A Decision for UB
Forty years later, he still feels a commitment to his alma mater
By Scott Thomas
Act 1: Garvey leaves medical school at the University at Buffalo in 1953 for the U.S. Air Force. He promptly heads for Texas to commence what would become a long career as a surgeon, mostly in oncology. In addition, along the way, he keeps humdrum at bay by serving as team physician for the Dallas Cowboys for nine years in the 1960s and 1970s; by teaching surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas; and by raising a big family (that brood includes four grown children, and now, nine grandchildren).
Then came Act 2.
"I had always thought that I wanted to do something different when I was 55," says Garvey, who at 73 maintains the confident bearing of a Harvard football player—which he was, alongside Robert F. Kennedy in the leather-helmet days of the 1940s. "I always seem to end up running things." Indeed, in 1987, he was asked to become medical director of Zale Lipshy University Hospital in Dallas, and five days later he became CEO. "So I thought, if I’m going to end up running a hospital, I’d better learn to do it right."
He enrolled at the University of Dallas and earned an M.B.A., the first physician to get that degree from that particular university, he notes. Thus began a second career wielding not a scalpel but the black-ink pen of a hospital administrator. His current milieu is the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler, to which the University of Texas System called him in January 1998. Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, is the smallest health center in the $6 billion University of Texas institution; specializing in chest health and pulmonary disease, it handles a significant number of tuberculosis cases, as well as other patients. With about 1,200 employees, Garvey figures he’s got it running almost the way it should be running.
It’s a change, he acknowledges, from the direct patient care and the teaching to which he devoted his first professional life. "In one sense I’ve been practicing medicine since I was a kid," says Garvey, a doctor’s son who grew up in Olean in western New York State’s Southern Tier. "We lived over my dad’s office. I answered the door, talked to people, answered the phone, went to farmhouses with my dad when he made rounds."
But he also recognizes that all that surgical training hasn’t gone to waste now that he’s in an office and not in an operating theater. "I’m trained to make decisions, think about the odds and the consequences of different options, and then decide," Garvey says. "And I’m not afraid to make decisions."
One that came easily, he says, was his decision to join The Campaign for UB: Generation to Generation as chair of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Committee. The school’s campaign goal, $40 million, has been surpassed already, and based on the theory that a challenge brings out the best in people, the goal has been increased to $50 million, a huge part of the campaign’s overall goal of $250 million. "We’ll make it," Garvey says with confidence.
And the roots of his commitment to UB run deep. "My dad was a 1925 graduate of the UB medical school," Garvey notes. "He went to Canisius College for two years, then he went to medical school, then he did an internship, then he went to work. That was how it went in those days."
While Skip Garvey was doing his undergraduate work at Harvard, his father died; in coming to the UB medical school, Garvey was awarded a scholarship for children of deceased UB alumni. His late brother James was Class of ’55 at the medical school, attending on a New York state–sponsored scholarship. "So I’ve made the assumption that all three of us were on scholarship," Garvey says. "I felt that we, my family, had some obligation to the school." When the call came from the university’s development office, he was ready to take action.
Scholarships, not surprisingly, are a large part of his motivation.
"We attract the same kids that Rochester attracts and that Syracuse attracts," he says. "You look at schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins—they have large [endowments of] scholarship dollars. There’s a brain drain to those schools, if you will." Building up UB’s endowment, he says, will enable future generations access to the same kind of scholarship assistance he, his brother and their father enjoyed.
As well, he says, "The school needs some unrestricted gifts for the dean’s use. The dean needs to have the right to use those funds where it will best suit the school."
Garvey has done development work in Dallas, and he knows that the job isn’t as straightforward as it might appear. "It’s all about nurturing potential donors and showing them what the needs are," he says. "You don’t just go in and ring their doorbell and ask for half a million dollars."
Indeed, he continues, "probably 35 percent" of the contributions to the medical school segment of The Campaign for UB have come from alumni and friends of the school; the balance has come from corporations and foundations. The campaign ends in 2003.
Besides this special appeal, Garvey—ever the business analyst—sees a need for the medical school to strengthen the annual giving campaign among alumni. He notes that giving opportunities exist to endow departments, programs and faculty chairs.
"I’m not in a position to write a $1 million check," he says. "I wish I were. But this work with the medical school committee is something I can do for the school."
The nation’s recent tragic events have put Garvey in a philosophical frame of mind lately. He has seen the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; he remembers his mother’s telephone call on December 7, 1941, telling him of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor; he also, in a part of his life he doesn’t much like to talk about, was present for the horrors of November 22, 1963, at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital.
That was a long time ago—way back in the beginning of the first act. And for Skip Garvey, act 2 is a long way from over.
Scott Thomas is copyediting coordinator of the Buffalo News.