Sam Downing

Sam Downing.

The former CEO of the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System, Sam Downing, died by suicide at his Carmel home the evening of Thursday, March 22, the Monterey County Sheriff's Office confirms. He was 73.

A member of the family found Downing around 9:15pm, says Cmdr. John Thornburg. 

Downing's son, Michael—who works for SVMH as an I.T. security manager—posted to Facebook on Friday that his dad was "suffering serotonin syndrome, due to a medication interaction, and was not himself when he left this world last night.

"He was the best man and the best dad."

A lifelong friend of the family, Kimbley Craig (who is a member of Salinas City Council, but is speaking for herself rather than in an official capacity), calls Downing a great community leader, father and community volunteer.

"It’s really a devastating loss to a lot of people in this community. He was a really, really remarkable man," Craig says.

"Sam’s tireless efforts at Salinas Valley Memorial made it the successful, nationally recognized hospital that it is today," she says.

Current SVMH CEO Pete Delgado sent an email to the medical center's staff on Friday, saying that Downing's role in making SVMH what it is today "cannot be overstated.

"Sam led the organization through tremendous growth and achievement—taking it from a small, rural hospital to a healthcare system that has earned national recognition for excellence," Delgado writes.

Downing's career with SVMH spanned nearly 40 years. He took over as CEO in 1985, stepping down in 2011, not long after a "vote-of-no-confidence" letter was signed by medical staff, although it was not clear if he was asked to leave or he retired.

When he left, Downing was given a controversial $3.9 million supplemental package, in addition to a $150,000 annual pension plan. His salary when he left was $668,000 a year.

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo, then a Democratic state assemblyman from Watsonville, urged the state auditor to investigate the payout. She ruled it was in the range of acceptable industry standards.

Still, it became a political lightning rod at the time, and drew scrutiny to the SVMH board. After Downing retired, Salinas voting rights activists successfully pressured the board to transition from at-large to district-based elections in an attempt to get more non-white representatives elected to more accurately represent the community, and they portrayed Downing's retirement payout as evidence of a good-ol'-boys culture.

In 2013, Downing was fined $5,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for violating conflict of interest laws while he was CEO.

His attorney at the time, Jim Quadra, called it "an inadvertent violation," after Downing signed bank forms for a bank in which he had a small financial interest. He did not profit from the transaction.

The matter was investigated by the Monterey County District Attorney's Office, but no charges were filed. DA investigators said Downing's 1-percent stake in the bank wasn't substantial enough to constitute a crime.

Shortly after retiring, Downing was inducted into the UCLA School of Public Health Hall of Fame.

According to an article in the school's alumni magazine, Downing graduated from UCLA in 1971, and was hired by SVMHS in 1972 as an assistant administrator.

Other accomplishments of Downing's include serving for 17 years as chairman of Beta Healthcare Group, the largest provider of hospital malpractice coverage in California.

He also served as president of the statewide District Hospital Leadership Forum, and as an adviser to the Clinton administration.

"Sam’s talent could have taken him elsewhere in the healthcare industry," says Craig. "He very much chose to stay and give back to this community."

Although Downing stayed in Monterey County, he and his staff and SVMH board members traveled extensively through Assist International, a nonprofit dedicated to improving healthcare systems around the world, according to a 2004 profile that appeared in a SVMH magazine.

Each paying their own way, they visited Romania, China, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Tibet, Cuba and Guatemala, as well as Mombassa, Africa, where the team helped install more than $1 million in donated equipment.

Downing said in the article that both his involvement in Assist International and in his drive to improve SVMH was motivated by the death of his twin brother, Bill, who was killed in a car accident in Mexico when the two were in college.

"It made me think: could he have survived if he had access to a good hospital?" 

"More than these many accomplishments and contributions, Sam was first and foremost a loving family man," writes Delgado. "Our thoughts and prayers are will Paula and their children and grandchildren."

Editor's Note: The original post reported Downing's age as 74. He turned 73 on Dec. 17.

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