ONTARIO – In the early 1990s, Ken Hart was ready to devote his life to politics.
As a member of US Senator Mark Hatfield’s staff in Washington, DC, Hart was already familiar with big-time politics.
Hatfield, one of the most influential politicians in Congress at the time, was preparing to retire. Hart met with his boss for a final interview. Hatfield asked what Hart’s plans were, and the Southern California native turned Oregonian told the senator that he was going to make a life out of politics.
“He said it wasn’t a good idea,” Hart said.
Hart was stunned.
“I was hurt. I thought, this is my idol telling me not to go into the profession that I want,” Hart said.
Hatfield gave Hart other advice.
“You don’t want to start a family here (in Washington, DC). You have to go home and raise your family,” Hatfield told Hart.
Hart reflected on Hatfield’s guidance. Then he decided the senator was right.
“So I took his advice and came back to Portland,” Hart said.
More than 30 years later, Hart started his family, moved to Ontario and succeeded as an accountant and local civic leader.
On Friday, January 19, the Ontario Region Chamber of Commerce honored Hart as Man of the Year at the Four Rivers Cultural Centre.
“It’s awesome. Great honor,” Hart said.
Hart and his wife Celia came to Ontario in 2004 when Hart was hired as auditor of Treasure Valley Community College.
“Best decision we ever made,” he said.
Since arriving, Hart’s career has blossomed and so has his community service. After a stint in college, he became the CFO of Gentry Auto Group in Ontario and then worked as vice president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario. Hart was named president and CEO at Ontario Hospital in 2017.
In 2020, Hart left Saint Alphonsus to become the chief financial officer of Payette-based Valley Family Health Care.
At the beginning of 2023, he was appointed its managing director.
Hart did not leave politics entirely. Appointed to a vacancy on the Ontario Municipal Council in 2020 and then elected to the council in 2022.
Hart also serves on the Malheur County Poverty to Prosperity board and recently spearheaded the Ontario Promise program. The program is designed to make money available to Ontario’s youth to finance higher education.
Hart also serves on the board of Treasure Valley Community College.
Hart, 55, believes in Ontario and small-town life. As a child in southern California, his family moved a lot as his father, a bank executive, changed jobs. Hart said that when he grew up, he wanted to find a place where he could put down roots for the long term. Ontario fit the bill and was also Sheila’s hometown.
“That was one of the huge positives of moving to Ontario – the idea that we could land and stay in a house for 20 years. This is a wonderful gift if you can give it to your children,” he said.
Promoting Ontario is a big part of Hart’s job at Valley Family.
“I’m selling the community as much as I’m selling the Valley Family. So to have lived in the community now for more than 20 years says a lot. When I can say that all of my kids took classes at TVCC and graduated from Ontario High School, it shows a leadership commitment when it comes to the community,” said Hart.
Recruiting and retaining qualified medical professionals to work at Valley Family is one of Hart’s biggest challenges.
“There is such a shortage of nurses, doctors, frontline staff. Getting them to think about us is usually one of our biggest hurdles,” Hart said.
Hart said he has become a “very good salesman.”
“My favorite part of my job is taking someone to lunch and selling Valley Family. Once they visit our staff and see our facilities, we have a very good chance of getting them,” he said.
Valley Hart oversees hundreds of employees and 12 clinics scattered across Emmett, Ontario and Nyssa.
“My job is to make sure everyone has the support they need to be successful. A big part of my job is building partnerships and getting my staff off the ground,” he said.
Hart likes to get an early start during the work week. He spends his early morning hours reading and preparing for the working day. He’s usually the first one in the door at work so he can “get my stuff done for the day.”
He arrives at work “to pack for the day.”
“The rest of the day is tied up in meetings,” he said.
Hart said the daily challenges presented at Valley Family motivate him.
“I like business. I like to help figure things out,” he said.
Hart, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in political science, said he believes his educational background plays a key role in his success.
“Part of my job is to learn the needs of the organization and then figure out how I can provide it. I see my role on the council (TVCC) or the city council is to try to bring a little financial background to those two groups,” he said.
Hart said as a young man he wanted to work for the FBI, but now, if he could do anything else, he would choose to be a teacher.
“I had a short (teaching) stint at TVCC when I was the controller. I really enjoyed it,” he said.
Hart said the highlights of his career were his time working for Hatfield and when he was named president of St. Alphonsus. Another high point was when St. Alphonsus received a five-star rating for its care services from the federal government.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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