For his lifetime achievements, Mathis is being inducted into the Health Care Hall of Fame.
Mathis retired after serving from 1983 to 1997 as president and CEO of the Methodist system, an organization that included 16 companies and 36 hospital affiliates around the world in addition to the Houston flagship. It was the only hospital in which he ever worked, having been hired in 1971 as an administrative resident.
Mathis said his infantry experience in Vietnam drove him into a healthcare career.
Mathis led men in combat, rising to the rank of captain and earning a Bronze Star for meritorious combat service. Several times he was under fire and lost men he served with, which gave him a new outlook.
In a book he later wrote, Mathis would say that having lived through Vietnam, he felt obligated to appreciate life and do something with it. “Something serious, something important,” he wrote. Leading an organization that healed people seemed important, he said.
“You have enormous impact on people's lives,” Mathis said.
When he arrived, fresh from graduate school, Methodist Hospital was already famous for its care, home to world-renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey and the hospital the Duke of Windsor had chosen for his heart surgery.
“I was impressed; the care was already outstanding,” Mathis recalled. “But I thought the basic human service was appalling.” Later, after rising to the top spot in the hospital, he would do something about that.
Not long after becoming CEO in the 1980s, Mathis started a training program to teach workers to think about serving patients, rather than just treating them. He met frequently with employees to impress upon them how seriously he took service. And he built rewards into their pay for good service.
And while he changed the culture, it wasn't over the objections of his employees—Methodist was repeatedly considered one of the best workplaces in the country.
“He not only understands, but lives the adage that you have to take care of your people, and if you take care of your people, they'll take care of you. And more importantly, they'll take care of your collective mission,” said Mathis' longtime friend, retired Army Major Gen. David Rubenstein, a Texas State School of Health Administration professor.
Rubenstein got to know Mathis through the American College of Healthcare Executives, which Mathis was chairman of in the 1990s and has been a fellow of since 1981.
Mathis is most proud, though, that he led the health system ethically and held staff to a high ethical standard. That included an unusual rule: Any outside income staff members earned because of their roles as Methodist employees, such as from giving a speech, went back to Methodist.
“All leaders talk about ethics, but that's a superb example of how he lived as an ethical leader,” Rubenstein said.
Mathis said he's rarely accused of being humble, but can't believe he's being inducted into a Hall of Fame that includes the likes of Ben Franklin and the Mayo brothers.
“I don't even think I'm in their universe,” Mathis said. “The only way I can rationalize it is, I spent my entire career at a world-class hospital ... with a superb team of leaders. It is humbling.”
David Royse is a freelance writer based in Chicago.