In nearly 40 years at the helm of Fairview Health Systems, Carl Nicolai Platou changed the face of medicine in Minnesota and the nation.

“He wasn’t a doctor, but he was a genius at organizing, reorganizing and improving medicine,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale, a longtime friend. “He was a very important Minnesotan who helped move medicine here and across the nation into a far better place.”

Platou, of Wayzata, died on Tuesday of pancreatic cancer. He was 88.

Platou aspired to follow in the footsteps of several physician uncles, but in his first semester of science and math classes at the University of Minnesota, he ended up with three Ds, an F and an incomplete, said longtime friend Paul Olson, a former president of the Blandin Foundation. “I said, 'Carl, you don’t have a scientific mind.’ ”

Platou agreed and instead earned a master’s degree in hospital administration. Before retiring in 1988, he had transformed Fairview Hospitals from a struggling single hospital in Minneapolis into a multi-hospital system.

Today, the 100-year-old nonprofit owns seven hospitals and operates more than 40 primary care clinics. There are more than 22,000 Fairview employees in Minnesota, including 700 physicians.

“He created the Fairview system. It’s been somewhat controversial of late, but he left it in good hands. … It was a model for creating nonprofit hospitals … and it was a way to finance the expansion into the suburbs. All the old hospitals were in the center cities, and he saw the suburbs mushrooming,’’ Olson said.
“He was one of the greatest visionaries that you could ever hope to meet,” Olson said. “But he knew how to make those visions become a reality by enlisting the movers and shakers who could make it happen. He could get them to buy into his dream and make it happen.”

“What makes him remarkable is that he was a true gentleman,” said Bob Pohlad, whose family owns the Minnesota Twins and has been a longtime friend of the Platou family. “He was bright, curious, sensitive and caring of all those around him.”

After retiring, Platou joined the University of St. Thomas to develop the master’s track in health care administration and then worked intensely with the University of Minnesota School of Medicine to develop a biomedical research park. He helped create the Board of Visitors, which worked at the legislature to win nearly $300 million for the project.

“His legacy will be that research center at the university,” said former Gov. Arne Carlson, another friend. “That frankly was his vision. … He had this ability to talk to you about this small project when he really had in mind this huge project. But once he got you committed to this small project, then it was just a matter of time and you were working on the big project. ...  Instead of talking about a conglomerate of buildings, he would talk about them one at a time ... No sooner would you finish one building and then he would say, 'We’re ready for number two.’ He was a master architect. And he was masterful at raising money and working with government. He frankly was good.”

Platou brought out the best people and then got them to collaborate, Carlson said. “In that way, he was a masterful politician,” he said. “I’m serious. The best I ever met.”

He made everyone feel like they were part of the team and was profuse in his gratitude, Carlson added.
“I think it goes back to his combat days,” Carlson said. “I remember sitting down and talking to him about it, and you can see his eyes well up.” Platou earned numerous military honors for his service in the Pacific during World War II and was part of a 31-day battle in the Philippines that left him one of just 10 Marines who survived out of 100 who landed.

“It was about the reality that your survival depended on your relationship with your buddy,” Carlson said. “We are all interdependent.”

Platou’s friendships reached far and wide, including rubbing elbows with a veritable list of who’s who in Minnesota.

“He knew just about everyone,” Olson said. “I checked into an emergency room last week, and the emergency room doc said, 'I know Carl.’ ”

Olson said his friend was a man with a tremendous sense of humor who could laugh at himself. At Christmastime, he and other hospital executives dressed up as chickens and in other ridiculous costumes and served workers lunch. “He just didn’t take himself that seriously,” Olson said.

He was well-read and could recite the poetry of his 6-year-old grandson, Olson said. “I’ve known a lot of people in my life, but I tell you, nobody compares to Carl.”

Platou is survived by his wife, Susan Platou of Wayzata; children Pepper Kenney of Peoria, Ill., Kenneth Platou of Mt. Shasta, Calif., Patricia Garlinghouse of Boulder, Colo., and Nancy Steinke of Minnetonka Beach; stepchildren Robert Cox of Los Angeles, Sarah Cox Miller of Minneapolis and Christopher Cox of Mound; a brother, Harald Platou of Los Osos, Calif.; seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Visitation will be from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Washburn-McReavy Funeral Home in Edina. Funeral services will be at 3 p.m. Monday at the Wayzata Community Church.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788