Although she accomplished much during a 44-year healthcare career, Sister Irene Kraus will be respected more for who she is rather than what she did.
As an executive and religious woman within the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul congregation for 54 years, Kraus is primarily known for her innate leadership and decisionmaking abilities, her indefatigable sense of humor and her uncanny gift for understanding the hearts and minds of people.
She probably is the only executive who delivered annual reports accompanied by the melody from Bette Midler's uplifting "You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings."
"I would weave a line or two of the song all the way through my presentation," Kraus said. "As I would finish it, the audiovisual people would show pictures of different (Daughters of Charity) hospitals that matched the words of the song."
It also wouldn't be much of a stretch to say she is one of a few healthcare executives who dresses up as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to liven up the spirits of her fellow religious women in a nursing home or children in a pediatric unit.
"I only dressed up as the Easter Bunny once," she said. "It went over very big . . . I might do it again this spring."
But to most who have come into contact with her at the hundreds of receptions and banquets she has attended over the years, Kraus is the one they fondly remember floating effortlessly through groups of people, offering up parables or lighthearted quips.
"Work the crowd, work the crowd," she once said in a complimentary profile published in New York Times Magazine in 1991. "We don't like to admit it, but there is a little bit of the political animal in all of us."
Kraus, one of healthcare's true movers and shakers, has given much of herself over her illustrious healthcare career. Some of her accomplishments include:
First woman chairman of the American Hospital Association in 1980. "Call me Madame Chairman. I didn't work this hard to get here and to have my title changed (to chairperson or chairwoman)," she informed the AHA board.
Chairman of the Catholic Health Association in 1972 and 1973. "We came up with a number of new things like the Catholic Health Assembly (the CHA's annual educational meeting held in June)," she said. "We wanted to get away from the atmosphere of convention booths." In 1972, the CHA eliminated commercial exhibits from its annual meeting and altered the focus of the annual convention to education.
Founding president and chief executive officer of Daughters of Charity National Health System from 1986 to 1992. She described that job as the most challenging of her 14 assignments. "We took five different jurisdictions and five different boards and got them to work as one," she said. "It was a thrill to be part of forming such a large system with high ideals."
Administrator of 80-bed Sisters Hospital in Waterville, Maine, an assignment from 1961 to 1962 she remembers as her favorite because she learned what it took to mix religious and business life. "I was only there one-and-a-half years, but I knew every employee, every doctor. That helped me fulfill my calling in working with people and trying to make people's lives better," she said.
Three honorary doctorate degrees from Chicago's DePaul University, St. John's University and Niagara University; distinguished service medals from both the AHA and the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania; and a gold medal award from the American College of Healthcare Executives.
"Sister Irene is one of the great people in healthcare," said John Alexander McMahon, former president of the AHA from 1972 to 1986 and a close friend over the years along with his wife, Anne. "She is a very warm person, as caring a person as one could ever imagine. She is self-confident and straightforward."
McMahon, a 1995 Health Care Hall of Fame inductee who is chairman at Duke University's department of health administration, recalled Kraus often debating policy issues in the late 1970s with the predominately male AHA board.
"If someone disagreed with her, she'd say, `OK, let's work it out,' " he said. "But she had values and would say this is where my order is, here is where we can give, here is where we can't. People knew where she stood."
Robert Cathcart, former president and CEO of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, agreed. "She wasn't a pushover. She was an independent thinker who had strong opinions and would not collapse in the face of disagreement," said Cathcart, who was AHA chairman in 1976.
"Irene exemplifies what we consider to be the best of (healthcare) ministry and with what others consider industry," said John "Jack" Curley, CHA president since 1979.
"She views healthcare as an integration of the spiritual, physical and mental (conditions)," he said. "She always has expressed a special interest for the poor and the underprivileged in society. In her leadership roles, she has acted to make that her preferential option."
The early years. Irene Kraus was born July 24, 1924, in Philadelphia, the third of six children to Frank and Irene Kraus. Frank Kraus, whose parents emigrated from Germany, was an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad.
"My father was a very loving, fun-filled man. He loved to pull jokes on my mother and everybody else," Kraus recalled. "He was a very spiritual man. He would pray all the way to work. When I went with him, I would pray, too."
On the other hand, her mother was quite different. "She was quiet, gentle, a typical Irishperson. When my brother (Frank) died (at age 23 while studying for the priesthood) of an undiagnosed condition (meningitis), my mother said that God had loaned him to us and we have to accept his decision to take him back."
From 1937 to 1941, Kraus attended Elizabeth Seton High School in Baltimore, an all-female parochial school that was operated by the Daughters of Charity congregation.
A natural-born leader, Kraus excelled at sports, drama and music. She also served as editor of the school newspaper. Along with 12 others in her class, Kraus joined the Daughters of Charity in 1941 at age 17.
"She was a year ahead of me in high school," said Sister Mary Clare Hughes, a former hospital administrator who has known Kraus for 58 years. "I was more an observer of her talent. She has always been a very visible leader who knew how to approach people from their angle rather than from what she wanted. She knew how to win people over, to get them interested in volunteering for things."
From 1942 to 1949, Kraus taught elementary and high school courses at St. Patrick's Academy in Richmond, Va. Then Kraus was asked to swap her eraser for a tongue depressor.
Switch to healthcare. For the next three years, Kraus pursued a nursing degree at Catholic University of America in Washington. She graduated in 1952 with an undergraduate degree in nursing and became operating room supervisor at St. Mary's Medical Center in Saginaw, Mich. She was later assigned to the same position at Carney Hospital in Boston.
In 1955, six years removed from teaching, Kraus was appointed administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital, Binghamton, N.Y. Between 1955 and 1994, she was administrator at eight hospitals and led the joining of 38 Daughters of Charity hospitals into the national system.
"My reaction (to the Hall of Fame selection) is one of disbelief," Kraus said. "My feeling is that there are a lot of other people who should be in long before I am . . . . I know a lot of those people."
When asked if her career is guided by any particular philosophy, Kraus said she has never considered her work as a career. "It is a calling," she said.
"As a Daughter of Charity we spend a lot of time in what we call formation," she said. "Each year we have a retreat to reflect on who we want to be as religious persons and how we can better deal with others and our callings."
Hughes said preparation is the key to Kraus' success.
"She is a great storyteller, but her best attribute is how she prepares for a meeting," Hughes said. "She would talk to all the participants to understand their positions. The discussions that ensued were very focused."
But in 1992, Kraus found herself somewhat unprepared to face the results of her routine annual physical examination. A tumor was discovered, which after surgery was diagnosed as malignant. After a year of chemotherapy, Kraus has been pronounced by doctors as cancer-free.
"God gave me a special grace to accept things," she said. "The cancer has put my life in better perspective. Why should I complain? Not everybody has 50 golden years" in the Daughters of Charity.
While not managing a hospital for the first time in more than 40 years, Kraus is chairman of Baptist/St. Vincent's Health System, Jacksonville, Fla., and is on the finance committee of the Daughters of Charity system.
Last December, Kraus was reassigned to Emmitsburg, Md., to become administrator of the Daughters of Charity provincial house. Her responsibilities include overseeing a nursing home, a retirement home, a retreat center, a training center for young sisters and a shrine for Elizabeth Ann Seton, North America's only native-born canonized saint.
In her new position, she continues to exhibit her boundless enthusiasm and drive.
"This is one of the most interesting jobs I've had in my life," she said.