Decades Later, Still Grateful

Decades Later, Still Grateful

As a teen, Barney Tresnowski, BSPH ’55, MPH, got a job scrubbing walls at a Catholic hospital in his hometown of Hammond, Indiana. Because of his diligence, he was soon given much bigger responsibilities. “The nuns had no cook on Sundays, so every Sunday I cooked a chicken dinner for 400 people,” Tresnowski explains.

The young Tresnowski was fascinated by the complexity of the hospital environment, but by 1949 he was ready to leave cooking chicken behind and enter U-M on a football scholarship. His dream of becoming a star player lasted only as long as his knees, and by sophomore year he needed a new dream—and a new scholarship. When Tresnowski learned about the field of public health, it resonated. The match took, and he graduated with a bachelor’s in public health and policy administration in 1955. By 1981, he was running the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association—40 years after washing hospital walls as a teenager.

Tresnowski credits much of his success to the mentorship of two public health giants: Solomon “Sy” Axelrod and Walter McNerney. Axelrod, an SPH alumnus (MPH ’49) and faculty member, “wanted me to have a feel for everything that was happening in the field at the time,” Tresnowski remembers. Axelrod later helped design the infrastructure for Medicare and trained its first staff.

McNerney mentored Tresnowski while he completed his master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. McNerney subsequently joined the faculty at U-M, where he designed a model curriculum for health care management, and then left U-M to become one of the architects of Medicare and Medi-caid. In 1967, McNerney tapped then-31-year-old Tresnowski to work with him at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBS). Tresnowski at first said no, but McNerney convinced him that in taking the job he’d be part of “the biggest thing to happen to the health care industry.”

“And in the end, Walt was right,” Tresnowski recalls.

The “biggest thing” was the high-powered maneuvering between BCBS, Medicare, and the federal government that would shape their financial and administrative relationships for years to come.

As much as by his own dreams and hard work, Tresnowski’s highly successful career was shaped by the guidance of his mentors. “That’s what I tell young people—when you’re looking for a job, forget about money, benefits. Think about who is going to teach you, and place yourself in an environment where you are going to learn, particularly in your early years.”
—Madeline Strong Diehl