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Graham King, health-care IT leader, dead at 75

Graham O. King

If you’ve ever seen hospital staffers dispense drugs by swiping scanners across patient wristbands — checking the medication, the dosage and whether it’s going to the right recipient — you’ve seen the influence of Graham King.

Mr. King, a Morgan Park High School graduate whose early work at IBM led to a long career of applying information technology to health care, died of lymphoma Sunday at Hinsdale Hospital. He was 75.

For five decades, his career followed the arc of the computer era. The Hinsdale resident headed four companies, including two of the largest healthcare IT firms in the world: Shared Medical Systems, now a part of Cerner, and HBOC, later acquired by McKesson.

Mr. King started out in Chicago as a top salesman for IBM. He made cold calls on all the floors of the skyscrapers in his sales territory, pitching computers to business owners for data processing. He and other IBM sales staffers learned the intricacies of IT by having to program computers themselves.

“They had to take physical cards — almost like a shoebox full of punch cards — and have thousands of cards in sequential order and feed them into the mainframe,” said his son, John King. “The worst thing that could happen is if you dropped your box.”

After IBM, Mr. King moved to Shared Medical Systems, a Malvern, Pennsylvania, company founded by other Big Blue alums to process patient data for hospitals. The Kings moved to Philadelphia when he became chief executive officer of U.S. Servis, which specialized in physician billing. It was later acquired by HBOC, which in turn was acquired by McKesson, where he remained as president until he retired.

During his last five years at McKesson, he tapped the robotics and pharmaceutical parts of the company in an effort to improve patient safety through automation, helping to develop scanners and wristbands to ensure that patients got the right medications, according to his son.

Graham King was an alum of the Virginia Military Institute. That was the only college where his father said he’d pay his tuition. He thought his son needed order and discipline.

When young Graham arrived in Lexington, Virginia, he saw a fortress-like building and told his cabbie, “I didn’t know there was a federal penitentiary in town.”

“Son,” the cabbie said, laughing, “that’s your new school.”

But Mr. King loved his time at VMI. And he later funded scholarships to the college.

After graduating, he entered the Army as a second lieutenant, enrolled in Airborne School and became a paratrooper.

He got his master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University. That’s where he met Leola, the woman who’d become his wife of 49 years. Mr. King worked as a waiter at her sorority. There were rules against fraternizing with the sorority members, and he ended up getting fired for dating her, but he didn’t care, according to his son.

“He thought she was the prettiest girl in the whole sorority,” the son said.

Maybe it was the result of his military training, but Mr. King made habits of going to bed early, getting up by 5 a.m. and keeping his shoes shined.

“You had to look squared away,” his son said, and also to be squared away. “He fundamentally believed that,with hard work and focus, you could push through and solve any problem.”

Mr. King loved playing at Merion Golf Club in Philadelphia and the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton.

He is also survived by another son, Gregory King; a brother, Robert K. King; and five grandchildren. Services have been held.