McKown helped build med school
HUNTINGTON -- "Be brave -- think big."
It's those words that define Dr. Charles H. McKown to most of the people who know him -- and even the ones who don't. Without McKown, the facilities known as the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University might never have come to be. As the school's fourth -- and current -- dean, he has, as one man put it, taken the school to "levels none of us could have even dreamed about."
For those ongoing contributions, he has been awarded The Herald-Dispatch's Special Community Impact Award, as part of the newspaper's 2009 Citizen Awards program. This recognition is not given out every year, but is reserved for individuals who have made a profound impact on the region over time.
"I went to work for Marshall University in 1972, in the very early days leading to the formation of the medical school, so I've been observing it since almost day one," said C.T. Mitchell, retired director of university relations. "He really is a key figure in what the school has become."
McKown arrived at Marshall University in 1975 after an already impressive career at a veterans' hospital in Richmond, Va., Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md. He was no stranger to the area, and was not looking to use Marshall as a stepping stone to a more high-profile career. Born and raised in Wayne, he attended Wayne High School, earning first-team all-state honors in football and serving as president of his high school class. He attended West Virginia University and the Medical College of Virginia.
Some think he may have gotten the bug for public service from his dad, the late Sen. C. H. "Jackie" McKown.
"I think at his father's feet, he learned a lot about human relations and dealing with people," Mitchell said. "Using that skill, he's been able to bring people together to reach common goals."
When the medical school was still mostly a topic of conversation as opposed to the full-functioning facility it became, McKown was instrumental in determining not only the size of the building, but the location.
A book written in 2006 by former Marshall University President Robert B. Hayes and Mitchell titled, "$7,000 in the Bank," chronicles the history of the medical school. It was impossible to leave McKown's accomplishments out -- together, with one other dean, their tenure spans 30 of the medical school's 35 years.
According to the book, McKown caused "no little distress" when he refused to proceed on one idea because it could jeopardize the school's accreditation. At one point, he cautioned then-president Dale Nitzschke that the university "should be thinking much bigger" after talk turned to moving the school into an existing facility McKown thought was too small. He also secured a $3 million grant for the school, working hand-in-hand with U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to expand the medical center plan and provide funding for a rural health center.
"I doubt there's another medical school that has had a dean in that position for that long," said Jim Schneider, finance officer for the medical school. "I think he's exhibited an unwavering vision of what the medical school could be ever since he joined the medical school. Particularly in the last 20 years as dean, he's had a vision of its potential and has really done everything within his power to achieve that vision. In this day and age, to keep all the balls in the air as long as we have, it's not just by accident."
McKown has called watching the early days of the medical school develop an "extraordinary experience," serving first as chairman of the department of radiology and the head of the admissions committee before becoming dean in 1989. He misses, by only two or three months, being the current faculty member who has been at the medical school the longest.
"I think he's brought a real mix of academic medicine and community medicine, and he knows the political and economic environment of the area," Schneider said. "There are a lot of elements he's brought to the job that a lot of other people couldn't have."
Mitchell agreed, adding: "At the time he became dean, the medical school was small and struggling and threatened. There were a lot of people in West Virginia who didn't want to see this medical school built. Well, the medical school certainly isn't threatened at this point."
Schneider described it as "permanence and presence."
"Dr. McKown has been able to secure the medical school as a permanent fixture in our community and give it the presence it needed," he said.
Mitchell called McKown's era one of "amazing growth in terms of programs, enrollment, faculty, physical facilities, equipment and reputation."
"A small, struggling medical school has become a health care giant during his tenure, and it continued to expand with pharmacy and physical therapy programs on the horizon," he said.
By all accounts, he is as much a giant in the personal arena as the professional one.
"He's a very private person, he has a terrific personality and is as caring, considerate and generous as anybody I've ever met," Mitchell said.
Mitchell told a story of the time when he was in the hospital more than a decade ago. At about 5 a.m., he had been wheeled down to radiology for some tests and while he was waiting, looked up and saw McKown escorting an elderly woman through the hospital.
"He spotted me, and after he got finished taking her wherever she needed to be, he came back and took it upon himself to read my X-rays," Mitchell said. "Of course, I was nervous at that point because I was pretty sick, but he took the time to read the X-rays and told me that I was going to be all right, and that was a real comfort."
A similar incident in 2000 prompted McKown to call while on vacation to check in on Mitchell.
"We're friendly acquaintances, I would say, but not close. We aren't in the same social circles," Mitchell said. "But, I've admired him for years and I wish I knew him better, and I don't think I'm in a class by myself there.
"The man has probably done more for this community than anybody I can think of."
Schneider has similar personal stories about the man at the head of the medical school.
"I've known him for 20 years and I consider him a very good friend, but his private life is his. He's not a real forthcoming person," he said. "But, what I can tell you is that he's generous to a fault. You can't ever buy a beer or pay for dinner or pick up a check unless you figure some way to trick him out of it.
"He has a wealth of friends. He knows everybody -- their history and their family. He's what I would call a Renaissance man. He enjoys life and he's a big sports fan. And with all of that, he still has time to devote as much energy and effort to the medical school as he does. At this stage of his life and career, I don't know if I'd have that much dedication."
When asked if he thinks McKown will ever retire from the job he loves so much, Schneider said he doubted it.
"He enjoys it, the nature of his work and he enjoys people. Whether he stays as dean or does something else, I think he'll always be engaged in the medical school and its future," he said. "I just can't say enough good things about him. He's a great professional, a colleague and a mentor to me and I'm fortunate, for the past 19 years, to call him a good, personal friend."
McKown's own words about what the future physicians of this area should be could well describe him to hear his friends and colleagues tell it: "industry, honesty, integrity, dignity and nobility."
But, ask the quiet and humble man himself, the one at the helm of the medical program that has a $150 million economic impact on the region, what he thinks about his role in making the school what it is today, and all he'll say is, "We've done well."
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