Living

The scientific world sure knows exercise researcher Russell Pate

Russell R. Pate scurried across the University of South Carolina campus one recent morning after welcoming new students to the Arnold School of Public Health.

He settled into his office in the university administration building for meetings with social work faculty members and an interview with a job applicant.

"Then I ran over and inhaled lunch and (ran) back," he said.

Next, he zipped across the hall for a cameo appearance at another faculty meeting, then zoomed back to his tidy office to entertain a campus visitor.

Sitting under nostalgic paintings of old buildings and lush greenery, he fished a tan-colored card out of his shirt pocket to glance at his lineup for the rest of the day.

What was next: a brisk cross-campus walk to his other office - at the school of public health - for a meeting with a senior research staffer, then a session with the two newest graduate students in his exercise science research group to talk about coursework, then a conference call with colleagues at two other universities about a national project.

And let's not forget his daily run - he does 25 miles a week.

Such a super-busy day is "not atypical," said Pate, a university administrator, accomplished runner and father who is known throughout the scientific world for his work in exercise research.

"It's busy, and there are times when I'm over-committed," he said. "But the research and professional activity I'm involved in are not things I do because of a need to have a professional outlet. I do it because I care about the issues."

He has a simple strategy for keeping track of everything - list-making. He keeps daily, weekly and long-term lists. He is fond of paper calendars, and keeps his appointment book and a legal pad with him at all times. But his assistants have gotten him into the habit of making entries into his computer calendar, too.

Rick Noble, who has worked with Pate since 1980 in the Carolina Marathon Association, recalls when Pate kept all his notes in a black 8½-by-11-inch planner.

"I swore if he lost that thing, he would be dead," Noble said. "For the longest time, he was what I call Luddite - he resisted technology."

Pate still doesn't have a PDA, but he has a cell phone.

Many Columbia residents know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American College of Sports Medicine advised 12 years ago that adults get at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. But what they might not know is that their neighbor, Pate, is the man who led the team of researchers that came up with those recommendations.

In early August, Pate and colleagues published updated guidelines and showed that research has continued to validate the earlier advice.

Pate's life now isn't what he thought it would be as a youngster.

"My father was a coach, a P.E. teacher (and) a public school district athletic director," he said. "I grew up thinking I would do the same thing he did."

Pate, a distance runner who had won a scholar-athlete award from Lockport Senior High School in upstate New York, went off to Springfield College in Massachusetts to earn a degree in physical education. But after taking a class in exercise physiology and being invited to be a subject in a lab, his life started changing direction.

"I got hooked on exercise physiology," he said.

So in the early 1970s, he went on to earn his doctorate in that field at the University of Oregon, a place he calls "the center of the universe for distance running at the time."

He became part of a historic running crowd that included such legends as Steve Prefontaine, the James Dean of track in that day.

Pate, who ran 90 to 100 miles a week, ran the Boston marathon almost every year from the early 1970s to mid-1980s. He placed seventh in 1975 with a time of 2:15:20.

"That put him about 10th on the all-time American list," said Steven Blair, a world-renowned USC researcher who has been Pate's friend and colleague for 35 years. "He was really that good."

Pate competed in the Olympic trials in 1972, 1976 and 1980, but didn't make the U.S. team.

"His misfortune was to be active at the same time as people like Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers and Don Kardong," Blair said.

But not only was Pate a world-class athlete - at the same time he was competing, he also was building a science career. He started as assistant professor at USC in 1974 and rose through the ranks to professor by 1985.

For 30 years, he has studied the role of physical activity in health, with a focus on children. Initially, he and Blair were among the handful of scientists working in that area.

But it has become much more popular, thanks to a sharp increase in the rates of obesity in adults and children over the past 20 years. The CDC reports that in that time, the prevalence of obesity among adults ages 20 to 74 years has risen from 15 percent to 33 percent. In children 2 to 5 years old, the prevalence of being overweight increased from 5 percent to 14 percent; in those 6 to 11, it rose from 7 percent to 19 percent; and in those 12 to 19 years, it rose from 5 percent to 17 percent.

"Sometimes I say I was interested in these issues long before they were cool," Pate said. "In a lot of ways, some of this work in the physical activity area feels like the world kind of found us."

Since 1976, not one year has passed that Pate has not published a scientific paper, book or book chapter related to physical activity and health. A search in one scientific journal database shows 171 works authored or co-authored by Pate, and almost 6,000 cases where other scientists referred to his work.

His name is recognized around the world.

"He's one of those individuals who if you're in South America or Europe or Australia and are talking with anyone remotely connected with sports medicine or exercise science and you mention Russ, they know of him," said Jim Whitehead, CEO of the American College of Sports Medicine. "I've gotten to the point where the assumption is, we all know Russ."

Since the mid-1970s, Pate has brought more than $14 million in research money to USC and consistently won large grants from the National Institutes of Health and the CDC.

"I think he has been great for the Department of Exercise Science, great for the Arnold School of Public Health and great for USC," said Larry Durstine, chairman of the department of exercise science. "He da man, as they say."

"He's a quiet giant," said Harris Pastides, USC's vice president for Health Sciences.

Pate is not one to trumpet his accomplishments. And he is quick to point out all the other people who helped him succeed.

"He doesn't say `I' a lot," Pastides said. "He doesn't say, `I did this.'"

Pate surrounds himself with people who are good at what they do and work independently. He lets teammates have their say, but when everyone can't agree, he knows when to make the call.

"Not every decision is going to be made democratically," he said.

His leadership skills serve him well not just in his research but in his administrative job as associate vice president for health sciences at USC. In that position, he is working to develop an academic health center, and improve the quality of USC's research programs and faculty.

Despite the demands of this other job, Pate prides himself on maintaining a thriving research group. That helps him connect better with other researchers while he deals with them with his administrator hat on.

"There aren't a lot of people who are capable of functioning at a high level of university administration and keep an active research program going," Blair said. "There are some who pretend to do it - he's one of the rare birds who can pull this off."

Pate takes one or two new graduate students into his research group every year. He now has six graduate students and six faculty members.

Kerry McIver, Pate's most senior doctoral student, graduates in December. She already has won several awards for her work.

"He expects excellence," she said of Pate. "He's a wonderful adviser."

Students don't always find it easy to work for Pate, but in the end, they are glad they did, McIver said. When she graduates, she will be well equipped to run her own projects successfully, she said.

Pate is not all business, though. A Yankees fan, he and McIver, a Red Sox fan, talk about baseball. Pate also loves talking politics and keeping up with world news.

A self-described "leading-edge baby boomer," he vividly remembers the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, men who influenced him greatly.

"They projected a very idealistic sense of the way to live your life ... that we should work together as a society to take care of the people that need help," he said.

During the Vietnam War, Pate was drafted into the Army out of graduate school. But even while enlisted, he kept doing what he loved - running - as a member of the U.S. Army track team.

That love for running helped him lead the Carolina Marathon Association for more than 30 years. He has helped promote a culture of physical activity in the city and state and sees his participation in races as a public service.

He helped put Columbia "on the map" by leading the efforts that brought the Women's Olympic marathon trials to Columbia in 1996, before the Atlanta games. He bid successfully to host the event again in 2000 despite protests from others that the 1996 experience couldn't be repeated.

"There were a lot of us who said, `You shouldn't do it,' (but) he prevailed and it came off very well," Noble said. "I've always admired the guy. He's an incredibly hard worker, incredibly bright, incredibly stubborn."

Noble said he is impressed with how Pate seems to keep the many parts of his life in balance.

Pate's family life is an important part of that balancing act.

"My kids are very important to me," he said.

He likes to tell people he has two-and-a-half children:

- A son, Colin, 27, who lives in Pennsylvania and is a guitarist in an indie rock band called Remote Islands

- A daughter, Amy, 21, a ceramics major and senior at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

- A stepdaughter, Dr. Kim Huffman, 34, a rheumatologist and researcher at Durham VA Medical Center and Duke University.

He counts his children's births as the happiest points in his life. They often call him for advice.

He'll ask "Amy who?" when his daughter calls.

"He has kind of a dad humor," Amy said of her Beatles-, Rolling Stones-, ABBA-loving dad. "People may not realize it because he's so serious all the time, but he's pretty funny."

Pate, twice divorced, has remained friends with his exes and raised the children with them.

"I feel as though we have done a great job despite the circumstances," he said.

Pate also watches over his elderly father, talking several times a week with his younger sister, Mary Jo Rushlow, who is in Connecticut, and helping make decisions about his care.

Despite all his personal and professional successes, Pate hasn't abandoned his earliest dreams of following in his dad's footsteps. He still can see himself as a cross-country coach at a small college or high school after he retires.

But at 61, he's not thinking of going anywhere just yet.

It's frightening to think of a USC without Russ Pate, but even when he is gone, his immense impact on the university will be clear to see, Pastides said.

"His legacy is secure."

  Comments