Planting Seeds for the Future

The following is a condensed version of comments delivered in front of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees on September 5. An op-ed appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal on September 21, 2014. 

August for me was a time of deep reflection. 

I celebrated my 65th birthday and 36th wedding anniversary.  It also coincides with the honor of welcoming the largest, most academically prepared, and most diverse class in this university’s history along with announcements that illustrated our work of education, research, service and health care.

To celebrate, my family and I traveled to Normandy, where we somberly walked the beaches and fields of battle.

In the American cemetery, 9,386 brave souls rest in peace and the names of another 1,557 missing are inscribed in stone. White crosses and Stars of David are arrayed in solemn order, overlooking wind-swept beaches.

It's a haunting paradox -- a testament to countless instances of heroism to defeat a genocidal tyrant, balanced by the horror of war, resulting from well-intentioned avoidance of hard choices.

Thousands of crosses and Stars of David.

Each one tells a story.

Fate drew us to one.

The name on the marker is Howard Henry, Ranger and Kentuckian. He died August 19, 1942, two years before the invasion. 

He was part of a reconnaissance mission. Ranger Howard Henry was wounded and died in an English hospital, one of 2 American citizen soldiers to first shed blood on European soil.

Howard Henry, from Harlan, wanted to be an electrical engineer.

Thousands of miles away, Mary Lynne and I recently welcomed new students. We often ask where they are from and what they want to study.

Frequently I heard, “I want to be an engineer.”  Indeed, this year’s freshman class has 800 majors in engineering.  That is good news as we currently rank in the bottom five states in engineering graduates.

Later the same week, along with Engineering Dean John Walz, we hosted a dinner for several graduates who have been generous to UK.  We listened to dazzling stories of successes from construction to commerce. We talked about the joys of living – children, grandchildren, friends, sunrises and sunsets.

My thoughts, though, kept returning to Howard Henry and what blessings our state would have known from his full life. I think, too, about the lives that he and others saved. 

It all reminds me of the passage from the Hebrew Talmud that "whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."

Like the greatest generation, we are being called -- to educate and serve, to save lives and to build communities.

It was another powerful August day, when I traveled to Hazard with Mark Evers, director of our Markey Cancer Center. We joined Congressman Hal Rogers and Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden, both of whom spent three days in the district as part of the SOAR initiative. 

At every stop UK was visible -- clinicians, extension agents, investigators and professionals dedicated to communities.

Dr. Frieden showed data comparing the 5th district to a healthy community in the United States.  There are hundreds of preventable deaths in the 5th district for the top five killers – cancer, heart disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and unintentional injuries.

All too frequently, we are filling a cemetery the size of the one I witnessed in Normandy.   

And although the challenges of these dread diseases are perhaps most acute in the hills of Appalachia, they exist in rates much too high across Kentucky.

Isn't this unacceptable?

Many people are ready to give up on places like Appalachia.  You are often left with the impression that it is a place without hope.

But I believe these places define hope. And you would too if you were with me and other UK faculty and staff.

From Madisonville to Manchester, in Louisville and Lexington, and communities in between, UK is engaged in partnerships with and for communities to improve education, extend and enhance life, and search for discoveries that can rebuild and renew communities.

These partnerships are working.

Consider just one example: Through the coordinated efforts of the Kentucky Cancer Consortium located at the Markey Cancer Center, the colorectal screening rate in Kentucky has gone from 49th to 20th. The incidence rate has dropped by 24% and the death rate has dropped by 28%.

Health disparities -- whether by circumstance, region, income or race -- can be overcome. UK scientists can make breakthroughs from the cellular to community level to save lives.

However, we cannot do it without talent and infrastructure. Leading scientists and researchers want to join us, attracted by the work they see being done here. Yet, today, we cannot accommodate them because we are out of quality research space. 

Without more space, we are saying no to some of the finest talent.

We will not conquer these maladies overnight.  Some diseases lie deep within a complex genetic code that until recently was only understood by our maker.

We all know -- in person or through loved ones -- that medical misfortunes do not care who they touch or crush. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS or juvenile diabetes will find us wherever we live and rob us and our families of life’s richness.

The result is dreams deferred or lost, lives -- like Ranger Henry -- unfulfilled. Promise and potential, through circumstance or choice, are unmet.

 It is time to make death a beggar in Kentucky.

Cellular discoveries can lead to personalized medicine, which result in community solutions. They are on the horizon if we are willing as individuals and a Commonwealth to invest -- now.

What choice will we make?

It reminds me of the story told by President Kennedy, about the great French marshal Lyautey, who asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree would not reach maturity for 100 years.  The marshal replied, “In that case, there is not time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”

Mary Lynne and I have decided to plant a tree.

We recently announced our gift of $250,000 to UK to fight health disparities and save lives in the Commonwealth.  Specifically, we are taking a stand today, toward building a multi-disciplinary research building.

Such a facility -- dedicated with fervor and focus on the seemingly intractable scourges confronting Kentucky -- can change our state for the next 100 years.

Our gift alone is not enough. No one gift is. We need other gardeners to join us.  We need our state to listen when we again ask for bucks for buildings and brains. 

We must plant now to grow the future we want. Let us plant today for that brighter tomorrow within our grasp.