“Say ‘thanks!’ Before it’s Too Late”
First, a bit of background. Some of you know that I was Chief of The Behavioral Medicine Branch at the National Cancer Institute before my academic career really took off at The University of Pittsburgh. And if you know anything about how government bureaucracy works, you know that you can show up on a Monday morning and suddenly there’s been a “reorganization” and for whatever reasons – programmatic or political – your office has ceased to exist! First, a bit of background. Some of you know that I was Chief of The Behavioral Medicine Branch at the National Cancer Institute before my academic career really took off at The University of Pittsburgh. And if you know anything about how government bureaucracy works, you know that you can show up on a Monday morning and suddenly there’s been a “reorganization” and for whatever reasons – programmatic or political – your office has ceased to exist! (As my daddy would colorfully express it, you’d show up at your office and find out that you had the only desk chair that flushed!)
Anyway, that did happen to me – my branch disappeared as my nemesis gleefully told me one morning! And if you’ve taken a look at my CV displayed on this website, you will also know that I landed quite well on my feet, being recruited by the University of Pittsburgh as the first faculty hired for what was then only a gleam in the eye of the University Chancellor – what later became the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.
There was a period of about four months between when Pittsburgh recruited me and when I actually moved to Pittsburgh to assume the position of Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine. And during those four months, my new research collaborator, Ron Herberman, welcomed me to his NCI laboratory facility in Frederick, Maryland – a facility dedicated to the development of experimental treatments for cancer at the old Fort Dietrich outside of that city. Ron gave me a lovely office, asked his lab assistants to spend time with me so that I could learn hands-on immunological assays, and basically supported me through that interim period.
To make a long story short, I flourished within his hospitality, learned to carry out immunological bench work, and then went to Pittsburgh the following summer. About a year later, I realized that Ron was movable from the NCI and I put into the same Chancellor’s hands a copy of Ron’s CV. Let me just say here that his research accomplishments were many. He was a well-respected immunologist, the discoverer of the Natural Killer (NK) cell – a naturally occurring lymphocyte with the potential for killing off cancer cells – and a brilliant scientist. He was also my old collaborator and I clearly hoped that we could bring him to Pittsburgh so we could continue our work together.
And that is just what happened. So there we were, the two first recruits for a cancer center that existed only on paper and in the minds of a few administrators in Pittsburgh. Ron began to recruit very talented oncologists and immunologists, and as the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute grew in size, we moved across campus to new space. Ron named five Associate Directors of the new Institute, including naming me as Associate Director for Behavioral Medicine. Those were heady days of building, and success followed success. I wound up with a staff of about 25 scientists and ancillary staff under me, supported on “soft” grant money. Every step of the way, Ron supported me in all the inevitable turf wars that occur on campuses everywhere. He was my patron, my protector, my collaborator, my friend.
After I left the University to attend seminary eight years later, Ron and I stayed in touch and he attended my ordination to the Diaconate in l994. And then … the old story. We gradually lost touch in the busyness of our lives. But I was also aware that he remained at Pittsburgh and that the Cancer Institute he founded was a thriving institution with its own freestanding building and, now, hundreds of faculty affiliated with its treatment and research base.
Now this is all background to what I’m about to say. For various reasons I decided to go to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute site and see if Ron had now retired. I discovered that someone else was now Director of the Institute, and so then I Googled Ron Herberman to see where he now was. And what I discovered undid me a bit for most of that day. Because I discovered that Ron had died in June of 2013. And I hadn’t known. I could hardly believe my eyes. And I was very saddened and shocked really … that somehow he had died without my knowing it.
On the same day, I read my friend John DeGruchy’s weekly meditation that he sends to a list of family, friends and colleagues. Titled “We Need Easter,” he says:
We need good news amidst all the bad news that bombards us every day. We can barely cope sometimes with all the problems we have to deal with day by day, at work or at home, without even thinking about the problems facing us in our society and the world at large. We need something to shout “Hallelujah” about in dark times when daily there are news reports of mass murders and plane crashes, of friends who are dying [or have died] … and corruption in high places, of Christians being slaughtered for their faith. We need light in the midst of darkness. We need hope in times when we are driven to despair.
The title of John’s meditation is taken from his wife Isobel’s poem about our need for Easter good news in our lives. And the day that I read his meditation piece, I needed reminding of the Good News that we had just celebrated on Easter the day before I learned of Ron’s death.
So I offer you two takeaway points here. First, think about those in your life who have made a difference to you – have fostered your career, have inspired you, have befriended you when you were low, have made a real difference in your life – and thank them for what they have meant to you before it’s too late. Ron knew how I felt about him – this good man, this man of great integrity and loyalty shown to me over the years – but I don’t believe I ever spoke my gratitude to him in so many words as I should have done before it was too late.
Second, join your thoughts and prayers with Isobel, as she writes:
We need Easter, Lord,
send Easter! – to the city’s slums,
to the shacks, to the shebeens,
to the country’s desolation,
to the hearts and minds and wills of all.
Break upon our world with Easter.
Break open our world with Easter.
And so I join with Isobel and say “Easter blessings” to each of you in this season … and yes, to Ron, too! And I thank you now, from the bottom of my heart!