As Mardian Blair sits in the dining room of his comfortable home, a palm tree outside the window and his wife of 66 years beside him, he remembers many crossroads that have brought him to this point. And he’s pretty sure he was headed in the right direction most of the time. One of those roads brought him to Union College, and he credits the faculty and staff at Union for helping keep him on the right path.
The son of a sheep rancher and a nurse, Blair thanks his mother for sending him and his brother to Campion Academy and Union College. “My mother was the driving force,” Blair said. “She believed in Adventist education, and she wanted the best for us.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after she passed away during his senior year of high school that he came to value academic achievement as highly as she had.
He spent that summer between high school and college pasturing sheep at high altitude in Colorado. It was just him, the flock, a few books and a lot of time to think.
Shepherding life change
“In academy, I wasn’t a good student,” Blair remembered. “I didn’t study. I worked a great deal. I was also a bit of a challenge as far as the school leaders were concerned … I was a poor student with problems.”
Alone on the mountain, Blair had with him a book that correlated success in life with academic success. He knew he wanted the former, but had not achieved the latter. He read the book and, with little else to do, re-read it many times. Finally it got through to him. Fresh from his mountaintop conversion, Blair headed to Union with a new dedication to studying. But first, he had to learn how.
“I had trouble learning to study because I’d never done it,” Blair said. “The first semester was difficult, but by the second semester, I did very well.” His transformation was total, and it took a while for those who had known him before to believe it. The new leaf he had turned over wasn’t limited only to academics; he found a new relationship to the church and with God.
Another crossroads for Blair came while choosing a major. He wanted to be a physician—to work in health care like his mother. But he hated his biology classes. He switched to business and loved those courses, but still had an unsettled feeling drawing him toward medicine.
He had later even taken a battery of career aptitude tests. “I don’t know why you’re here,” said the counselor. “All of these tests indicated an aptitude for business.”
In hindsight, the calling Blair felt toward medicine wasn’t wrong. He would spend his career employing his business aptitude in the health care industry, ensuring tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and other professionals at one of America’s largest hospital systems had the resources to serve their patients and communities.
I don’t know why he picked me
However, there was still a long journey ahead, and Robert Firth, chair of Union’s business department, was insistent on which path Blair should take after graduating in 1954. “My senior year, he approached me about going to the University of Nebraska and paying for it with a teaching assistantship,” Blair said. “I told him I didn’t want to do it. He came back a second time and encouraged me more. I told him I wasn’t interested. He came back a third time a couple weeks later and urged me to at least have the interview. I did it, only because I felt obligated to him.”
Blair was offered and accepted the assistantship. “[Firth] must have had some reason to push me,” said Blair. “I wasn’t an exceptional student … Why he picked me out, I don’t know, but it was a blessing.”
According to Blair, the decision to go to graduate school changed the course of his life. While he attended for only one semester before being drafted, he was awarded the assistantship again after completing his two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After returning to Nebraska, he was able to complete his first master’s degree.
The way to a woman’s heart
Perhaps the biggest decision Blair faced at Union was whom he would walk beside on life’s journey. There was a girl in some of his business classes, Joan Peters, and he was quite taken with her. Unfortunately, she was already taken, or as Blair puts it, “socially occupied.”
The summer before Blair’s senior year, he heard her status had finally changed. Upon returning to campus for his final year, he wasted no time. After dropping his belongings in his room but before unpacking them, he went to see Joan in the accounting office where she worked. He asked her out on a date, and she accepted.
However, Joan wasn’t so sure Blair would be an asset. He remembers having a heart-to-heart with Monte Culver, Union’s dean of men at the time. Culver asked him how things were going with Joan. When Blair confessed they weren’t going very well, Culver suggested he send Joan a bouquet of roses on Friday evening just before Sabbath.
Joan was happy to receive the flowers and decided to place them on the dresser in her dorm room. The only problem: there was a picture of a different young man on the dresser. If she placed the flowers next to it, they would appear to have come from the competition. Faced with a decision of some gravity, Joan put the roses on the dresser and banished the picture to a drawer from which it never resurfaced.
It wasn’t long before Blair popped the question; she said “yes.” The two tied the knot a month after graduation. From then on, the Blairs have faced each crossroads together: two smart, capable and caring partners.
Called to a career in health care
Blair’s career could easily fill a book—or two. From Nebraska, he, Joan and their growing family moved to Hinsdale Hospital where he worked first as a billing clerk. The tedium of the job drove him to visit other hospitals and find better ways to do it. The initiative he showed in speeding up the billing process by 25-30 percent got noticed. By 28, he was the assistant administrator of the hospital and had finished a second master’s at Northwestern. By his early thirties, he was running the place. “I tried to look older,” said Blair, who admits that he felt in over his head.
Hard work and a steady approach brought continued success for Blair. He stayed as Hinsdale administrator for seven years before becoming the president of Portland Adventist Medical Center.
Next Blair became president of Florida Hospital. Within five years, Blair was promoted to CEO of Adventist Health System, the parent corporation of Florida Hospital and approximately 24 other facilities.
When he took over the reins of the corporation in 1984, the former shepherd faced a corporate flock facing extreme financial issues. “That terrified me,” Blair said.
But he plowed ahead with sometimes painful changes—including closing some facilities and significantly reducing corporate staff and expenses.
Even these drastic changes didn’t seem like enough—especially when a proposed merger with another Adventist health network fell apart. Blair remembers one late night at the office when it seemed all paths led in the wrong direction. He prayed.
“I prayed the Lord would somehow see us through, and He did. Somehow we got a new spirit,” he recalled. “It really is quite amazing what happened … over a period of four or five years we gradually came out of it.”
Blair remained CEO of Adventist Health System until 2000. He was able to mentor an exceptional team of leaders that has continued to grow the system. Now merged with several Adventist and community hospitals into AdventHealth, the system stretches across 10 states, employs more than 80,000 people, and is one of the three largest health care providers in the United States.
Looking back at his years shepherding AHS, Blair says he is most grateful for the people he had around him. “If you have good people, everything works … it just does,” said Blair. “Fortunately we had good people and there are excellent people there today.”
Blair’s contribution to health care goes beyond any decisions he made at the office. In addition to their five children, Mardian and Joan are blessed with eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren so far. Unsurprisingly, many of their family work in healthcare now, following a path started by Blair’s mother, the nurse who believed in Adventist education.
Blair thinks a lot about the intersections of life. He’s made a list of the crossroads, of which this article only enumerates a few. “Yogi Berra said ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it,’” Blair recounted. “But it does make a huge difference which roads you take. Had I gone to a different college? Who knows? If I hadn’t married Joan? It could have been worse. It couldn’t have been better.”
The paths he has taken in life illustrate that success is not just about being in the right place at the right time. Success also requires preparation, focus, diligence, the right attitude—and the right people beside you.
Bjorn Karlman is a freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.