baby boom in full bloom. Peoples Hospital spent $5.5 million to build a seven-story surgical and obstetrical center and remodel the original structure. With the 1955 grand opening of the addition, the 525-bed complex changed its name.
Peoples Hospital became Akron General Hospital (and later Akron General Medical Center), a move approved by the board to associate the facility with the city and better reflect its care.
The Eva P. Craig Auditorium was named for the superintendent when the new building was dedicated.
“To begin with, she brings a woman’s touch to the hospital,” the Beacon Journal explained in 1955. “Her employees swear by her. The emphasis, reflected downward throughout the staff, is on service to people. It might be viewed as a woman’s maternal instinct to look after people.”
In February 1957, Craig announced her retirement in April after 25 years of service. She had led the hospital from the Great Depression into the Space Age. Her successor was Dr. Joseph S. Lichty.
As a token of appreciation, the Women’s Board of Akron General Hospital presented Craig with a magnificent chiming clock in a china case decorated with cupid figures.
“I will treasure it always and will think of you when it strikes,” she told them.
In 1966, Eva P. Craig collapsed and died outside her Shaker Heights apartment. She was 71. The former superintendent bequeathed most of her estate to the Akron hospital to establish a heart fund.
According to Sauvageot, Craig was the hospital’s most influential executive during its first 70 years and one of the few to see its potential.
“She accomplished miracles but always gave credit to others,” Sauvageot wrote. “She understood human nature; she was kind. She instilled in employees compassion and empathy for patients and a warm consideration of one another. She was demanding of people who worked for her and equally demanding of herself. She was Peoples Hospital — and Akron General Hospital until she retired.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.