CEO Report – A Tribute to Spencer Johnson

Posted on December 02, 2019

“Now he belongs to the ages.” - Edwin Stanton

MHA CEO Brian Peters

The MHA family lost an extraordinary man last month, as our leader of 30 years Spencer Johnson passed away at the age of 75. 

During his time as MHA president, Spence led the successful advocacy effort to reform Michigan’s medical liability statutes in the early 1990s; he launched the MHA Keystone Center in 2003 to reduce medical errors and improve overall safety and quality of care, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars in the process; and he successfully advocated for the passage of Medicaid expansion, which now provides coverage to over 600,000 Michiganders. These are just a few of his notable achievements that helped to define a career dedicated to tirelessly protecting access, coverage and care for all.

Spence served on many boards during his professional career. Notably, he served as a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan board member for 22 years and served as vice chairman from 2008 to 2017. He was honored with many awards and tributes throughout the years; he received the Meritorious Service Award, the MHA's highest honor, for his work to protect patients and providers. In 2001, Spence was given the American Hospital Association Trustees Award in recognition of efforts to improve federal health policy and funding. Under his leadership, the MHA was designated as one of the Best Places to Work in Healthcare in the United States in 2012. Finally, before his retirement, the MHA Board of Trustees formally dedicated the MHA headquarters in Okemos as the Spencer C. Johnson Building, an incredibly fitting tribute to a leader who dedicated so much of his life to our organization and mission. 

Spencer JohnsonThroughout most of his MHA run, Spence had an official mascot: the flying pig. In short, it was symbolic of his willingness to be innovative, to truly think outside the box and take on challenges that seemingly have little to no chance of success – like the prospects of a pig flying. I can remember many an internal meeting (and a fair number of member meetings as well) where Spence offered up his latest brainstorm, and the sense of unease and skepticism was palpable. Then, after applying the best efforts of our talented staff, more often than not, we hit a home run, and Spence was proved correct in his thinking. Machiavelli once observed that “He who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supports in those who might be better off in the new.” Truly a perfect description of the modern workplace, and it underscores the challenge that all leaders face in terms of constantly evolving their organization. By keeping the flying pig mascot front and center with the MHA team, Spence provided constant reminders of the past successes we had achieved against all odds – and giving us encouragement for the next tall task. And speaking of flying pigs, Spence actually came to more than one MHA function wearing a full-blown, bright pink, flying pig costume (there is photographic evidence of this in our files)! It was a good indicator of his ever-present sense of humor that was necessary to cope with a very stressful job.

I owe my MHA career to Spence, as he was the one who hired me as an intern. He gave me the opportunity to spend countless hours with him on our car rides to various member visits and events throughout the state, allowing me to act like a sponge and absorb his significant wisdom about policy, politics, member relations, and association management. I will never forget the first time he took me to lunch at the Country Club of Lansing, where seemingly every person in the building came up to say hello to him – other association executives, Lansing business leaders, politicians and others. He was well-known – and well-liked, and well-respected – everywhere he went. I will also never forget the year that the Johnson family home in Okemos burned to the ground, only weeks before the MHA Annual Meeting, and the way Spence continued to effectively lead the organization through that turmoil. In retrospect, this experience served us well when the old MHA headquarters in Lansing suffered a catastrophic roof collapse that necessitated wholesale staff relocation to temporary quarters (“Camp MHA” as it was affectionately known). Once again, Spence ensured that we delivered on all of our member priorities despite this significant disruption. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” was one of his most favorite expressions, which he recited every time we confronted severe challenges, whether they be related to internal operations, membership strife, or political mayhem. It was a signal to all of us – don’t shy away from the challenge, but rather, embrace it. This is what we live for.      

In the 100-year history of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, no one has been more impactful to our organization – or to Michigan healthcare – than Spence Johnson. The MHA headquarters building in Okemos bears his name with good reason, as he was a visionary leader who dramatically transformed and improved the association during his 30-year tenure as president. Among his many important legacies is this one: there are many, many Michiganders who are alive and well today because of Spence’s compassionate and tenacious advocacy in pursuit of access to high-quality, affordable healthcare for all. Spence was my boss, my mentor and my friend and, like countless others, I mourn his passing but celebrate the extraordinary legacy that he leaves for us all.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.


  • CEO Report – A Tribute to Spencer Johnson

Tags: Brian Peters, CEO Report, Spencer Johnson

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