Herrmann Spetzler Remembered as “Visionary” Who Developed California Rural Clinics

Herrmann Spetzler
Herrmann Spetzler built a small clinic in a remote corner of California into the region’s primary care anchor. Photo courtesy of Open Door Community Health Centers

In 1977, idealistic young people were moving to California’s strikingly beautiful but impoverished Humboldt County to escape urban congestion and do good works. One of them was Herrmann Spetzler, who came to the tiny city of Arcata to run a small counterculture health clinic called Open Door. Spetzler, a tall, bearded man with a German accent, wanted a safe, uncomplicated place that would suit a young family just starting out. He got that — and then he stayed for 40 years to pursue his vision of a health care system accessible to everyone regardless of income. Because of Spetzler’s leadership, thousands of people of all income levels in California’s rural northwest region receive medical care in an expanded network of modern facilities.

On March 12, Spetzler died suddenly at age 70, shocking the sprawling community that coalesced around his charismatic personality and irresistible vision. Colleagues and friends say Spetzler’s reach extended far beyond California’s North Coast, although he often described himself in meetings and speeches as “Herrmann Spetzler, RURAL,” to underscore his commitment to providing health care in remote locales.

“He had an amazing ability to build coalitions among the huge diversity and types of clinics,” said former state Senator Wes Chesbro of Arcata, Spetzler’s friend and supporter. “He built a broad political base.” The longtime CEO of Shasta Community Health Center, Dean Germano, who attended many conferences with Spetzler, said he “was often the smartest guy in the room.”

Modeled on a free clinic in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Open Door began in 1971. “It became a clinic serving the broader low-income community in Humboldt County, then became the default clinic system for all citizens as mainstream primary care [physician] practices began to disappear,” Chesbro said. Today, experts say it is a national model for primary care.

Dramatic Expansion

Herrmann and Cheyenne Spetzler
Herrmann and Cheyenne Spetzler. Photo courtesy of the Spetzler family.

Spetzler and his wife, Open Door Chief Operating Officer Cheyenne Spetzler, are widely credited with expanding one tiny Open Door clinic into a string of 12 clinics and three mobile vans. Altogether, they provide a broad range of health services to an economically diverse and growing patient base in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties.

“Herrmann was the visionary, while Cheyenne provided the pragmatic assistance needed to implement those visions,” Chesbro said, “and they built a structure that would continue to grow.”

Chesbro was one of many elected officials who spoke to an overflow crowd of more than 500 at a memorial service for Spetzler in Arcata on April 2. The turnout was testament to the political reach of Spetzler’s collaborations and connections with other clinic directors, associations, and local, state, and federal lawmakers.

“He was a larger-than-life character,” said Bobbie Wunsch, a health care management consultant and longtime friend. “He was the kind of person that when you walked into a room, he lit up, he wanted to greet you personally, and he always asked about you. . . . He was a real conceptual thinker, always thinking about the next challenge.”

Spetzler was deeply committed to the health care safety net for low-income residents and co-founded or led multiple local, state, and national associations focused on rural health and primary care services. California State University in 2014 presented him with an honorary doctorate “in recognition of his enduring and extraordinary impact on North Coast rural health care.” He added that to a bachelor’s degree in geography from California State University, Los Angeles, and a master’s in education from Humboldt State University.

Dr. Bill Hunter had been practicing medicine on the North Coast for 20 years when Spetzler recruited him to become Open Door’s medical director in 1998. The two were kindred souls committed to providing quality health care to those who had none.

Primary Care for All

“Herrmann was such a strong leader, a great boss, great instincts about people and how they worked together, a really strong intuitive sense, and a tireless advocate for the particular needs of rural primary care,” Hunter said. As technology advanced, he said, Spetzler was “a really strong proponent of telemedicine, which is very important in rural areas.”

Archetectural rendering of clinic
The Fortuna Community Health Center now under construction. Rendering and design by Julian Berg of Arcata.

Spetzler pioneered a telehealth center, partnering with UC Davis Medical Center and specialists in big cities to link remote areas with specialty services that weren’t available in the region. Open Door deployed mobile vans for dental and medical care to remote sites in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties.

“Although it’s breathtakingly beautiful, there is also devastating poverty,” Hunter said.  According to 2015 US Census data, 21% of Humboldt and Del Norte residents live in poverty. “We started out taking care of so many marginalized people, and now we have become a big part of the primary care network in Northern California.”

Whenever the subject of retirement came up, Spetzler would avoid commitments, Germano said. Spetzler said he planned to retire after “one more project,” or that he had to “close the loop on this . . .”

After Spetzler’s death, Cheyenne Spetzler was named interim director of Open Door. “I’ve put my life into this organization,” she said. “I want to be sure we have a soft landing.” She is focused on completing current projects, including a 32,000-square-foot “state-of-the-art” clinic under construction in Fortuna, about 30 miles south of Arcata, and the accreditation of a residency program in rural health care for family practice physicians. Open Door already has residency programs for nurse practitioners and dentists.

“Herrmann’s vision is in good hands,” said US Representative Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

A Family of Immigrants From Germany

Herrmann was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1948, emigrating to the US when he was seven years old with his mother and four siblings to join their father, an engineer and watchmaker credited with inventing the self-winding wristwatch. His father had come to the US a year earlier. “It was a big deal,” Cheyenne said. “How do you take six kids away from their grandparents? And they don’t speak the language.”

But the family thrived in America, with all the Spetzler siblings earning advanced degrees (including two PhDs and two MDs). His four brothers and a sister live all over the US, and the extended family is close, with large reunions every two years. “Each sibling sets aside 1.5% of their gross annual income to pay for all the children, grandchildren, and their families to come to the reunions,” said Cheyenne. “That was Herrmann’s idea.”

The Spetzlers settled in Illinois. After he graduated from high school, Herrmann Spetzler moved to Southern California for college. Cheyenne was the divorced single mom of a toddler son working as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in Pasadena when she met her future husband. Herrmann, a Cal State LA student, was working in the seismology lab at the California Institute of Technology. “One of my jobs [at the restaurant] was to check the IDs of students,” she says. “I ‘carded’ him, and he was insulted. He made such a big fuss about it.”

After they married in 1973, they lived in Orange County in an apartment with Cheyenne’s 4-year-old son Gary from her previous marriage (who was adopted by Herrmann), and she was pregnant with their daughter Maria, now a physician assistant at Open Door.

Herrmann was hired by Orange County as assistant director of county mental health services and briefly served as interim director before he became executive director of the Sierra Council on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse in South Lake Tahoe.

The Green Hills of Arcata

The couple chose to move to Arcata partly because “it looked like southern Germany,” Herrmann’s birthplace, Cheyenne said. “When we first came [to Arcata], the hills were green, with patches of woods. . . . It was nostalgic, rural, and had a university.” Their third child, Gabriel, was born in Arcata.

Spetzler Family in 1977
Herrmann and Cheyenne Spetzler with their children Gary and Maria in Arcata in 1977. Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Spetzler

Spetzler was severely dyslexic, and his wife helped him with his college papers. “I think it is why he was so good at verbally communicating,” she said. “As technology improved, he could listen to everything. He listened to hundreds of audio books a year. He listened to the news in German so he could communicate with family in Germany.”

Spetzler extolled the natural beauty of the region to recruit highly qualified professionals to work at Open Door while also offering clinical support and training. He helped create and sustain the Clinic Leadership Institute, which provides training and mentoring for emerging health care professionals.

“He believed very deeply in fostering leaders in community health,” said Carlina Hansen, who for 17 years was executive director of the San Francisco Women’s Community Clinic. Hansen recently joined the California Health Care Foundation as a senior program officer working to improve access to care for the state’s low-income residents. “I first met him because I was an early participant in the Clinic Leadership Institute,” Hansen said. “He was a standout presence — a man of strong opinions, game-changing ideas, and a big, big heart. He’s done so much to develop leaders in community clinics.”

Herrmann created a unique and enduring template for rural health clinics, Hansen said. “The community clinic movement has always been extremely important in California, and rural clinics have their own unique challenges,” she said. “There can be a scarcity of providers and great distances to cover. Open Door is a real lifeline, often the only source of care, and very well-respected for the high-quality, comprehensive care that they deliver.”

Spetzler’s unexpected death leaves a huge void in the leadership of California clinics, especially in rural areas. But the structure he left in place will endure, said many clinic administrators, clinicians, and government officials. “My perception is that they are fully prepared to [carry] on,” said Chesbro.

“Herrmann directly or indirectly impacted the lives of tens of thousands of people,” he said. “One could only hope to have so much impact in one lifetime.”