Skip to contents
Health

Denver’s Rose Medical Center, celebrating 70 years, created a culture that countered post-war discrimination

Rose became the first Denver hospital to grant privileges to a Black physician. Its emphasis on inclusivity endured through a contentious sale and shifting health care industry.

Rose Medical Center, 4567 East 9th Avenue, Denver on Nov. 1, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

As leaders of Denver’s Jewish community began to talk about the need for a new hospital, one that could serve the city’s growing population and where doctors of all faiths would be afforded privileges, the Second World War appeared headed toward its bloody conclusion.

Two men whose lives would figure significantly in the hospital’s creation and professional ethic served overseas. One led American tank forces’ final push into Germany. The other tended to the battle-wounded in the South Pacific.

One came home. One didn’t.

Gen. Maurice Rose, a rabbi’s son who grew up in Denver, found his place in history as a beloved and highly skilled commander who became one of Colorado’s most celebrated war heroes. He died in the final weeks of the conflict, shot at close range after enemy forces surrounded his unit and he attempted to surrender.

MORE: A World War II tank gunner with a story to tell rolled into downtown Denver to pay respects to the general he revered

The facility that bears his name — General Rose Memorial Hospital, at the time — proved an enduring institution, evidenced by this year’s 70th anniversary celebration of the HealthOne Rose Medical Center, as it’s known today. The creation of the community-based hospital echoed nationwide.

Gen. Maurice Rose, left, in Normandy, France, in 1944. (National Archives)

Even after the hospital opened in 1949, a Who’s Who of Hollywood entertainers flew to Denver to headline fundraisers in what was still a rustic Western outpost: Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Shelley Winters — the list went on and on. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, already an iconic figure just a few years before winning the presidency, would make the trip to Denver to help lay the hospital’s cornerstone. 

The hospital even benefited from the men who had served under Rose in the Army’s 3d Armored Division. Those soldiers did more than mourn Rose’s death. In what Larry Klauser, board member of the Association of 3D Armored Division Veterans, calls a “very unique” gesture, they raised more than $30,000, which in today’s dollars would total roughly 10 times that amount. 

“Most average soldiers are very removed from upper echelons, the commanding generals and colonels of the division,” Klauser says, noting that in September he delivered a framed replica of the division’s banner to recognize Rose’s anniversary. “Maurice Rose was so well loved by all his men, he didn’t want to be distinguished as something other than a warrior. The guys appreciated that. That’s why when the war was over, they dug into their pockets at a tough time.”

Capt. Edmond F. Noel, who left his residency to work in an Army MASH unit during the war, returned from the South Pacific to finish his medical training in St. Louis, Missouri, before heading west to seek his fortune. He set up his office in Denver’s Five Points, and in 1950 became the first Black physician to be given hospital privileges — at General Rose Memorial Hospital.

Noel practiced there for three decades.

Dr. Edmond Noel shown in his private practice office at 2800 Race St. in Denver. He was the first African American doctor to receive hospital privileges when he began practicing at General Rose Memorial Hospital, now HealthOne Rose Medical Center, in the 1950s. (Courtesy of the Noel family)

“When people were coming back from the war, it was very difficult for minority physicians to get privileges at any of the hospitals here in Denver,” says Dr. Stephen Shogan, a neurosurgeon at Rose as well as a founding trustee of the Rose Community Foundation. “And it was not just anti-Semitism. The Jewish community had the resources to try to do something about it, but it was basically all minority groups that could not get privileges at hospitals in the city.”

And so, he explains, this hospital’s birth grew from local leaders who decided they were going to correct that and build a hospital on their own, one that would allow people like Edmund Noel to be credentialed based only on their medical training, not on their social position. 

“That’s kind of the whole ethic that surrounded the hospital from that point on,” Shogan says. “It made it a special place, and it was very pervasive. In almost everything in the hospital that feeling was maintained.”

In one of Don Kortz’s earliest memories, he’s in his mother’s arms on a spring day. To a small child, there is what seems to be a huge crowd gathered somewhere not far from his home at Sixth Avenue and Hudson Street. And a man who appears to be very important is doing something with a large stone.

Kortz attended the cornerstone ceremony that launched construction because his uncle, Jess Kortz, was part of the group that founded General Rose Memorial Hospital. Although he has no further recollection of that day, he remains closely tied to the institution, having served on its board and, after it was sold to Columbia-Hospital Corporation of America in 1995, became the first president of the Rose Community Foundation, which launched with the $170 million proceeds of the sale.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower lays the cornerstone of General Rose Memorial Hospital in 1949 in east Denver. (Courtesy of Rose Medical Center)

“My uncle told me the first few years were tough,” Kortz says. “This founding group had to come up with money out of their own pocket to keep it going. It wasn’t like you see today. It was a young, struggling institution.”

It was, by design, also diverse.

“Now, all we talk about is diversity and inclusion,” Kortz says. “It was inclusive from the beginning, before you were supposed to be inclusive. It started as a Jewish institution, but ended up as a community institution. That’s what they wanted.” 

But the industry was changing, and In the early 1990s, the ground under health care facilities was shifting. Rising costs made stand-alone hospitals virtually untenable as economies of scale became imperative. Soon large chains began to sniff around the Denver area.

The board of Rose began to take stock and reimagine its future. Kortz recalls a three- to five-year period when Rose analyzed where it was headed. Even though the hospital was profitable, they could see that down the line changes would happen. 

Don Kortz, board member of Health ONE and Rose Medical Center. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“The first part of the investigation was, ‘Do we need to sell?’” Shogan says. “The way that medicine was going, especially in terms of contracting with major insurance companies, it was not something you’d continue to survive long term. You needed to form some kind of an alliance.”

But discussions with other local providers about forming a new conglomerate ultimately didn’t seem like the right fit. Meanwhile, Rose fielded offers. Shogan recalls that, by then, “everybody was pretty convinced that the hospital was not going to be viable by itself, and there’d definitely be an advantage to selling.”

It was painful, and it was controversial. But the decision was made. Kortz recalls that it was especially unpopular among the founders.

“In their mind, this was a hospital that we didn’t care if it made money or not,” he says. “It’s for the community and we want it to always stay within the community.”

But Rose and HCA did strike a deal, after first testing the waters with a short-term management contract. The sale carried some stringent conditions designed to ensure that the hospital’s culture remained intact, including one that gave the Rose Community Foundation veto power over the hiring of the CEO. That power was never used, though Kortz notes that the foundation definitely wielded influence. 

Actress Lucille Ball appears at a fundraiser for Rose Memorial Hospital in its early years. (Courtesy of Rose Medical Center)

Other parts of the deal mandated that Rose would continue to contribute money to community institutions as it always had, that it would continue its indigent care program and its teaching program in concert with the University of Colorado Medical Center, which — even after its move to the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora — still rotates residents through Rose. Additionally, Kortz notes, the sale created an advisory board that, while having no legal powers, certainly had influence in guiding the institution.

The sale went through in April of 1995.

After nationwide research on how to create a philanthropic organization and much community input, the Rose Community Foundation designated five areas of focus — aging, child and family development, education, health and Jewish life. 

Contributions in those areas have had impacts ranging from efforts to help Denver Public Schools develop its pay-for-performance framework for teachers, which included guiding a campaign for a tax increase to pay for it, to funding an advisory position to the governor on health care matters and helping to found the Colorado Health Institute, a major resource for policymakers.

Kortz says the foundation has given out over $200 million and has assets of over $300 million. 

Over the years, the hospital’s dedication to core values became ingrained not only in practice, but in very tangible ways within the institution. In 1998, shortly after the sale, a plaque bearing Rose’s mission statement was enshrined in an entryway.

It offers a look backward at the founding of the hospital but also helped “to propel Rose into the future as well,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, director of chaplaincy services.

An even more powerful link to the past that also became a forward-looking symbol for the instituion is the Holocaust Torah — one of many that were consfiscated by the Nazis during the war. While “tens of thousands” were defiled or destroyed, some were cataloged and stored in a warehouse in Prague, the rabbi explains. After the war, they were discovered and dispersed across the globe, mostly to synagogues but also to academic institutions and a few to health care facilities.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye, director of chaplaincy services for Rose Medical Center, explains Rose’s custodianship and care of one of the 1564 Czech Holocaust Torahs. The scrolls were collected by Nazis as they deported Jews. Rose acquired the torah in 1989 on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust of Westminster Synagogue. Restoration required re-inking every character consistent with the original calligraphy and standards of Jewish law. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In 1989, Rose received what’s believed to be the only such Torah scroll at a health care facility in the Western Hemisphere, and it was put on display and used for community education as well. Kenneth Feiler, the first CEO after the sale, resolved to have it restored — in part to honor a board president who’d died suddenly, but also as a reminder that the Jewish people not only survived the Holocaust, but thrived.

In 2008, a painstaking restoration of the calligraphy was completed. The Torah scroll remains a source of education, community outreach and pride that connects the hospital’s future with its history.

“It truly has been pivotal and a mainstay and perhaps a powerful metaphor for past, present and future core values, connection to community, and how grateful we are to be part of HealthOne and HCA,” Rabbi Kaye says.

In 2018, Ryan Tobin took over as CEO from Feiler. After arriving in Colorado from his home state of Texas, he held positions at North Suburban Medical Center and at St. Anthony before becoming Feiler’s COO for three years prior to assuming leadership.

“Rose is hard to explain, unless you are here and you live it,” Tobin says. “There’s something about this culture that is truly unique, that you feel when you step through the doors. My goal is to make sure the culture they thought of in 1949, to be diverse and take care of the community, lives on.”

That presented him with challenges on multiple levels.

“One part of the challenge is that I am not Jewish,” Tobin says. “I have to be even more purposeful to make sure that we stay a part of the Jewish community, because that is our heritage, it’s how we started. So you get a little anxiety there, making sure you honor their legacy and making sure you start your own.” 

Ryan Tobin, President and CEO of Rose Medical Center meets with the Colorado Sun on Nov. 1, 2019, to discuss the history of Rose and how it’s mission has endured and evolved to meet today’s realities of large-scale medicine. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Becoming part of Rose Medical Center also meant moving from the not-for-profit realm into the for-profit world, and balancing that with the intent of the hospital’s founders. When Rose originally was built, the health care universe revolved around many individual hospitals.

“Now,” Tobin explains, “we live in a world of outpatient surgery centers. How do we adapt to it? That’s more on the business side. But the fundamental cultural elements don’t change.”

The one mentioned most often might be its inclusive nature.

“There was just an esprit that existed at the hospital from the time you first got here,” Shogan says. “The hospital thought of itself as being special. And not just the physicians. I think almost everybody who worked here felt the place was different.” 

Angela and Buddy Noel didn’t grasp the full significance of their father’s connection to Rose until they were older, when the history they learned intertwined with their own experience to clarify both the institution and Dr. Edmond Noel’s singular place in its history.

Buddy, who grew up to become a Denver lawyer, recalls having his tonsils out at Rose, and then knee surgery his senior year in high school. That summer, he got a job at the hospital as a janitor, which he still considers an important passage into adult life.

“I probably learned as much about what a proper work ethic should be at that job at Rose as anything in my life,” Buddy says. “That was when janitors and maids were employees of the hospital, and people lived off the salary they made in those jobs. There was quite a bit of pride in those jobs.

“I learned how to keep a mop white, mopping all day long, in and out of rooms and hallways, never letting your mop show any dirt,” he adds. “There was a level of professionalism and work ethic that maybe I wouldn’t have learned perhaps any other way at that age.”

Their father’s presence at Rose was always a fact of life, and the significance of his experience as the first Black doctor with privileges at a Denver hospital didn’t become a point of conversation until they were grown. And though he rarely spoke at home about his work, they eventually learned how he’d passed on the option of heading back to his Mississippi roots to practice in favor of striking out for the West. In a way, Buddy notes, their parents’ migration to Colorado fit naturally into the course of history. 

“He’d already made the decision to leave what would’ve been a safer path to stay in the South than go west and have nothing assured,” Buddy says. “The pioneers self-selected, and I think Dad was one of those.”

Dr. Edmond Noel. (Courtesy of the Noel family)

Angela, a writer and editor in Oakland, California, figures that fathers in the 1950s and ’60s didn’t often bring a lot of details of their jobs home with them.

“But I had the sense that my dad felt a part of Rose Hospital,” she says. “What I know now is that was a big deal, when so many of the institutions of the day weren’t letting Black men who were professionals in this sphere integrate and join what was happening.” 

In Colorado, Edmond Noel established himself in surgery, general practice and obstetrics, and eventually teamed with his brother, dentist A.J. Noel, to build offices at 2800 Race St. From 1950 to his retirement in 1979, he worked with Rose (and, eventually, with Mercy Medical Center, which closed in 1995) while also serving on the boards of Colorado Blue Cross and Blue Shield and state social services. 

His wife, Rachel Noel, carved her own niche in Colorado history as an educator, politician and civil rights leader.

Edmond Noel forged particularly strong bonds with other doctors at Rose — not only through medicine, but golf. He eventually became a member at Meadow Hills Golf Club, where he shared a Wednesday tee time with a regular group. He also enjoyed his poker nights with friends.

On one occasion, Buddy recalls, Noel, then 63, played late into the night when he began showing clear signs of a heart attack. He calmly informed his friends what was happening — and that they should make sure not to have him transported to what was then known as Denver General Hospital. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the hospital — he just preferred the familiar surroundings of Rose.

“When I went to see him there,” Buddy says, “he had just finished ordering the nurses to turn off his oxygen so he could smoke. It showed the level of respect they had for him that, unfortunately, they did.”

Noel died in 1986 at age 70.

“Looking back on our childhood,” Angela says, “this was an immense achievement for my father and his generation. They had living relatives who were slaves. To have come as far as he did, and his generation did, with the challenges all along the way, it’s remarkable and inspiring now, and I’m sure it was then.”

Rose Medical Center, at 4567 East 9th Ave. in Denver, on November 1, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The generation that Dr. Edmond Noel shared with Gen. Maurice Rose, and the two heroes’ intersection at what has become HealthOne Rose Medical Center, tends to leave a profound impact on those it touches.

For Ryan Tobin, the details of the history behind the institution may represent the sharpest spike in his learning curve as CEO.

“I think I’ve learned more about Maurice Rose than I originally knew,” Tobin says. “I knew that here’s a hospital started after well-thought-of Jewish war veteran who passed away. I don’t think I truly understood how highly thought-of he was within the military, with Eisenhower, with his own infantry, even how the soldiers under him supported the building of this hospital. 

“And you start to realize there’s some pretty incredible people connected with this place, which all leads again to the history and culture.”

One piece of that culture sat in storage and nearly was forgotten over the years. A framed painting of Rose once had hung in the hospital’s lobby, but had been taken down during a 1977 remodel and eventually moved to an office at another location. It depicts Rose in his dress uniform, arms crossed in front of him, standing before a landscape showing the ravages of war giving way to clouds representing the righteous soldiers who died in battle. 

Ryan Tobin, President and CEO of Rose Medical Center. “You start to realize there’s some pretty incredible people connected with this place, which all leads again to the history and culture,” he sai. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Marshall Fogel, a former Denver lawyer who later made a study of Rose’s life, happened across the painting as he was researching his definitive book, “Major General Maurice Rose: The Most Decorated Battletank Commander in U.S. Military History.” 

He remembered the circa-1948 piece from his youth, when he’d find himself at the hospital with his mother, who was a volunteer. He asked if he could have it, with the intent of having the now-weathered portrait, its tobacco-smoke stains also recalling a bygone era, restored and rehung in the hospital lobby. 

Last week, at a celebratory 70th anniversary affair, the painting returned, again linking past to future.

“As I found out more about him, got into the research, all the differences he made in the war, it was fascinating,” Fogel says. “Especially him being of the Jewish faith, and being the first to cross into Germany. It’s pretty biblical. His stature, bearing and good looks added to the story.” 

Once again, he’s a fixture, like the hospital that bears his name.

“What’s good for everybody to know is Rose Medical Center is not going anywhere,” Tobin says. “It will still be within central Denver and this part of town. We’re not looking to build a new facility, we’re looking to continue to service the community we’ve served for 70 years, accept people of all faiths and cultures and diverse backgrounds, making sure this is a hospital people continue to want to go to.

“For Rose, this is going to be our hub. We may open access points somewhere down the road, but this hospital is going to be here, and we’re going to continue to support this community, too.”

Marshall Fogel next to a portrait of Gen. Maurice Rose that he had restored and rehung in the lobby of HealthOne Rose Medical Center, where he remembered it from his youth. (Courtesy of Marshall Fogel)

We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.