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George McMillan Fleming Center for Healthcare Management Established at UT Houston
Program designed to train next generation of health care leaders around the globe
Like driving down a Texas highway with one eye on the road ahead, the other warily respectful of what the rearview mirror holds, George Matthews Fleming has found a way to blaze a trail in his late father's name.
George McMillan Fleming, Ed.D., was a leader in healthcare management before there was a word for it. "But first, last and foremost, he was a teacher, an educator. And that is how he led," said George in explaining why he and his brother, Scott, were establishing the George McMillan Fleming Center for Healthcare Management at The University of Texas School of Public Health. "He drew on his love of teaching every day. What better way to honor our father than to create a first-of-its-kind teaching center, built on the principles Dad brought to the healthcare field?"
The center will draw on faculty and disciplines from The University of Texas at Austin, to train healthcare professionals for the ever-increasing challenges in ethics, health policy, and the myriad business and legal modalities essential for leaders to successfully navigate this complex landscape.
"The interface between bedside medicine and the business of medicine can be a grating process that pits care giving against corporate management," George said. "We watched Dad deal with this every day and, somehow, he managed to turn this conflict into a collaborative mission. That's how he lived his life."
In the late afternoon light at the law offices of Fleming & Associates, a photographic presentation streamed silently behind the tenderly comedic commentary of his son and namesake as George described the persona of his Dad ("Dad is always a capital ‘D'") that will permeate this new center.
"There he is, bigger than life," George said, pointing toward the image, "mugging the camera at one of his famous ‘Use-ta' gatherings." The "Use-tas" were a group of retired hospital administrators who all proudly "use-ta" be somebody, George explained. "And, here's his retirement party," apparently, a recurring event. "Every time ‘mandatory retirement' came up, his birth date mysteriously regressed, along with his age." In short, he retired at age 72-when he turned 65, again.
Born in 1917 and raised in the picturesque wilds of Northern Arizona to true pioneers of the Southwest, Dr. Fleming was a student of the Great Depression, World War II, the raucous humor honed by four brothers and the rugged beauty of Flagstaff. After graduation from Arizona State University he began his first and most sacred vocation of teaching children from the surrounding Indian reservations and those of migrant workers.
Dr. Fleming would have returned to Arizona after the war had he not met his future wife, Mary Kathryn Matthews, "a Texan who preferred to stay that way." It also would be the beginning of a 35-year career in hospital administration. He earned his doctorate in education at the University of Houston while working full-time and raising a family. The childhoods of George and his younger brother Scott took shape against the backdrop of historic moments in Texas medical history. Dr. Fleming happened to take the helm of the Mainland Hospital (at that time called Galveston County Memorial Hospital) and moved his family there "one week before Hurricane Carla hit and we watched him on TV, right along with Dan Rather, reporting on the damage. He then moved himself into the hospital for four months during its reconstruction," George recalled, "to assist in supervising the hospital staff that was caring for the needs of the community."
A few years later, The Methodist Hospital came calling. "Here we were, Dad and me, at one of my high school debates, right as Dr. DeBakey was doing his first open heart surgery. Dad kept running out to answer calls from the press. It was an exciting time." Woven into the hearts of his sons and his extended family-those whom he mentored and worked beside-are the very ethics, principles and "teachable moments" that the architects of the Fleming Center hope to distill and impart. "Dad had a way of disagreeing without being disagreeable, of separating out the person from ‘the personal' and drew upon storytelling to illustrate a point."
George and Scott feasted on years of humorously disguised object lessons at the nightly dinner table, "because basically, dinnertime was show time," complete with the calling of a long-dead family dog with a 19-syllable name. "Dad could read the stormy weather in a room and there was always a story he could utilize to clear the skies."
Be it the dining room or the boardroom, "there's a talent to synthesizing business acumen, philosophical perspective, compassion and solid problem-solving into a nugget of useful information that one can draw upon for life."
Admittedly, George believes, Dr. Fleming would be stunned and thrilled by the problems to solve in today's healthcare professions-conundrums that he and his contemporaries could not dream possible. "Some of the problems these days weren't even issues thought up in decades past. Today's basic hospital equipment wasn't even invented in my Dad's day, much less the software program used to purchase it," George mused. "For the next generation of healthcare administrators, you can't look at training them for the next year; you're training them for a lifetime."
Dr. Fleming died in 2003. George and Scott Fleming began looking for ways to carry on their father's legacy of mentoring. Perhaps a teaching award, a professorship at George's UT alma mater, they thought. Guy Parcel, Ph.D., dean of the UT School of Public Health, mused to George one day of a master's degree program in healthcare management. "We're thinking too small," George recalled saying. Over one summer, the seed for this idea grew into a center entirely devoted to healthcare management education, weaving together UT School of Public Health at Houston and UT Austin.
James T. Willerson, M.D., president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and president-elect of the Texas Heart Institute, expressed profound gratitude to George and Scott and the Fleming Foundation "for their vision, partnership and generosity," he said. "I am awed by their insight into the field of healthcare administration and deeply grateful for their work to help us create what I believe will become the pre-eminent program in the world for training health care leaders."
"UT gave us the gift, really-the chance to honor Dad and to do it at UT," said George, who earned business and law degrees from UT Austin. "Hey, we get a two-fer out of this."
Such is the way with fathers and sons. A father's life well-lived becomes the gift to his sons. And, sometimes, a father's life well-lived becomes a gift to a future generation-when there are sons who are willing to share.
By Karen O. Krakower, Institutional Advancement
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