The Lincoln Legacy

Written by Kaila White Category: History Issue: April 2012
Group Free

North Phoenix owes two of its hospitals, a street name, a resort, and much of its community spirit to one visionary man.

Once just a cottage and chapel in the middle of a tuberculosis-ridden tent city, the John C. Lincoln Health Network is now two not-for-profit hospitals, a handful of community-service organizations, and a testament to the Valley-wide legacy of the charismatic inventor and entrepreneur who gave the organization his name.

Born in Ohio to an abolitionist minister and his physician wife, John C. Lincoln made an early and spectacular success of himself, founding Lincoln Electric in 1895 and guiding the firm to prominence by inventing and marketing the world’s first portable arc welder. Life was good for John C. in the Midwest until his young wife, Helen Lincoln, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1931. After a whopping six minutes of thought, John C. (by then already in his 50s) decided to pack up their three kids and leave Cleveland for Arizona, the state of rumored respiratory magic.

Within two years, Helen was again healthy and the family had started to work with Desert Mission, a haven for the sick and poor of Sunnyslope.  “It was a tuberculosis colony way north of town,” says David Lincoln, the family’s youngest son. “It was north of the canal so there wasn’t even irrigation there.”

The Lincolns’ first donation of $2,000 in 1933 helped buy 20 acres for the Mission’s expansion, a contribution that kicked off a multi-generational commitment to the organization, which was renamed the John C. Lincoln Health Network in 1954. Helen, David, and now David’s daughter Katie Lincoln have all been members of the network’s board of directors.

While John C. signed the checks, it was Helen who had a true passion for health care. Standing as tall as her husband’s shoulders, Helen was bright, strong-willed and active in every sense of the word. A college graduate and former teacher of math and science, Helen was the one who fought for the burgeoning network. When she called a meeting in the 1940s to begin planning the future North Mountain Hospital and not a single person showed up, she sat down on a flagstone rock near the current site, mustered up some ideas and made sure to tell everyone all about them when she came back.

phm0412 pfhistory2 lg“I’ve always said about [Helen] that she didn’t quite understand what the [19th] amendment was, to give women equal rights,” Katie Lincoln says. “She said ‘because why do you need a piece of paper telling you what you can and can’t do? Just do.’”

While Helen dedicated her time to developing health care, John C. pursued endless inventions and businesses – his self-made millions came in part from a staggering 54 patents in 64 years. His first patent was an electric brake for street-railway cars in 1891; a 55th was awarded posthumously for a spring cushion that’s still used in cars today. The man’s inquisitive spirit was present from the first day he arrived in Arizona.

“We were staying in two large suites at a very nice resort, the Jokake Inn,” David Lincoln says about the family’s first weeks in Arizona. “This was the midst of the Great Depression, so they were happy to have a family of five for winter. Otherwise, I don’t think they would have liked it when dad turned their bathroom into a chemical lab to test different coatings on welding rods!”

In fact, John C.’s array of interests often left little time for family, but Helen, headstrong and young, made a perfect match.

“Dad was an entrepreneur, so he was out looking after smaller businesses and real estate, [and] to quite a degree it was really mother who raised us,” David says. “Dad, being 25 years older [than Helen] was, in some respects, like a grandfather. Mother was the one that ran the show.”

Despite being busy most of the day like many fathers of the time, John C. was home for dinner every night, David says. With a well-tended family at home, John C. was free to pursue the causes that shaped Phoenix forever.

A close look at the Valley shows Lincoln’s mark in places as eclectic as his interests. His funding was crucial to the construction of the Camelback Inn in Paradise Valley, a luxury resort that attracted some of the first wealthy travelers to Phoenix. Strong supporters of the YMCA, the Lincolns were the biggest contributors to the Downtown Phoenix location. Even the scenic Lincoln Drive in Phoenix is named after him.

Despite the never-ending list of accomplishments, John C. resisted the limelight, allowing Desert Mission to take his name in 1954 only after some 20 years of involvement and strong encouragement from Helen.

Much like its benefactor, the health network values innovation. In 1967, the hospital became the first in Phoenix to have an FAA-approved heliport, and in 1979, it became a Level I Trauma center, all while maintaining its charitable values.

“There wasn’t a question about whether you’re going to give back; it was how much,” Katie says of her grandparents. “They were very ethical people who believed in community... not simply about the people that had a lot of money or who had land or access to good health care.”

When John C. died in 1959 at age 92, Helen and his friends almost immediately began fundraising for an official hospital to commemorate his deeds; the multi-storied John C. Lincoln Hospital we know today opened its doors in 1965. Helen lived to be 102, beating her prognosis by six decades.

“They shared a passion; they shared a view of the world,” Katie says of her grandparents. Brad Hansen, one of the network’s board chairmen, says their sense of community service is instilled in their family and their endeavors.

Just last September, David Lincoln and his wife, Joan, donated $4 million to make the lobby at John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital more modern and welcoming, because, as David puts it simply, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

“They kind of live by their actions rather than words,” Hansen says. “The Lincoln family today got their drive from John C.”