Leading Delta Health Center into the Future
By Jack Criss • Photography By GUNNER SIZEMORE PHOTOGRAPHY
Cleveland native John A. Fairman, Sr., has led a storied and impressive life and career. The current CEO of the Delta Health Center, Inc., based out of Mound Bayou, has worked in numerous leadership roles in the healthcare administrative field across the nation and the Delta is incredibly fortunate to have a native son back in the region working for the betterment of its citizens.
Born in Cleveland in 1949 to the Reverend J.W. Fairman and a school teacher mother, Luberta, Fairman attended H.M. Naylor Elementary School and graduated from Eastside High School in 1968 where he was a standout basketball and football player as well as president of the student council. One of twelve children, all of whom going on to become college graduates (except for two who fell short two credits Fairman says), all became professionals in their careers.
Fairman obtained a basketball scholarship (along with one of his brothers) to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, where he eventually obtained his B.S. degree in General Business. He advanced his education further at Trinity University in San Antonio, receiving his M.S. in Health Care Administration. “It was an interesting time, to say the least,” recalls Fairman, “both from an educational standpoint and a civil rights perspective. Growing up in Cleveland, the town was fairly progressive as far as race went. But I still recall the current walking trail as the railroad track that was the dividing line between the white side of town and the black side of town. I never had any white classmates until I went to college at Hardin-Simmons.
“In college, even though I was a very good ball player, because of my family background I focused more on academics than athletics,” recalls Fairman. “But, I must say that I had, shall we say, several ‘interesting’ experiences with my coach and playing on the basketball team. I was a good athlete, which was my saving grace, but the coach and I butted heads on many occasions. The coach was white and he had some problems with many of my black teammates—especially me. I heard that I had too many girlfriends, was too involved in student politics—any number of offenses he could come up with to make my life harder. During this same time, though, I started working part time in the admissions office of a hospital directly across the street from campus. The administrator there at the time, Boone Powell, Jr., was a big booster of the school and a big fan of the Fairman brother athletes. So that, really, was my start in the field I’m in today.
I wanted to help people,” continues Fairman, “but, I didn’t necessarily want to be in social work. So, hospital administration was suggested to me along the way during that time and it became my career trajectory. Boone Powell, Sr. was the founder of Blue Cross Blue Shield—he and his son were major players in the field, as you can imagine. After I graduated college, then, I moved to Chicago where, interestingly enough—and this is a long story—I was accepted into a banking training program. However, I got a call from Boone, Jr. one day asking why I wasn’t pursuing a career in healthcare administration. Lo and behold, not long after that conversation I received an overnight letter saying I had been accepted into Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. so my wife at the time (the late Versia Dillard Fairman) and I packed up, with hardly a dime to our name, and came back down south. In the back of my mind, I thought that maybe Boone, Jr. had pulled some strings to get me admitted. It turned out, however, that I had the third highest GRE score in the class which I discovered somewhat clandestinely from a new friend I had made who had gotten his hands on all of the entry exam test scores.”
Almost out of money at the time, Fairman and his wife moved into the house of a white couple, Jim and Sarah Burns, after being turned down for a rental home because of their skin color. “Yes, we were told the house was not available when we showed up to take a look,” recalls Fairman. “But, then Jim called the guy renting that we had met with that same day and was told that it was still open to rent. On the basis of housing discrimination, we did sue and ended up winning the case but only received $1000 from the judge. Of course, that felt like we had won the lottery at the time. We eventually found a place to stay and, after graduating from Trinity, I was offered a residency at a hospital in Houston since I was one of the top students in the program. I got a job offer from the Harris County Hospital District after completing a twelve month residency with Memorial Hospital, Corpus Christi, Texas.”
Fairman says he specifically wanted to stay in the south for his career. “At this time, most of the African-Americans in my field were moving north and getting jobs there. That wasn’t for me. I deliberately wanted to be hired and recognized for my skills and knowledge, not necessarily for my skin color. Plus, I wanted to live and contribute to the region I came from. So after I left Corpus Christi, I worked as an assistant administrator in Houston for the Harris County Hospital District, the third largest public hospital system in the country at that time where I served from 1974 to 1988 with a variety of assignments in several hospitals. With my graduate degree in Hospital Administration I was able to move up the ranks quickly. In fact, my graduate thesis ended up serving as a model and basis for the state of Texas on how the residency of undocumented peoples was determined in the health field,” says Fairman.
During this time in his career, in his mid-20s, Fairman became well known for his hospital/healthcare administrative innovations and work. He re-engineered programs and services throughout the Harris County Hospital District resulting in reduced expenses, increased revenues, expansions, pay-for-performance systems with Union support, nursing acuity systems, a landmark patient financial eligibility system and others while serving, at various times, as Interim Director, Interim Executive Director and Deputy Chief Administrator/COO for various hospitals and systems in the Harris County Hospital District.
Obviously, other offers were coming in from around the country for Fairman with his high visibility and notable accomplishments. One notable such offer came from Harlem Hospital in New York City as Executive Director. “I was offered the job, but was making more money in Houston to be honest,” says Fairman. “I said as much to the committee that was presenting the position to me to accept. Their response was to ‘serve MY people.’ I didn’t miss a beat and replied, ‘You must think I’m black.’ That puzzled them. I went on to say I was a red-blooded American capitalist— who was also a single parent by this time—and that I needed to take care of myself and my kids. I’ll say this about that meeting,” chuckles Fairman—”they did drive me back to the airport!”
Eventually, however, Fairman did accept the job of CEO for Denver Health and Hospitals, in December of 1987, staying until late1990. His enormous responsibilities and accomplish-ments were many during his stint in Colorado, including increasing grant funds from $500,000 to $55 million annually. “It was a great opportunity for me and I had my hand in almost every aspect of healthcare administration,” he says. “I reported directly to the mayor of Denver during that time and it was a highly visible position. We even took a trip to what was then the Soviet Union to examine their health practices. The politics of it, though, were the downside of the job.”
Fairman eventually went out on his own, forming a consulting company—The Fairman Group, Inc.—which he headed from 1990 to 1992, from 2000 to 2005 and, again, from 2007 to the present time. With clients all over the country, Fairman lent his expertise, skill and knowledge to hospitals, foundations, state and federal agencies and community health centers. Among those clients were The Ford Foundation and the Leslie Rudd Foundation.
From 1992 until to 2000, Fairman worked in Washington, D.C. where he was Associate Administrator/Operations and then Executive Director/CEO of D.C. General Hospital. In his first nine months as CEO, he reduced a $9 million deficit, saving it from closing, as well as operating the largest outpatient HIV/AIDS program in the city. While in D.C., Fairman also helped form the Health and Hospitals Public Benefit Corporation where he also served as CEO. “I testified on the Hill quite a bit while there and worked with Mayor Marion Barry,” says Fairman. “He was quite the politician.”
Called in to assist Provident Hospital of Cook County in Chicago to get out off a federal restriction in July of 2005, Fairman ended up becoming Administrator/COO of the hospital until 2007.
One of The Fairman Group’s first—and largest—clients was the State of Mississippi and The Delta Health Center. This marked Fairman’s eventual return to his hometown of Cleveland and becoming CEO of The Delta Health Center. “I first came back just to do an assessment at DHC,” says Fairman, “and had to work for three days a week. I ended up flying out of Chicago, where I lived at the time, to come work in Mound Bayou during the week and go back home on the weekends. I was making a good living as a consultant and loved living in Chicago but, finally, was persuaded to take on the leadership role here. I did this without telling my wife—I knew she would say no to moving to Mississippi. I played a bit of a trick, though: Mayor Billy Nowell here in Cleveland and others were going to throw a reception for me at The Warehouse commemorating my return. I convinced them—and her—to instead make it a welcoming party for her! That smoothed things over and I’m glad to report that today Victoria, whom I’ve been married to for almost seventeen years now, loves Cleveland.” An attorney by training, Victoria works from home as a day trader.
Fairman took over DHC in August of 2009, also serving as Chairman of the Board for the Mississippi Health Safe Net and, from 2010 to December 2020, serving as President of the Mississippi Primary Healthcare Association. A busy man, for sure, and one who shows no sign of slowing down or retiring anytime soon.
A father of six, five from his first marriage, including a son, John, Jr. who is a State District Judge in Chicago, Fairman and Victoria also have a sixteen year-old daughter, Madeline, a violinist. “She was scheduled to play at Carnegie Hall last April, but couldn’t due to the pandemic,” says Fairman. “She’s been playing nearly all of her life.”
Fairman has grown Delta Health Center to eighteen locations in the Delta and is continuously looking for ways to improve the health of people in his native Mississippi. “From all of my different and various jobs over the years, I’ve tried to focus my experiences now for the greater good of this part of the state and filling the many gaps in health care that still exist. I also enjoy mentoring the young health executives who are coming up, including many who got their start at DHC.”
“I’m in great health myself these days, I work out every day when I can, eat well and don’t plan on slowing down,” says Fairman of his current place in life. “I still know there’s much work yet to be done and I plan on hanging around to—hopefully—do it.”