Decades of change and compassion

Dr. Bill Rock comforted the dying for 40 years
Decades of change and compassion
Photo by Dan Bishop

Madison Magazine is hardly the only 40-year-old business in Madison. Many area businesses have lasted just as long, if not longer. Although they represent different industries, legacy companies are not unlike this publication in that their dramatic evolution was driven by personalities whose influence can still be felt.

Take Widen Enterprises Inc., which started 70 years ago as a family-owned plate-engraving business for Madison newspaper presses. In the early 1980s under Mark Widen, son of founders Emily and Arthur Widen, the company started offering color scanning and printing services. With print waning in the 1990s, Mark Widen’s son Reed invested millions of dollars in digital technology. By 2013, with more than 100 employees, the company had transformed itself into a digital file management hub, moving millions of pieces of content daily for many of the world’s largest brands. Last September, Widen opened an office in London — its first outside the United States.

Another legacy Madison business is the flooring company Sergenian’s. Ara Sergenian started selling oriental rugs in 1930 and maintained a storefront on Monroe Street for more than 30 years. In 1977 — a couple of years before this magazine came into being — Sergenian’s was already renovating its 10-year-old showroom at Todd Drive and the Beltline. Sergenian’s move to wall-to-wall carpeting has resulted in awards — for its installation at the Overture Center for the Arts and use of sustainable products and practices. In the past few years, the company has also expanded into the Tampa and Sarasota, Florida, markets.

It’s one thing to note the success of companies that manage data, sell flooring or tell the essential stories of a community. But then there are those in the business of helping people at the most difficult time of their lives. One such organization is Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care — founded as HospiceCare Inc. in 1978, the same year this magazine was founded — which comforts the dying and supports the loved ones they leave behind.

By 1978, a national hospice care movement was underway. But physicians providing the services weren’t compensated through Medicare or Medicaid until the 1980s. Within that time window, Dr. Bill Rock became the local agency’s first medical director. He stayed on for decades. After he retired as a physician in 2011, he continued to volunteer at Agrace until about two years ago, when his own health faltered. During his tenure, he set a standard of care that is ingrained in the organization. “Doc Rock” died on April 25. He was 92.

Agrace now does business in 16 counties (10 in southern Wisconsin, six in northern Illinois), operates two in-patient facilities in Madison and Janesville and has offices in Baraboo and Rockford. What hasn’t changed is that the overwhelming majority of hospice patients pass away in their own homes.

“That’s what they want. That’s their deepest desire,” says Lynne Sexten, president and CEO of Agrace. And that’s why house calls — which Dr. Rock made for decades — are so central to hospice care.

“[Dr. Rock] had a way of approaching and caring for the dying and ministering to their families that really set the foundation for Agrace,” Sexten says. “Others wanted to emulate what he was doing, down to our nursing assistants and our social workers, not just other physicians.”

In a 1994 profile in this magazine, Dr. Rock was said to have spoken “with a low and drowsy tone” and had a “relaxed, almost meditative way of listening.” And when he graced the cover as “Person of the Year” in November 2010, Dr. Rock said asking a dying patient about how he or she lived “affords dignity to a person. I think it tells them they’re important.”

Dr. Rock proved to be important, not just to Agrace or the people to whom he ministered. He chaired the medical ethics committee at St. Mary’s Hospital for more than 30 years and was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, starting in 1958.

Through the years, Dr. Rock spent a lot of time talking to dying patients. He told the magazine in 2010, “I often say to myself, ‘Wow, I wish I’d known this guy or woman 30 or 40 years ago. They’ve really had an illustrious life; why didn’t I know them?’ You think of Madison as being a city, but it’s also a small town.”

Dr. Rock led an illustrious life in Madison. So did so many other men and women who started humble enterprises here that grew over the intervening decades and set standards for their industries — well beyond the city limits.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.