Chuck Williams: $66 million gift to Medical College of Georgia historic

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 6, 2013 

Chuck Williams

Retired Columbus physician Cecil Whitaker — a long time OB-GYN — has taken part in thousands of deliveries over the years.

But last week, almost two decades after he quit birthing babies, Whitaker played a role in one of the greatest deliveries public education in the state of Georgia has ever seen.

The estate of J. Harold Harrison, a successful Atlanta vascular surgeon and cattle rancher, announced a $66 million gift to the Medical College of Georgia Foundation to fund scholarships and educational chairs. This came on the heels of a $10 million contribution last year to help finance a building named for Harrison, like Whitaker, a graduate of the Medical College.

“Isn’t that something?” Whitaker said Monday.

And if you know Dr. Whitaker at all, you can just hear him saying it an accent as thick as syrup.

It is something for many reasons.

First, it allows the Medical College of Georgia to compete against private institutions such as Vanderbilt, Duke and Emory for top-flight students who will eventually become top-flight doctors. Through Harrison’s generosity, more scholarship money will be available to lure the best students into the Medical College in Augusta. And that is important because about half the doctors in Georgia are educated at the Medical College.

“This puts our scholarship program on steroids,” Whitaker said.

In this case, steroids are a good thing.

It was also something because of the remarkable nature of the gift. It brings into focus the career and life of someone Whitaker and many others considered a remarkable man and healer.

“He was internationally known,” Whitaker said of Harrison. “The techniques he devised in treating vascular problems were well ahead of their time. He was an honest to goodness pioneer.”

Whitaker knew Harrison “pretty well.” The two men served on the Medical College Foundation board. Last year, when Harrison gave the money for the building, Whitaker was one of five or six folks who made the pitch.

“He didn’t want to give the money for the building, because he felt strongly it was the Board of Regents’ responsibility to build buildings,” Whitaker said.

But Harrison did, and that led to the endowment, believed to be the largest individual financial gift to a Georgia public university.

“We all knew Harold had a lot of money, land and cattle,” Whitaker said. “But I don’t think any of us realized we were talking about this kind of money.”

Harrison died last June and Whitaker had known for months about the gift, “but we were all sworn to secrecy,” he said.

Now, the secret is out. It is hard to overstate the meaning of Harrison’s gift. It will be measured for decades to come by the men and women trained through the vision and gift from the Harrison family.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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