John Strange means what he says, those who have worked with him over the years report.

"You never had to guess where you stood with John," said Lawrence Massa, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

"He's so true to his words," said Natalie Peterson about Strange, who retired this week after more than two decades at the helm of St. Luke's hospital.

Soon after the News Tribune reported on Thursday evening that Strange had retired the day before, comments of appreciation followed the story on the DNT's Facebook page.

"I will miss seeing your smiling face in the halls," a St. Luke's employee wrote.

"He remembered everyone's name and would greet you in the elevator," another wrote.

Dr. Gary Peterson, the hospital's chief medical officer, echoed those sentiments in a statement emailed to the News Tribune.

"John cared deeply about St. Luke's patients and employees," he wrote. "He greeted everyone with a smile and genuine interest in how they were doing. His office door was always open to anyone who happened to drop in and wanted to have a few minutes of his time."

Natalie Peterson is director of communications and marketing for the Duluth Airport Authority, but for about five years worked with Strange and others in the world of health as she managed relationships with providers for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. In a phone interview, she said Strange exemplified his organization's mission statement.

"He and St. Luke's and the culture he built over there were one of my favorite providers to work with," Peterson said. "His intentions were always in the good for what he believed for his organization. ... What they preached about with their community and always (putting the) patient first ... he really believed that to his core."

Strange, 69, had planned to retire in July, but his sudden departure came as a surprise. It was announced in a four-paragraph news release that St. Luke's sent out to the media after 5 p.m. on Thursday. It explained only that chief financial officer Eric Lohn would serve as interim president and CEO, that the search for a new leader continued, and that Strange had chosen to retire sooner "to care for his family."

A St. Luke's spokeswoman said Strange was choosing to keep a low profile and didn't want to be interviewed, at least for now.

Strange was just 46 when he was named the hospital's leader early in 1996 after serving for more than three years as chief financial officer. It was an unsettled time for health care in Duluth. Two major hospitals, St. Mary's and Duluth Clinic, were engaged in a slow waltz toward merger. They formed a union that was the precursor to today's Essentia Health. St. Luke's would remain as Duluth's second-largest hospital, but with a smaller share of the market.

At the time, Strange told a News Tribune reporter that the three biggest issues St. Luke's faced were health care reform, particularly Medicare and Medicaid changes; technology and expanding patient care.

Strange still was talking about Medicare and Medicaid in a News Tribune interview last year.

"We get told what we're going to get paid," he said of the government insurance programs. "And what we're paid has no relationship to what it actually costs."

Praise for Strange upon his retirement extended to his counterpart at Essentia Health.

"John is a trusted colleague, and St. Luke's has been very fortunate to benefit from his leadership and commitment to their mission," Dr. David Herman wrote in an email.

Dr. Ray Christensen, associate dean at the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus, formerly served on the St. Luke's board and has known Strange since before he was promoted to CEO.

"What John has been able to do is put together a solid hospital system," Christensen said.

"His clinics are recognized for high touch and good medicine," Christensen added, referring to personal care more than technology. "People appreciate going to those clinics."

Strange is well-respected among health-care leaders in Minnesota, Massa said. "In a two-hospital town, he's done a great job of building St. Luke's and building the medical staff."

He described Strange as a straight-forward individual.

"Yet despite that gruff exterior sometimes, he's a tremendously passionate person," Massa said. "He really cared about people, not only the patients who were being served by St. Luke's but the staff and everybody who worked there."

With the hospital's track record and the service area that both St. Luke's and Essentia's serve, the CEO job should draw good candidates, he said. "It's going to be an attractive location for lots of experienced folks."

Though overshadowed by Essentia, St. Luke's is a major player in the region. The hospital reported revenues of more than $432 million in 2016, according to IRS forms. It has 2,956 employees and is embarking on a building and renovation program that's expected to total nearly $250 million.