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Ruth Rothstein, former chief of Cook County health services, dies at 90

Ruth RothsteCook County Hospital emergency room 1994.   |   Sun-Times files

Ruth Rothstein in the Cook County Hospital emergency room in 1994. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: September 6, 2013 9:44AM

When she was handed the reins of Cook County Hospital, Ruth Rothstein found a filthy, unorganized, patronage-laden machine that lacked morale, direction and energy.

It was “a big behemoth,” Mrs. Rothstein told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994, four years after then-Cook County Board President Richard J. Phelan appointed her as chief of the county’s Bureau of Health Services.

“I thought it was a crazy place. I didn’t know that I could do anything,” she said.

Her self-doubt was unfounded. She did a lot.

“There was no discipline. When she came in, she cracked the whip,” former Commissioner Mary McDonald told the Sun-Times for a 1994 profile of Mrs. Rothstein. “She cleaned up the place. She got competent people working there. She’s also improved morale.”

The hospital had lost its accreditation shortly before Mrs. Rothstein took over. It was restored within a year.

She also successfully worked to reopen the county-owned Provident Hospital on the South Side.

Mrs. Rothstein worked with the city’s Department of Health to develop a countywide system of primary health care at satellite clinics for the poor. She was a driving force behind the construction of John H. Stroger Hospital, and she forged a private-public partnership to construct an AIDS research and treatment facility on the West Side that bears her name: The Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center.

Mrs. Rothstein died early Sunday following a recent stroke. She was 90.

“I accomplish things. I get things done,” she told the Sun-Times in the 1994 profile.

Mrs. Rothstein was one of four children of Jewish immigrants, Hyman and Beatrice Merson. She grew up in New York City during the Depression.

“She was a woman who, with a high school education and at the age 18, started out as a union organizer in Youngstown, Ohio,” said her son, Jonathan Rothstein. “They were organizing hundreds of thousands of workers at a time. It was a big social movement. She always said that was her graduate school.”

Mrs. Rothstein went to work for a number of unions, organizing workers in New York City, Cleveland and Chicago.

About a year after her arrival here in 1949, she married David Rothstein, a successful labor lawyer who died in 1984.

Around 1952, her attention shifted from unions to the medical field, after on-the-job training as a lab technician. She later got a job at Jackson Park Hospital, where she became personnel director in 1962.

Her career began to soar after she took an administrative post at Mount Sinai Hospital in 1966.

During more than 20 years at the facility, she held various positions that led to her appointment as president and CEO in 1977.

Jonathan Rothstein recalled his mother’s trek to work during a big snowstorm in the ’60s. “We lived in Evanston and she was working at Mount Sinai and there was like four feet of snow on the ground. And she walked two miles from our house to the train at Howard Street so she could go downtown and flag a ride with an emergency vehicle to the West Side so she could be at the hospital to know everything was running properly and people were being taken care of.”

Mrs. Rothstein ascended the ranks at a time when few woman held executive titles.

“I guess she kind of defied gender stereotypes,” her son said. “But part of it was just because she refused to accept any limitations. I don’t know if she thought of herself as being any sort of feminist pioneer. She was just smart and tough and strong. My father used to say that if she worked at a gas station she would pump twice as much gas as anyone else.”

Friends knew her as a no-nonsense woman who didn’t mince words.

She would stand up to anyone, especially any Cook County commissioners who tried to mess with her budget requests by calling her out on minute expenditures.

“Anybody who thought she was a pushover about that budget, she would just cut ’em at the legs, just cut ’em off,” recalled Cook County Commissioner John Daley. “She’d say, ‘Please open the budget to page 194 or whatever’ and show them. She knew her budgets back and fourth.”

Mrs. Rothstein retired from her job with Cook County in 2004, when she turned 80.

“But she worked until the end,” said Jonathan, noting that his mother served as chair of the Board of Trustees of the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.

She also pulled for the little guy until the end, recently keeping tabs on the struggle of fast-food workers and their fight for higher pay and benefits.

“Those were the people she was with. That was her fight. She just had this mentality that no one should have to go without,” her son said.

Mrs. Rothstein also is survived by her daughter, Martha, and grandson, Max, whom she referred to as “the love of my life.”

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Ezra-Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, 4500 West Dempster St., Skokie.

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