At first, David Dovenberg wore red socks for special occasions. Business deals and birthdays. But after a colon cancer diagnosis in his mid-40s, he began donning red socks every morning. He wore them with suits and khakis, even shorts.
It was a shtick — he loved a good shtick — but one reflecting his belief that each day is worth celebrating.
Each person, too. As CEO of Universal Hospital Services, Dovenberg wrote sweet limericks for retiring employees. As a father, he dressed up for date nights with his daughter.
"Dave had a knack for making people from all areas of his life realize that he valued them," said Jean Dovenberg, his wife of 50 years. "He made people understand that they were important. It was an incredible gift." A cancer survivor and CEO, mentor and volunteer, Dovenberg died May 10 after a stroke. He was 76.
At Robbinsdale High School, he was a bright student. But his parents didn't have the means to pay for college, said Jean, who met Dave in 1964, when they were camp counselors. His father's boss and World War II shipmate offered to fund Dovenberg's education at Gustavus Adolphus College. Dovenberg pledged to pay it forward.
After earning his master's degree in economics from the University of Minnesota, he worked at Prudential Insurance Co. In 1988, he became chief financial officer at the Bloomington-based Universal Hospital Services, now Agiliti, which rents movable medical equipment to hospitals.
"He certainly knew the financials," said Margaret Radke, longtime adviser to his executive leadership team. "But he understood that people were the heart of the business."
As chairman, president and CEO, he trekked to the company's 60-plus offices for face-to-face meetings. He remembered employees' birthdays and kids' names. He gave people Lucite desk ornaments of tiny, red socks — a reminder that "you have the freedom to choose your response to life's struggles," as Radke put it. During tough moments, including a successful effort in 1998 to recapitalize the company, Dovenberg could become somber or stressed, Radke said. "But I never saw Dave in a sour mood. He never felt sorry for himself."
It's a lesson he took from his cancer surgery at age 44, which left him with a colostomy. That year, in a reflective essay, he vowed that "from now on I will pick more daisies." He wished to be sillier, more relaxed, more limber.
"Financial success and security have been paramount, sometimes at the expense of health and happiness," he wrote. "Oh, I have had my mad moments, and from now on I will have more of them; in fact I'll try to have nothing else, just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead." Thanks in part to his big, easy laugh, "you wanted to be around him," said Bob Strickland, a friend since working together at Prudential.
A Wayzata resident, he volunteered and donated, often anonymously, encouraging his grandkids to fill a Target cart with Christmas gifts for the less fortunate. To raise money for the American Cancer Society, he earned pledges for a charity golf event by soliciting silly dares, according to an article in Minnesota Golfer. He golfed a hole in mittens, another in a hat adorned with a foot-long stuffed fish. On one hole, he stopped to sniff each flower. "It was always about bringing joy," said his daughter, Kirsten Murphy. "He wasn't just going to golf in the Longest Day of Golf — he was going to wear goofy outfits and golf an entire hole with a putter." A "lousy" golfer, Dovenberg chaired the golfing event. A "terrible" fisherman, he brought his son, Robert, and the men in his family on a fishing trip to Canada each year. A funeral will be held 10 a.m. Monday at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church in Plymouth, with a visitation at 9 a.m.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • Twitter: @ByJenna