NEWTON — David B. “Dave” Clarke recalls being asked as a 28-year-old graduate student in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota what he expected from a career in health care administration.
“I remember telling the woman who asked that I’d love for my last job in my career to be as close as possible to patient care,” said Clarke, the 72-year-old president and CEO of Catawba Regional Hospice. “It’s what I had in my heart, and for whatever reason, it’s what came true for me. I’m very grateful for that.”
Clarke, who celebrated his 20th year with Catawba Regional Hospice earlier this year, plans to retire from the CEO position at the end of 2017, but will continue his work with the organization in a consulting role.
And while he acknowledges that it may be time to slow down, Clarke is far from eager to finish the final chapters on a career that has been long, varied and highly rewarding.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said.
Born in Asheville, Clarke grew up in Chapel Hill. Intending to become a certified public accountant, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting at Elon College. While serving in the Army Medical Service Corps at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War era, he became interested in health care administration. He earned a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Before joining Catawba Regional Hospice in March 1997, Clarke was director of provider reimbursement at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, then executive vice president of business development at Coastal Healthcare Group in Durham.
A few years prior to joining Catawba Regional Hospice, Clarke became familiar with hospice care when one of his best friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“I got to see hospice in action, and it made a big impression on me,” Clarke said.
“It is a pretty unique aspect of the health care environment, one that I hadn’t seen before. The care and compassion shown to families as well as to patients is really special.”
When Clarke came here in 1997, Catawba Regional Hospice was based in an old house near downtown Hickory. Since then, the nonprofit health care agency has grown into a two-campus organization with locations in Newton and at Lake Norman. The 32-acre Newton campus includes administrative offices and an in-patient facility.
Employing nearly 200 people, Catawba Regional Hospice serves patients and families in 10 counties. From October 2015 through September 2016, the organization served 1,458 patients, with staff logging in approximately 120,000 patient days.
According to state figures, Catawba Regional Hospice serves approximately 60 percent of the deaths in Catawba County, not counting accidental deaths, sudden deaths or infant deaths.
Clarke has played a key role in Catawba Regional Hospice’s impressive growth, said the Rev. Wallace Johnson, president of the organization’s board of directors.
“Dave is a visionary,” Johnson said.
“He is always looking ahead, and has therefore made some very wise decisions.”
Johnson stressed that while Clarke commands respect, he is also a compassionate man who really cares about his staff and the patients.
“Dave really cares, and that can be a challenge for a strong administrator,” Johnson said.
In addition to his leadership at hospice, Clarke has been instrumental in developing programs to serve seniors and people challenged by advanced illnesses. Those programs include Life Transitions, a palliative medicine practice with clinics in Hickory, Newton and Morganton; and PACE@Home, a program of all-inclusive care that helps seniors remain independent at home and that was created with the support of Lutheran Services of the Carolinas and Catawba Valley Medical Center.
The vast majority of PACE@Home clients are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, meaning they are elderly and needy.
“For many, they are now getting the best health care they’ve ever had access to,” Clarke said.
“It’s near and dear to my heart to be able to provide for that segment of our world.”
Clarke chairs the board of directors for PACE@Home, and is a member of the Rotary Club of Newton-Conover. He has been recognized by the Rotary Foundation as a Paul Harris Fellow.
A member of First Presbyterian Church in Newton, Clarke has been a prominent figure in health care-related state and national committees. He served on the board of directors for the Carolinas Center for Hospice and End of Life Care (2001-06 and 2008-13) and as its treasurer (2003-05). In 2001, he was honored with the Peter G. Keese Award for outstanding leadership achievements from The Carolinas Center.
A scholarship fund that offers financial assistance to the employees of Catawba Regional Hospice is named for Clarke’s former wife, Lincolnton native Linda Clarke. The longtime hospice advocate lost her own battle to cancer in 2011. The Linda Clarke Scholarship Fund allows Catawba Regional Hospice employees to maintain and improve their work-related skills through higher education.
For the last five years, Clarke has been married to Jan Clarke, a retired hospice CNA. The couple are patrons of The Green Room Community Theatre in Newton, and enjoy traveling and spending time with Jan’s adult son.
Clarke said public awareness and appreciation of services offered by hospice has grown in recent years, especially as the organization’s scope has expanded beyond a primary focus on cancer patients to one that includes patients with COPD, congestive heart failure, dementia and other illnesses.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the staff’s level of commitment, Clarke said.
“What gives me the most pleasure about my job is the people I work with,” he said.
“They are dedicated to serving patients and are phenomenal. I’m the fortunate one, being out in the community a lot and getting to hear wonderful things about our staff. They are the ones who do the real work. I’m a recipient of the good vibes.”