By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hal Sanders was the epitome of the small-town boy who makes good, except he wasn’t even from a small town. He grew up poor, surrounded by cornfields in rural Illinois, and went on to become a hospital executive who, in retirement, became a champion of single-payer health care on the local and national level.

Mr. Sanders, of Swissvale, died Monday at Allegheny General Hospital, where he was a vice president from 1968 to 1981. He had been ill for the past year with renal disease, his wife, Linda Sanders, said.

He was 75.

“Hal headed to college with $25; that’s all his parents could give him,” she said. “He always had to struggle, so even when he was an executive and on so many boards, he always had compassion for people who were less fortunate.

“He was a quietly amazing person. When he directed his attention to something, it would be with all of himself.”

The Monmouth (Ill.) College graduate put himself through school as a reader for a blind man and a cook in his fraternity house. He cooked in his childhood house, where each of eight siblings was expected to contribute work.

In high school, he was a volunteer firefighter, running out of class when the fire bell sounded. He also played high school football and basketball, sang in the chorale, and played trumpet in the band.

From college, where he earned a degree in economics, he went to work as the controller at the hospital in Monmouth.

He received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1965 and worked at Loyola University Hospital in Michigan until he was recruited to Allegheny General in 1968. There, he initiated one of the first medical helicopter services in the northeast.

In 1981, he become the CEO at St. John’s Hospital on the North Side. For seven years, he directed services to patients who were largely low-income. He recruited Dr. Wallace Christy from the University of Pittsburgh to help develop the hospital’s primary health care program.

The men had been friends from the University and City Ministries Church in Oakland, where they both played trumpet in a brass band of congregants.

“We had a lot of fun in relaxed times,” Dr. Christy said. ” … As a leader in the church he … was good at directing the growth of the organization. I never saw him get angry at anyone, and he was enthusiastic.”

When the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Single-Payer Healthcare was founded in 2006, Mr. Sanders became treasurer.

Sandy Fox has been active in the region’s single-payer movement in which one entity, such as the government, collects all health care fees and pays all health care costs. She called Mr. Sanders’ advocacy groundbreaking.

Active in his church, East Liberty Presbyterian, he argued before the Pittsburgh Presbytery to approve a resolution in support of single-payer health care, which it did.

“He took it to the General Assembly in California in 2008, and I am told he argued eloquently and it was approved there, too, and that was groundbreaking,” Ms. Fox said. “They also approved allocation of $25,000 in funds to be used in educational forums for health care as a moral imperative, and Hal was a spearhead of those workshops.”

Mr. Sanders was on the board of directors of many organizations, including Habitat for Humanity. For several years, he also had taught seminars at the Graduate School for Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

On the side in the mid-1970s, Mr. Sanders owned Down to Earth, a store that sold works including pottery, wood crafts and leather briefcases.

Besides his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Deb Sanders of Denver, Kate Sanders Anderson of Mount Vernon, Wash.; a son, Kevin Sanders of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.