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James Willerson Resigns from UT Health Science Center
President to stay until successor found, then will lead Texas Heart Institute
Although not completely unexpected, the news that James T. Willerson, M.D., will leave his post as president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston surprised and saddened more than a few Development Board members, faculty and staff as he announced his resignation Sept. 26.
Named president-elect of the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in October 2004, only the timing of his resignation was in question over the past three years. During the search for a new health science center president, a process that could take as much as a year, Willerson will begin the transition of leadership at the Texas Heart Institute from its founder Denton Cooley, M.D.
Willerson said he would stay on board as president until "an appropriate successor is found and is in place at UT Houston."
He announced his resignation at the Development Board luncheon meeting Sept. 26. Later that afternoon, he spoke to a gathering of deans, family members, friends, colleagues and collaborators in the atrium of the Fayez S. Sarofim Research Building - the new $120-million home of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), a research center he led the way in creating and which he envisioned as "the cornerstone of the university, collaborating across all six UT Houston schools."
Willerson recalled that when Darrell Royal, former football coach of the UT Longhorns, was recruiting football players and talking to their parents, he wanted to leave before the parents wanted him to leave. "I also want to leave before you want me to," Willerson remarked.
While leaders of the UT Development Board agreed that they didn't want Willerson to leave yet, each said they appreciate the work Willerson has done to bolster philanthropic support for the health science center. "I think the good news for us is this is unwelcome news," said David Grimes, president of the Development Board. "He has done such a great job since he's been here."
Gene Vaughan, Development Board president-elect, agreed, adding, "Dr. Willerson has done a brilliant, literally amazing job of building our institution. Jim has left us in a wonderful position of being well prepared. The University of Texas Health Science Center will truly go on to world-class greatness."
Phil Conway, Development Board immediate past president, said the focus of the Development Board, as well as the faculty and staff of the health science center should be on the future and "building on the legacy" that Willerson leaves behind.
"We have a responsibility to make it greater, to make this institution stronger and all that credit goes to Jim Willerson," Conway said. "Institutions don't often have that legacy of leadership on which to build."
C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., F.A.C.P., IMM director and chief executive officer, called Willerson "an individual of bold vision in medicine."
"He also has the absolute dedication to deliver on that vision," Caskey added.
Before the crowd of health science center employees and friends gathered at the IMM for the president's resignation announcement, Caskey told Willerson, "We are so pleased you are going to help us through your succession."
Irma Gigli, M.D., deputy director of the IMM, spoke more heartfelt expressions of gratitude. Addressing Willerson directly during a question and answer period following the announcement, she thanked him for helping her find a "home" for her research and career, as well as for "offering support when I needed it most." Gigli's late husband Hans Müller-Eberhard M.D., Ph.D., died just three years after becoming founding director of the institute.
"I don't know how to say thank you. My thoughts are with you and Nancy," Gigli said, referring to Willerson's wife, Nancy Beamer Willerson. "I love you both dearly."
Cooley, who will continue as president emeritus once Willerson assumes the presidency at the Texas Heart Institute, also attended.
"If he (Willerson) can do in part for the Texas Heart Institute what he did for the UT Health Science Center at Houston, it will be very gratifying," Cooley said.
James T. Willerson, M. D., Profile
James T. Willerson, M.D., is an internationally distinguished cardiologist, research scientist and educator. Appointed the fourth president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston by The University of Texas System Board of Regents on March 9, 2001, he continues an active medical practice, and robust research in addition to his administrative duties.
In the fall of 2004, Willerson was named president-elect of the Texas Heart Institute. On Sept. 26, 2007 he announced that he will step down as president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston as soon as a successor is in place, so he can focus on his leadership duties at Texas Heart Institute. The UT Board of Regents is launching a search for a new president.
Willerson is a native of Lampasas, Texas, the son of two physicians - his father was a general practitioner and his mother, an anesthesiologist. He attended The University of Texas at Austin on a swimming scholarship and lettered his sophomore, junior and senior years. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and received the UT Academic Award as the athlete with the highest scholastic average. He entered Baylor College of Medicine, graduating with honors in 1965. He completed his residency and fellowship training at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Willerson returned to Texas in 1972 and joined the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.
In 1989, Willerson came to Houston as chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the UT Medical School, the position he held until his appointment as president of the health science center.
During this tenure, he led the way in creating what is now known as the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases. Willerson set new fund-raising records for the UT Health Science Center through the New Frontiers campaign, which raised more than $235 million for the new Fayez S. Sarofim Research Building (home of the IMM) and for the recruitment of "world's best" scientists in several disciplines.
During his time as president, Willerson also has led efforts to recover from the financial and physical impact of Tropical Storm Allison, construct a new building for the UT School of Nursing at Houston, purchase a clinic building, break ground on a $161.5 -million Research Park Complex and complete the medical school's Replacement Research Facility, which is set to open in December 2007.
Today, Willerson remains an active clinician, researcher and educator. Holder of the Edward Randall III Chair in Internal Medicine and the Alkek/Williams Distinguished Professorship, Willerson is a prolific writer who has edited or co-edited 24 textbooks and published over 862 scientific articles. From 1993-2004 he served as Editor-in-Chief of Circulation, the American Heart Association's largest scientific journal, and he has been recognized internationally for a lifetime of exceptional accomplishments in cardiology.
His current research interests include the use of stem cells to improve severely damaged heart tissue. Willerson and colleagues at the Texas Heart Institute now lead one of the first FDA-approved clinical trials to treat patients with end-stage heart disease using their own bone marrow-derived stem cells.
Both Willerson and Cooley spoke of their first meeting when Willerson was a 14-year-old reluctantly tagging along with his physician parents to meet Cooley.
"My parents, both doctors, but neither of them famous, wanted me to meet him, which I thought was the silliest thing I'd ever heard of," Willerson joked. "I thought this is going to be the shortest meeting. It wasn't."
Evidently, the encounter made a positive impression on Cooley as well.
"Jim has been an inspiration to me ever since he was 14 years old," Cooley said. "I told his mother and father I thought he had a lot of promise and he still shows a lot of promise for the years ahead."
That initial meeting in the 1950s turned into a lifelong bond as Cooley quickly became Willerson's mentor, encouraging him to attend Johns Hopkins University. Willerson's desire to "swim for Texas" on the UT Longhorns swim team won out. Cooley, a UT alum who played on the 1939 Longhorn Southwest Conference Championship basketball team, undoubtedly understood Willerson's choice.
The pair would eventually reunite as teacher and student at Baylor College of Medicine, where Willerson graduated with honors in 1965. Cooley also helped lure Willerson from UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas back to Houston in 1989 as chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at the UT Medical School, the position he held until the UT Board of Regents appointed him the fourth president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston on March 9, 2001.
"Dr. Jim Willerson has been a remarkably effective leader of the UT Health Science Center at Houston, achieving great progress in all areas of research, education and patient care," said Richard E. Wainerdi, Ph.D., president of the 46-institution Texas Medical Center.
"I am delighted that he will remain in the Texas Medical Center leading the Texas Heart Institute into the future, building on the strong foundations established by Dr. Denton Cooley with whom he will continue to work closely as the Texas Heart Institute moves to higher levels of excellence in cardiovascular research, education and patient care."
Kenneth I. Shine, M.D., UT System executive vice chancellor for health affairs, said a nationwide search for Willerson's successor will be undertaken by a search committee organized under The University of Texas System Board of Regents' Rules and Regulations. Shine also said that Willerson "has positioned the institution on an accelerated trajectory to excellence, and we are very grateful that Dr. Willerson will continue his present role until his successor has been appointed."
An internationally distinguished cardiologist and medical educator, Willerson also is pioneering one of the first FDA-approved clinical trials to treat patients with end-stage heart disease using their own bone marrow-derived stem cells.
By Wendy K. Mohon, Institutional Advancement