BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Work colleagues and friends have spoken of their admiration for Dr. Joseph B. McCormick, who is stepping down as regional dean of UTHealth’s School of Public Health in Brownsville.
Dr. Belinda Reininger, who will attempt to fill McCormick’s shoes as the head of the school, oversaw a fiesta in his honor on Thursday.
“He is not retiring. So, we are not sad, we are not saying goodbye. We are celebrating, thus we have a fiesta theme,” Reininger said.
McCormick, MD, MS, holds the James H. Steele, DVM Professorship and will continue in this role. He is a revered and well-traveled epidemiologist who responded to the first-ever Ebola outbreak and went on to set up from scratch the School of Public Health in Brownsville with The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. (Click here to read his resume.)
“I came here in 2001 with the intention to make a real difference for local people through public health education of students and research on the disease burden and health inequalities, and applying what we learned to partner with the community to improve health,” McCormick said.
“I’m very proud of the progress we have made in educating a public health workforce, illustrating important health problems and tackling them through outreach programs and partnerships with community organizations and clinics that are improving people’s lives daily.”
McCormick’s commitment to growing a locally responsive institution that addresses key health issues in the Rio Grande Valley has resulted in tremendous funding to the area and numerous successful community-driven research initiatives.
A news advisory from the School of Public Health listed some of McCormick’s achievements:
- Founding and transforming a school of public health, with his wife and fellow epidemiologist Susan Fisher-Hoch, MD, into an internationally renowned seat of education and research. What started as an office with two chairs and two computers is now a thriving institution with eight faculty and more than 50 students, which has so far attracted some $80 million funding to date, much of this being channeled into community-based programs.
- Establishing the Hispanic Health Research Center in Brownsville, which employs more than 100 people, to provide the first scientific basis for assessing and improving health in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
- Creating the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort, which now numbers some 5,000 Mexican Americans, to provide the first assessments of the burden of disease in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. His pioneering research on tuberculosis and diabetes on the U.S./Mexico border put the school on the map globally, while also developing understanding of other prevalent health problems among Hispanic populations, including heart disease, liver disease, and liver cancer.
- Providing leadership to local outbreak investigations for flu and serving as national expert on the 2014 ebola outbreak in the U.S.
- Introducing the first innovative educational opportunities for masters, medical, and undergraduate students to enroll in joint degree programs and a 4 + 1 program to help students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.
- Championing initiatives to increase physical activity and improve diet. These include Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta (Your Health Matters), which installs infrastructure including hike and bike trails and offers free exercise classes and health screenings, as well as working with local media, a multi-sector Community Advisory Board and established programs like The Brownsville Farmers Market, now 10 years running, which has countywide offshoots.
Dr. Belinda Reininger
At the fiesta, Reininger read aloud tributes from work colleagues of McCormick. Reininger, herself, had this to say to the audience:
“I too have had the pleasure of working with Joe since 2001, countless projects across the city of Brownsville, the region, the state, in Mexico, in Pakistan and he has taught, mentored, guided, supported, irritated and pushed me to be a better researcher, teacher and person.
“I am eternally grateful for his tremendous influence on me but more importantly on this community. This campus would not be where it is today without you; this community would not be where it is today without you.
“Along the way we have learned some of the following things about you: he’s a jet-setter, a wine enthusiast, a storyteller, an author, a skier, a turkey carver, a Dukes sports fan, a debater, an advocate, a cyclist, a counselor, a cheerleader, a networker, an innovator, a pianist, an adventurer, a physician, an epidemiologist, a virus hunter, a humanitarian, a critical thinker, a fact-finder, a Renaissance man, a media personality, a mentor, a leader and to all of us, priceless. Thank you all for being here to celebrate him.”
Other tributes included:
Dr. Blanca Restrepo
Dr. Blanca Restrepo, Adjunct Associate Professor at UT Health San Antonio’s Long School of Medicine:
“Dr. McCormick is very open-minded and not limited to what is conventional. He is very practical. He is also talented at identifying novel opportunities, usually ahead of everyone else. He is also talented at networking and establishing inter-disciplinary groups that range from community leaders to basic science.”
Maria Elena Rodriguez
Maria Elena Rodriguez, Senior Support Specialist and Assistant to the Regional Dean:
“In my life, I never imagined working with someone with such a dynamic knowledge of an compassion for public health. Dr. McCormick has done research around the world and has had global opportunities but his decision was to stay in our little town of Brownsville. This made differences that will carry on for years to come and generations to come.”
Vanessa Saldaña, program manager and community health workers supervisor at the School of Public Health in Brownsville:
“Your example of leadership, strength, experience, humility and dedication to the health of the Rio Grande Valley community has resulted in the formation of great working teams. These teams will continue with new teachings and improve their research and intervention work, resulting in better health of the community and its citizens. Your work was dedicated to more than just that of accomplishments for your professional career. Instead, your work always carried a special touch of care and compassion for this community. Your community. Thank you, Dr. McCormick for being the pioneer of the School of Public Health, Brownsville Regional Campus. We will continue to grow out of the richness of the lessons you have left behind.”
Julie Lopez, project manager UTHealth San Antonio:
“When I think about Dr. McCormick and his leadership there are many attributes I admire. But, one in particular is his ability to see greatness and opportunity in people and circumstances. In terms of people, he somehow just knows that someone is ripe for the job, even when that person might not know it themselves. Many of us have been fortunate recipients of this keen ability. Additionally, he is never discouraged by naysayers or the unknown. Instead, he makes his own way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: ‘Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.’ Dr. McCormick has done just that.”
Lisa Mitchell Bennett
Lisa Mitchell Bennett, Senior Research Associate and Quality Assurance Coordinator at the School of Public Health in Brownsville:
“Well I know you do, as I do, appreciate what is unique and special about this community, the Rio Grande Valley, with its two cultures, natural beauty and interesting history. There is, however, often an underlying sentiment of lowered expectations and a general attitude of, ‘oh well, this is as good as we can be.’ You, however, in your role as Dean, have brought your high standards, shared with this community your experience, example and attitudes of ‘we can do better.’ We do deserve to understand what the issues are, to dig deeper and find real solutions to problems based on science and collaborations with institutions and researchers all over the globe. In other words, your belief in putting experienced resources in the Valley has given me and many others hope and a vision for the future. And for that, I am grateful.”
Dr. Rose Gowen
Dr. Rose Gowen, a Brownsville city commissioner, read a proclamation from the City of Brownsville in honor of McCormick. She also offered her own thoughts:
“I grew up wanting to be a physician. I went to the University of Texas Southwestern and I am 59-years-old. In that era of medical education, even at Southwestern, there was no interaction with public health. If there was a Department or School of Public Health at Southwestern, I sure did not know it. There was also no interest in medical students participating in research. So, there were no requirements. The concept of a medical student doing research, I do not remember one person in my medical school class even talking about it. So, it was a different era. We were raised to be clinicians and that was it. Your goal was to be a private practitioner.
“About ten years ago I was getting kind of border with that model and did not really know which way to go or what to do to make my life more exciting and more meaningful as a physician. Until, one day, Joe walked into my office wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He said, I am Joe McCormick and I would like to see if you would like to participate in clinical research. I did not know how Dr. Joe McCormick was. I was vaguely aware there was a School of Public Health starting here and I said yes, simply out of boredom. I have never regretted it since. You have changed the trajectory of my life more than anyone else and I truly, truly, appreciate that. But, even more so, I appreciate what you have done for my community.”
Dr. Susan Emery
Dr. Susan Emery, senior associate dean for academic and research affairs at UT Health School of Public Health:
“It is particularly an honor for me to say a few words for Joe. Someone who has been an amazing leader and advocate for this community and this campus and the entire School of Public Health. When I first met Joe, many years ago, I have to admit that my first impression of him was that he was a little salty, a little pushy, and a little presumptuous. Sorry, Joe, but there might have been an occasion when I said to myself, who does this guy think he is. Over the years, I watched Joe and Sue build a scientific enterprise and build a regional campus. Not just any campus but one that is dedicated to scholarship and knowledge in service of improving the health of a community that is sometimes forgotten.
“I quickly learned of Joe’s impressive background, what they brought to the school, our students and this community. Over the years, my initial view of a little salty, a little pushy, a little presumptuous, morphed into awe and appreciation of Joe’s commitment, passion, and mission to improve the health and well-being of others, to contribute to science and our understanding of population health and disease prevention, particularly as it impacts this community.
“My first impressions weren’t entirely wrong, I was just a little naive. I want to thank you for your pushiness, for your persistence, and unrelenting commitment to making a difference. If Joe would not have been that way, he would not have been able to gain the resources for this community. He would not be able to push back against the barriers, the school administration, questioning me a lot on why we do this or that.
“Thank you for not suffering fools when it comes to bringing resources to this campus and this community. Thank you for your drive, your curiosity and your love of science. Thank you for being a role model to me personally, to our students and to our school. Thank you for your leadership and while you have stepped down from your leadership position, I look forward to continued contributions in your research. In fact, on the way over here from the airport they could not stop talking about the next project that they were contemplating. it is entirely clear that he is not going to retire and that he is going to remain a dedicated advocate to this community and to our school. Thank you, Joe.”
Dr. David D. McPherson
Dr. David D. McPherson, chief in the division of cardiology at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, said Brownsville was the only real home McCormick and his wife Sue have had for many years. “Prior to 2001, the two of them were nomads. That is the best way to describe them. Basically, they were at the CDC in Atlanta but they took all these trips to Africa. Then he became the chair of the community health science department at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan. He started up the school of public health in Pakistan.”
McPherson joked that because wine is not one of Pakistan’s top exports, McCormick decided to move on and took a position in France, where there is a lot more wine.
“They looked around for a long term position and this is truly their home,” McPherson said, noting that McCormick persuaded UTHealth Houston to provide resources to Brownsville.
“He was able to bring in internal medicine, gastroenterology, herpetology, cardiology, people from San Antonio, Baylor, MD Anderson. He has been able to bring people here to work together to grow research for this community.”
McPherson noted that Brownsville is poorly evaluated and often poorly treated when it comes to access to health. Thankfully, McPherson said, McCormick is not leaving.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Dr. Joseph B. McCormick departing his post as dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville. Click here to read Part One.