Valley memories abound in Florida
He lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and travels a lot in his role as vice president and chief operating officer of a hospital management consulting firm based in that scenic southern city.
But thoughts of his hometown of Monessen are never far away for James M. Stanger Jr.
“Those were great times,” said Stanger, a 1984 graduate of Monessen High School. “It was an unforgettable experience growing up in Monessen and the Mon Valley. “We learned so much about life, about family and community values, about giving and earning respect, about each other. “We were blessed with excellent role models at home, in school and in the community.
“Those lessons have remained with me throughout my life.”
Like most teenagers of his generation, Stanger, a co-founder of Frontier Hospitals Inc. in Deerfield Beach, kept busy in many ways during those formative years.
“I was co-captain of the tennis team in high school and placed most of the time on the track team in the 880 and two-mile runs and even once in the pole vault,” he said. “I played football as a sophomore but gave it up when I decided to take a job to earn money to buy a car.
“I also bowled in a Saturday morning league and had an average of 164. I didn't exactly blister the lanes but it was a lot of fun.”
Stanger's closest friends at the time were Dr. Todd Zelczak, David Sarra, Mark Young, Jimbo Barker, Jonas Hunter, Shawn Perry and Darren Danko “and all the girls in the same group we hung out with,” he recalled.
“I stayed pretty busy between work and voluteering for the Monessen Ambulance Service, but I
made sure to attend concerts and sports events at school,” he said.
His myriad jobs included news carrier for The Valley Independent and duties at Rax Roast Beef, Continental Catering, Sheetz, a waterbed store and a Christmas tree farm.
“I was only 10 years old when I got the job at The Valley Independent - the youngest carrier ever,” Stanger said.
“I had to go in for a meeting with the circulation manager and received special permission to become a carrier before I turned 12.
“It worked out because I was already doing deliveries on a route held by another carrier since I was eight.
“I more than doubled the number of customers on my route after taking over on a permanent basis and earned their respect by putting the papers inside their doors.”
Stanger said that while his jobs varied in duties and assignments, they all provided a solid foundation for the future.
“I worked for a number of different bosses but each job offered the same lessons in responsibility, customer satisfaction, discipline and, perhaps most important, managing your finances,” he said.
“I never expected to get rich with those jobs, but I was always grateful that they provided me with spending money to buy a car and do other things that interested me.”
Those experiences remained with Stanger, who earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Penn State University in 1988, in jobs as an adult.
He worked as a registered nurse, hospital administrator and financial consultant in such places as Baltimore, Hawaii, Connecticut, New York City and Atlanta before moving to Florida and launching Frontier Hospitals Inc. with David Byrns in 2004.
“Once you learn about responsibility to your company, your employees or co-workers and, most important, your clients, you never forget them,” he said. “I've always been grateful to the people for whom and with whom I worked while growing up in Monessen.”
Stanger's interest in health care also evolved during those years as he became an emergency medical technician (EMT) at Monessen Ambulance Service when he was in 10th grade.
“My late grandfather, Lewis Ray, helped found the original service and was a volunteer fireman in Monessen,” he said. “I heard so many wonderful stories about him and his commitment to the community and that inspired me to become an EMT.
“There were two or three of us who posted the most volunteer hours at the service before we went off to college. It involved a lot of time but every minute was worthwhile. The experience prompted me to pursue nursing as a major instead of engineering when I began my studies at Penn State.”
Stanger's grandmother, the late Valia (D'Alfonso) Ray, also was an inspiration.
“Grandma Val was ahead of her time, I believe, in terms of women in the work force,” Stanger said. “She worked for Friendand's and G.C. Murphy in Monessen and was a buyer for women's clothing in the early years of her career. She didn't order the clothes from a salesman or from a catalog. She frequently went to New York City to get a first-hand look at the fashions and she even drove to Miami and back for the same purpose when there were only two-lane highways. She was a special person in many ways throughout her life.”
Stanger values the “excellent education” he received in the Monessen Public Schools system and recalled several teachers whose words of wisdom and guidance have influenced his life.
“Ms. Florence Skiles was our third-grade teacher and she taught outside the box long before that became a popular buzz phrase,” he said. “She encouraged us use our creativity as well as the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic to expand our minds.”
He also revered longtime teacher/coach Joe Koval, a physical education instructor who “always called it like it was.”
“Joe didn't candy coat anything,” Stanger said with a knowing smile. “He would tell you, ‘Hey, you are never going to be a basketball player, so go over there and find something else today,' which today would probably offend just about everyone. Joe's manner may sound harsh but it was a good dose of reality that carries over into today's world. Not everyone is going to become the CEO of a company, so you learn to deal with it, discover what you can do and be the best you can at it.”
Stanger also offered continued gratitude to teachers Ronald Galilei, Robert Imburgia and Harry Heyward “for making me expand my love for mathematics and putting it to good use – then, over the years and now.”
Because they share similar values and backgrounds, Stanger said he and his partner, David Bryns, CEO of Frontier Hospitals Inc., are a “perfect match.”
“David is from a small town outside of Louisville – Munfordsville (population 1,500) – and grew up as a farm boy who aspired to more in life,” Stanger said. “He was an Eagle Scout, entered the U.S. Army at 17 with his father's consent and became a certified auto diesel mechanic in the military. When he was discharged from the Army, he played minor league baseball in the United States and Mexico and eventually earned a college degree in accounting.
“He then began a career in health care and, when I met him for the first time, he was the most accomplished chief financial officer of a privately owned hospital in the country. That status was based on the 142-bed facility showing an $18-million bottom line.”
Bryns was one of Stanger's clients when they decided to become business partners and form Frontier Hospitals.
“He had an idea to help small, rural hospitals that were struggling financially turn around, start making money and saving health care for their communities,” Stanger said. “It was a concept I believed in and that marked the start of a journey to where we are today.”
Stanger's mother, Karen (Ray) Lewitsky, and stepfather, James P. Lewitsky, live in Monessen. His half-sisters, Serene Stanger, 19, and Tamyra Stanger, 25, live in Donora and Cleveland, respectively.
He and his wife, the former Carmen Medina of New York City and Puerto Rico, are the parents of a daughter, Alia Rayanna Stanger, 12, and a son, Humberoto Junior Rivera, 26. Alia's first name is a derivation of her late great-grandmother Valia Ray's given name.
“She's a bright and spirited young and girl who reminds me a lot of my grandmother,” Stanger said of his daughter. “She has several Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls that a good friend of my grandmother made for her many years ago and they also offer good memories of home.
“Those were great times in my life, growing up in Monessen, and you never forget those moments or your hometown.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.