Men's Basketball Hall Of Famer Bob Hoehl '63 Named Burlington Free Press Vermonter Of The Year
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COLCHESTER, Vt. - Saint Michael's College men's basketball Hall of Famer Bob Hoehl '63 was named the Burlington Free Press 2010 Vermonter of the Year, it was announced on Saturday. Hoehl, who passed away on November 7 at age 68, was honored for his philanthropic contributions throughout the state, as he used his success in business to donate millions of dollars to community causes.
Hoehl is the 11th person to be named the Burlington Free Press Vermonter of the Year since the honor was first awarded in 1997 (no award was given from 2001-03). Past winners include former governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean, University of Vermont President Daniel Fogel, and Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Martha Rainville.
The article below appeared in Saturday's Burlington Free Press, and was written by Free Press staff writer Molly Walsh.
A student who wanted to go to college. A child who needed medical care. A low-income mother with no place to live.
For a spirit of generosity that lifted Vermont people and institutions, the Burlington Free Press recognizes Robert H. Hoehl as the 2010 Vermonter of the Year.
A father of six and grandfather of 14, Hoehl co-founded medical software giant IDX Corp. with his Saint Michael's College basketball teammate Richard Tarrant '65. He's fondly remembered as a man who gave time as well as money to worthy causes and often did so without fanfare.
"He loved to give back. But he did it in a humble and gracious way," said Tad Hoehl of Shelburne, Robert Hoehl's youngest child. "He didn't do it for any accolades."
Hoehl, the son of a New Jersey salesman who attended Saint Michael's on an athletic scholarship, gave away millions after the company he co-founded grew, went public and eventually sold to GE Healthcare in 2005 for $1.2 billion.
"One needs only to drive around Chittenden County to see how he supported hospitals, community centers, human service organizations and educational institutions," wrote Blanche Podhajski, president of the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston, in one of the letters nominating Hoehl as Vermonter of the Year.
The Stern Center received a gift of $1 million from Hoehl and his wife, Cynthia, in 2008. The list of the Hoehls' donations is lengthy: $2 million to a Saint Michael's College scholarship fund; at least $750,000 toward the purchase and renovation of the Grand Isle Lake House with the Preservation Trust of Vermont; $1 million to establish a scholarship fund for children of Vermonters who served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many large donations to organizations including the Lund Family Center, The Community Health Center of Burlington, The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, The Boys and Girls Club, Dismas House, Burlington Community Land Trust and the United Way.
A math major with a marathon work ethic, Hoehl believed his financial rewards came with an obligation to give back. His wife described their philosophy about wealth this way: "That it's ours, but it's ours to share. We had it because of our good fortune, and we were good stewards of it."
Hoehl died at his historic Lake Champlain estate in Ferrisburgh surrounded by family after an autumn of declining health and a struggle with pneumonia.
He was born in 1941 in Brooklyn and raised in Teaneck, N.J. He moved to Vermont to attend Saint Michael's and met Cynthia, his wife of 47 years, at a Trinity College dance in Burlington. They married the summer after graduation, in 1963. Hoehl went to work at IBM as a systems analyst and in 1969 decided to go into business with Tarrant, then a salesman at IBM.
From a one-room office on Burlington's Church Street, they launched a successful payroll, billing and accounting service. Then they recognized that low-cost computer hardware could make their services obsolete and made the fortuitous decision to specialize in medical billing computer software. One byproduct of success was name recognition — people stopped botching Bob Hoehl's surname (pronounced HALE).
"When people finally started pronouncing it correctly, I think he finally realized he was coming into his own," Tad Hoehl said.
'I got Bob Hoehl'
Hoehl — tall and slim, with an Errol Flynn mustache — was a quietly analytical force at the company, while Tarrant was a natural front man. Tarrant's eulogy at Hoehl's funeral summed up the partnership well, Tad Hoehl said. When skeptics chided the duo for launching a startup without a business plan, Tarrant told them he didn't need one.
"Rich told them, 'I got Bob Hoehl.' They had a lot of faith in each other. With my dad being the software designer, and Rich being the salesman that he was, it worked out very well," Tad Hoehl said.
When Hoehl started the business, he had four young children, a mortgage on a new house in Burlington, and no money for frills. Neither he nor his wife worried much about the risk, and they were accustomed to making due. Cynthia Hoehl recalled an evening around that time when the kitchen faucet was broken, and she thought it would be nice to go out to dinner, except for the small obstacle of no available funds.
Well, there was some money in the house. Cynthia Hoehl had been saving half dollars with the hopes that "they would be worth something someday," she recalled.
"Bob told me, yes, they were. They were going to be worth 50 cents. So why didn't we take that and go out to eat?" So off they went.
Hoehl worked long hours but made time to be a father who helped organize chores, came home for dinner and attended Mass with the children on Sundays. He spent many hours watching his children's plays, swim meets and basketball games. Shooting hoops was a family affair.
"We always had a basketball court in the driveway wherever we lived, and he'd play horse with us, and every now and then, he'd let us win," said Rob Hoehl of Essex, the oldest Hoehl son.
He insisted the children learn to play on a 10-foot rim, "even when we couldn't throw the ball that high," Rob Hoehl recalled. He relented with the younger children, which proved to be a smart move: "They actually turned out to be better ballplayers."
Hoehl's Roman Catholic faith helped inform his philanthropy. He felt blessed by God and had a "deep religious faith and understanding that he had the opportunity and almost the responsibility to help those in need," Tad Hoehl said.
It didn't surprise Cynthia Hoehl when her husband's business proved to be a success, nor did it surprise him, she said: "He didn't wait for things to happen to him or for him. If he wanted something, he went after it."
Cynthia Hoehl said her husband's most important contribution wasn't money; it was "his being such a good man. That sounds banal, but, you know, he had integrity, and people who knew him really looked up to him. He left his mark, not so much on the building fronts or whatever. And he gave a lot away that nobody knows about. Just quietly."