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Building healthy communities

Motivated by a vision of healthier American communities, Leslie and Lowell Kruse created a scholarship to support future leaders through the School of Public Health's Master of Healthcare Administration Program. (Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)

This public health scholarship just might turn our country around

Lowell Kruse was the youngest student in the Master of Healthcare Administration (M.H.A.) Program when he came to the School of Public Health (SPH) in 1965. He was 21 and had just graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His wife, Leslie, was 19. They drove to Minnesota in Lowell’s father’s cattle truck with their furniture and 6-week-old baby. “We were absolutely clueless,” says Leslie. “We looked like the Clampetts.”

Today, the Kruses are older, wiser, and grateful to have accomplished so much. Though they stand out as individuals, they are on fire with a common goal—to raise Americans’ economic, educational, and social well-being to create healthier citizens and healthier communities.

“Our country spends about 17.5 percent of our GDP on health care, and our population just keeps getting sicker,” says Lowell, recently retired CEO of Heartland Health, an integrated health system in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The Kruses believe health care administrators must provide the leadership to help reverse that trend, so they created the $1 million Lowell and Leslie Kruse Scholarship to Build Healthy Communities, a gift to the M.H.A. Program in the SPH.

“We’re talking about developing that leader, that group of leaders, that legion of leaders whose mission is to improve the health of citizens and build healthy communities throughout the country,” Lowell says.

The Kruses have given half of their gift, and the other half will come to the University after their deaths. The first installment alone, together with the University’s President’s Scholarship Match, will make $50,000 available to M.H.A. students beginning in 2011.

“Lowell and Leslie Kruse want to shake up the status quo, and I’m glad they’ve chosen us to help them,” says SPH Dean John Finnegan, Ph.D. “They truly believe that our graduates have the responsibility of turning our country around, and their gift will jump-start a new focus on leadership in our M.H.A. Program.”

A radical change

Before Lowell came to Heartland Health in 1984, he had witnessed how generational poverty and a lack of education can influence health and long-term success. Then, while developing a first-rate hospital, he saw how little correlation there was between having an outstanding hospital and healthy people. Most of the community’s babies were born at Heartland’s hospital. Medicaid paid for 55 to 60 percent of those births.

“We had all these young people starting out poor,” says Lowell. “They were the future of our community, and I realized running the hospital well wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t even close. We had to do something radically different.”

So the Heartland Foundation changed its focus from raising money for the hospital to creating healthy communities. In 2009, Heartland Health received the coveted Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and was the single recipient of the American Hospital Association’s Foster G. McGaw Prize recognizing excellence in community service.

“As health care leaders, we have a moral obligation to run the best organization we can, but we have an even larger moral obligation to use our leadership capacity to look after the overall health and well-being of the people in our community,” Lowell says.

The power of kinship

As Lowell neared retirement, he and Leslie considered funding a scholarship for the M.H.A. program because, as Leslie says, it gave them “the start of a very good life.” Their friend and director of the M.H.A. Program, Sandy Potthoff, Ph.D., had worked with Lowell when he was president of the program’s alumni association and shared their vision.

But what clinched their gift was learning about University President Robert Bruininks’s pledge to make the University of Minnesota one of the top three public research universities in the world.

“I like big, hairy, audacious goals,” says Lowell. “They imply bold, life-changing commitments. Leslie and I are not spending this money on a lark. We have a strong belief in this university and a deep kinship to the School of Public Health and M.H.A. Program.”

How the program will use the Kruse scholarship will be worked out in the coming year, but Potthoff sees a need for it already.

“Every year we get students whose hearts are more around keeping people healthy than leading a health care organization,” she says. “But it can’t be either/or. With this scholarship, we can help those students be successful CEOs and engage in the type of leadership that will help create communities strong in education, health, capacity building, and economic vitality.”

A newly designated SPH Distinguished Fellow, Lowell will spend time with M.H.A. students to teach them how to forge partnerships with leaders in other sectors, like school systems, local governments, business communities, and nonprofits, to develop collective responsibility for building and sustaining a healthy community.

“Leslie and I are issuing nothing less than a call to action to figure out a new strategy for health and prosperity in our country,” says Lowell. “It’s going to be harder than putting a man on the moon, and it’ll be a complicated son-of-a-gun, but I’m glad we’re doing it here.”

By Martha Coventry

To learn how you can support the School of Public Health or make a planned gift, contact Adam Buhr at 612-626-2391 or

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