Leaving a legacy: Altru executives look back on careers

It's hard to believe it's been about 40 years since Dwight Thompson and Dave Molmen came to Grand Forks' hospital as interns, the two said as they recalled their long careers.

CEO Dave Molmen and CFO Dwight Thompson are retiring from Altru Health Systems this year. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
CEO Dave Molmen and CFO Dwight Thompson are retiring from Altru Health Systems this year. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

It's hard to believe it's been about 40 years since Dwight Thompson and Dave Molmen came to Grand Forks' hospital as interns, the two said as they recalled their long careers.

"But I think to myself, who gets to do this?" asked Molmen, the CEO for Altru Health System. "How many people do you know who get to be in the same place and continue to grow for 40 years?"

Molmen and Thompson, Altru's treasurer and chief financial officer, spent almost their entire careers with Altru, formerly known as United Health Services, in Grand Forks. They played key roles in helping Altru expand throughout northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

The health care provider has a presence in almost 30 towns and employs almost 4,000 workers. The two executives also oversaw United's transformation as it changed its name to Altru in 1997.

Both are closing the book this on what they called the biggest chapter of their lives, just months after Altru announced it will build a $250 million hospital at its current location. Thompson plans to retire June 30, and Molmen will leave at the end of the year.


With a smile on his face, Thompson described his work as being "paid for hanging out with people you like," adding he's enjoyed working with the people of Altru.

"You couldn't ask for anything more than that," he said. "It's just always been really meaningful work. You go home and you are just in awe with the people who do what they do."

Mentors and interns

Joining the health care system was among the biggest moments in Molmen's and Thompson's lives, they said. Molmen started as an intern in 1977, while Thompson began his internship in 1980. Shortly after that, the two became full-time employees for United.

Their mentors cared and invested a lot in the two interns, which helped shaped their futures to a great degree, Molmen said.

"As a really young person, to have somebody who's got a really busy life and a lot of responsibilities to invest so personally in you, I think was very influential for both of us," he said.

Their mentors gave the interns some responsibilities they may have not been ready for, Thompson said, but the leaders pushed Thompson and Molmen to be better, he added.

At that time, the hospital's staff did everything they could to make interns feel welcome and part of the team, Thompson said.


"Even though I had an accounting degree, it was all about patient care and the team taking care of patients and how you support that activity," he said.

The two worked in various positions. Thompson became United's director of accounting in 1982, vice president of finance in 1990 and then CFO in 1992. Molmen served as chief operating officer until he was promoted as the CEO in 2008. He had a brief stint as the Medwest Medical Group CEO in Denver, but prior to that he served as the associate administrator for the Grand Forks Clinic and the administrator of the Grand Forks Orthopedic Clinic.

"Even now, after 40 years, I still feel like I'm growing every day," Molmen said.

'Best days, worst days'

The medical industry has gone through major technological changes since Molmen and Thompson started their careers. United went from documenting everything on paper to digitizing all of its information during their time. There were no computers in the early 1980s, but now there are thousands in the health system.

The 1997 flood was one of the most challenging times for the health care provider, Thompson said. It coincided with the name change.

The hospital was a part of their personal lives, he added. Thompson's father and mother-in-law died at the hospital. His child was born upstairs from his office.

But everyone stepped up to do their parts during those tough days, he said.


"Our own families are involved here," he said. "Every day, there's a whole range of emotions in this place, from people having the best days they ever had to the worst days they ever had."

'The perfect day'

Chief Operating Officer Brad Wehe will succeed Molmen Jan. 1. Wehe's position will be phased out after his transition.

Altru still is searching for Thompson's replacement.

Another longtime administrator also announced his retirement from Altru in the last year. Ken Vein stepped down in November as the hospital's administrative director of plant and facilities after 17 years.

Vein did not return messages left by the Herald seeking comment for this story, but he previously told the newspaper in January he resigned voluntarily because he was "extremely busy" in other roles, including as a Grand Forks City Council member.

Thompson and Molmen have seen extensive growth over the years. They came on just shortly after Grand Forks' two hospitals joined as one under United at the current campus. The hospital expanded from a single campus to a regional provider in a matter of four decades.

The two and other leaders announced in November Altru will initiate a "bold new era of care" that includes the construction of a new hospital at its Columbia Road location.


Altru and Grand Forks have made a unique connection, Molmen said, adding he loves the culture of the community and the health care system.

But it's the people that have been a large part of his and Altru's story, Molmen said. So many were involved in creating a "profound" future, something that has been on Molmen's and Thompson's minds every day during their careers, they said.

"Dwight and I were very conscious from the moment that we showed up at this place about the amount of legacy that is in the air here," Molmen said. "For me, this organization has been very special."

The two said Altru is moving forward and "going to great places," Molmen said. Leaving the hospital will be emotional, Thompson said, but they are excited to watch everyone with pride as doctors, nurses and other hospital staff continue the legacy.

"That will be the perfect day," Molmen said of the day he retires. "There won't be any regrets that day."

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