Health care entrepreneur excused from CSU in '68 still supports the school, employees who want to go there

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Bob Wilson didn’t exactly drop out of Colorado State University in 1968, he just wasn’t invited to return. “I loved college,” he said. “I just had a few problems with the classes.”

Turns out he really didn’t need those classes. On May 13, 2016 he received CSU’s highest award, Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa, for his extraordinary work as a pioneer in the field of senior care. As founder and owner of Columbine Health Care Systems, he has provided housing, meals, medical, pharmaceutical, rehabilitation, home care and transportation services to thousands of area seniors during 45 years in business. In 2015 he received the Charles A. Lory Public Service Award for his work.

Since the 70s, he’s been a strong supporter of CSU providing scholarships, field trips and learning activities in the field of gerontology. Today he owns and operates three individual living facilities, three assisted living facilities and five skilled nursing facilities in Fort Collins, Loveland and Windsor.

He is in the process of building Westwood Village in Windsor, patio homes that will be for rent. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Wilson says. “It’s for people who have divested themselves of a big home, want to downsize, are not interested in buying and want to maintain their independence. It’s step before independent apartment living.”

The development is not part of a calculated, long-range plan. Wilson doesn’t work that way. He has developed a pattern of watching for opportunities and following his gut, one land purchase and one building project at a time.

He earned his business degree tossing newspapers as a kid in Iowa. “I was a paper boy.” he explains. “That’s where I learned the three things you need to know to be successful in business: Give good service, collect your money and pay your bills.”

By the time he’d packed his bags and come to Colorado, Wilson had worked in a gas station and on his father’s farm. “I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer,” he said. “You plow up and down the field, over and over, and it’s lonely. I’m a people person.”

He proved that quickly when he found himself in need of a job after his stint at CSU. Over a beer at a local hangout, he got into a conversation with a fellow who was working on a crew building an addition to Columbine East Nursing Home, one of the oldest in Fort Collins. Wilson signed on as a carpenter and soon got to know the occupants. He enjoyed the work enough that Columbine hired him as a janitor and maintenance man.

Within months the nursing home was in bankruptcy, caused by the owner overextending himself. Home Federal Bank in Fort Collins took possession and banker Harry Kahler, on the recommendation of one of Wilson’s co-workers, suggested this young man had what it took to run the place. Wilson first leased and later bought the nursing home from Home Federal in 1971.

A few years later he bought 30 acres of land from the Everitt Companies, and began to develop the area now known as the Columbine Health Systems campus. By the early 1990s, Wilson owned the largest senior health care and retirement living company in the region.

He credits his success to maintaining a balance between money and morality, admitting that he likes making money, but also enjoys giving it away to charities of his choice. And he does it quietly, happy to keep a low profile.

Wilson cares as much about his employees as he does about the seniors he serves, making sure generous benefits come with their jobs. Since 1973, he has been contributing to a scholarship program at CSU. Recently a nurse at his Lemay Avenue Rehabilitation facility asked to speak with him. “I just wanted to let you know that I will always work at Columbine,” she said. “Because of you I was able to earn a CNA, then LPN and finally an RN degree. I’m a single mom and because of you I have been able to elevate the state of living for my family. Thank you.”

“I love to build,” Wilson says confiding that he has built six different houses for himself in the Fort Collins area. Today he lives in a contemporary home on an expansive acreage south and east of Fort Collins where the Big Thompson River runs through it. His wife Kitty has room for her horses and he has a building to store his collection of cars. The house is on one floor, has wide doorways and no steps. Wilson thinks ahead.

Wilson and his wife Kitty recently gave $5 million to establish the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging to be housed in the CSU Health and Medical Center now under construction. “It’s going to be unique in the United States,” Wilson said. “A major hospital, a university and a private health care company will be working together.” The center will provide educational opportunities for students, outreach and will research the factors leading to healthy aging.

Wilson often visits his son, an engineer living in Anchorage, Alaska, where they enjoy hunting and fishing together. Both his daughters are teachers in Denver. He did not encourage any of his children to join him in his business, instead hoping each of them would find their own way in the world.

“A good decision,” he says.

If genetics have anything to say about it, 68-year-old Wilson will be working for a long time to come. Stella, his mother, now 100, lives in the Columbine system and still comes to work a couple of times a week supervising the uniform department.

Wilson doesn’t put in the long hours he once did. He has surrounded himself with enough good people that he is no longer constantly on call. “I’m not in here every day,” he explains. He’s not getting very specific regarding future plans but says, “I’ll hang on as long as everyone takes care of things.”