John Derr
John Derr
John Derr. Credit: Paul Marino

That John Derr recently said he’s thinking of backing off a bit is both a shame and an inevitability. For few have ever packed as much into one lifetime as he has. A slowdown is the only real possible option.

Now 87, Derr is completing his 60th year in healthcare. To many, he is known as a former executive vice president at the American Health Care Association and former CIO of Golden Living.

He’s also in his 21st year as a technical affairs leader for ADVION, where executive vice president Cynthia Morton describes him as “a guy who really moved the needle nationally for LTC in health  information technology.”

But that barely scratches the surface of the companies, federal panels, advisory boards and other endeavors he’s taken part in. From pharmacy to nuclear medicine breakthroughs to imaging technology and healthcare software, Derr has seemed to only increase the complexity of his pursuits as he’s aged.

“John is a man for all seasons,” Morton sums up.

By his own reckoning, Derr has had four full “lives”: the Navy, healthcare, singing and his family.

He and his younger brother and sister grew up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Their pharmacist father was the inspiration for Derr’s eventual formal training.

He attended Purdue University, where he wanted to wrestle but his singing career as a first tenor flourished. As a member of the school’s renowned glee club, he appeared on a Bob Hope TV special in 1956 and twice was on “The Ed Sullivan Show.“

Six decades later, he still sings publicly, having performed recently with a Montana symphony orchestra. In addition to Beethoven and peers, his favorite artists include Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson — ”anybody who tells a good story.” 

He enlisted in the Navy as a med tech and was on active duty for five years. He was then in the Navy Reserve for 26 more, eventually rising to be the commanding officer of two destroyers. 

After active duty, he flourished in healthcare clinical and technical businesses. He was recruited as an executive numerous times and eventually started four of his own companies. 

One early accomplishment was proposing and forming the Squibb US hospital division. Also in that span, in a typically creative touch, Derr’s unit released the first electric toothbrush.

He and his wife of 60 years, Polly, have two daughters and two grandchildren. They have resided on both coasts and in Chicago. Their current home is in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park, where Derr likes to hike, and near where daughter Deborah, a chiropractor, runs a nonprofit ranch to save draft horses.

The secrets to Derr’s impressive Forrest Gump-like life script?

“I just happened to be around when a lot of neat stuff happened,” he offers with a humble shrug of the shoulders. 

“I’ve never said ‘no,’” he adds upon further reflection.

As for the future, the Peter Drucker disciple said he plans to write a business book because he still has plenty to say.

If history is any teacher here, it’s going to make for some fascinating page-turning.

Derr’s resume

1958 Earns pharmacy degree from Purdue University 

1958-1963 Member of US Navy, rising to rank of lieutenant

1964-1989 Active US Naval Reserve, retiring as captain

1964-1974 US director of strategic planning and product development, Squibb & Sons

1974-1980 VP, Searle Diagnostic Worldwide Marketing; Siemens VP and division manager of nuclear
medicine and ultrasound

1991-96 President & CEO, Innovative Health Concepts/ Metalaser Inc

1998-2001 VP, business development and marketing,
Shared Healthcare Systems 

2001-present President, JD & Associates Enterprises

2002-2006 Executive VP/COO for AHCA

2007-2012 SVP and CIO for Golden Living 

2017-2019 Chief consumer affairs officer, MatrixCare

2020 Interim CIO for LTC provider Sante Operations