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Dr. Nicholas Wolter

Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Nicholas Wolter is recognized in September 2012 for 30 years of service to the organization. 

Keith Wolter chuckles when remembers his dad, Nicholas Wolter, sitting in his armchair in his Paradise Valley home dispensing wisdom. 

"He could pack a lot of wisdom into a few short words," added Nicholas Wolter's daughter Megan Zatz. 

"He was that person for a lot of people," Keith Wolter said. 

Nicholas Wolter, 70, died Friday at his home in Pray, south of Livingston. A St. Paul, Minnesota, native, Wolter moved to Billings after completing medical school in New York and Michigan and set up a practice with Billings Clinic in 1982. 

He flourished there and ended up serving as the Clinic's first director of critical care and later as director of respiratory therapy. Those leadership roles led him to the Clinic's executive committee, where he served as chairman. There, he played a key role in the Clinic's merger with Deaconess Medical Center in 1993.

By 1997, Wolter was leading Billings Clinic as CEO, a role he kept until his retirement in 2017. It was a full career marked by many notable accomplishments. 

Still, "He was just our dad," Zatz said.

"He had a whole other side to him," said his daughter Ellen Wolter. 

Nicholas Wolter was an English major in college in the 1970s and, after graduation, went on to teach English and history at a private school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. That pushed him to go back to school for a master's degree in American Culture and finally going on to medical school at the University of Michigan. 

Even after becoming a doctor, he made sure music, theater, art and literature still played an enormous role in his life. He used to give his doctors mix CDs with collections of songs he was enjoying at the time. He often encouraged his doctors to do the same and share with him the music that moved them. 

Billings Clinic white coat ceremony

Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Nicholas Wolter puts a white coat on resident Felipe Martignoni during a ceremony in June 2016. Wolter began at Billings Clinic, before it merged with Deaconess Medical Center, as a physician in 1982.

"Periodically, he'd send (us) little poems," Keith Wolter said, either compositions he had written or lines from someone else that impacted him. 

Nicholas Wolter was an enthusiastic fly fisherman and once gave his grandson, Zatz's son, a collection of writings by Montana authors about fly fishing.

"He had a really thoughtful way about him," Zatz said. 

Dr. Randall Gibb, Billings Clinic CEO, was a physician and the hospital's chief medical officer when Wolter announced his retirement. Gibb had worked closely with Wolter and became his successor.  

What always impressed Gibb was Wolter's focus on the role of physicians and the importance of the patient, even as he left daily practice to take on the role of administrator. 

"He was always a physician first," Gibb said. And he prioritized people, "keeping patients central" to the mission of the hospital. 

That focus on physicians and patients, and Billings' location on the edge of the Great Plains, instilled in Wolter a deep devotion to rural medicine and a desire to invest resources and create partnerships to bolster it. 

Wolter and his team at the hospital spent five years working to sell the Helmsley Charitable Trust on the idea of establishing an internal medicine residency at the Clinic. It worked and the residency program was announced in 2014. 

Attracting quality medical professionals to some of the more remote parts of Eastern Montana has long been a struggle and Wolter believed that if more doctors trained here they would stay here to practice medicine.

In the end it worked. Six of the eight residents who graduated from the program in 2017 stayed in the region. 

Its success led the Helmsley Charitable Trust to invest in Billings Clinic again this year and set up a psychiatric residency program at the hospital, which would this time bring mental health professionals to rural Montana. 

"He really laid the foundational elements" of the Clinic's mission, Gibb said. 

Wolter was humble about his successes at the hospital. He often attributed the Clinic's recognition and achievements to the doctors and staff working around him. 

"He really loved the people at the Clinic," Ellen Wolter said. "I know he's missed being side by side with them."

Zatz talked about how much there was to the man. His love of people, of the arts, of medicine and his desire to ensure that quality health care is available in rural Montana combined to create a truly remarkable person. 

"All sides of him were pretty cool," she said. "We were lucky to have him as a dad."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.