By this time 40 years ago, the politicking over establishing a medical school at East Tennessee State University was all but over, but it will be long remembered as one of the greatest political fights ever won for the region.
On Wednesday, a couple hundred people — including many relatives of now-deceased movers and shakers associated with founding the James H. Quillen College of Medicine — gathered at Stanton-Gerber Hall on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, to celebrate the 40th anniversary milestone.
Speakers included ETSU President Brian Noland; the new medical school dean, Dr. Robert Means; ETSU Chief Operation Officer Dr. Wilsie Bishop; and former president and current medical school chair, Dr. Paul Stanton. They reminisced about the struggle to establish the school and the near miss when then-Gov. Winfield Dunn vetoed the legislative bill establishing it. Ned Ray McWherter, speaker of the house at the time, cast the deciding vote to overrule the veto and pass the legislation.
“This is a great day in the history of the Quillen College of Medicine, and it’s a great day for our region,” Bishop said. She called the medical school battle a “dramatic chapter in the history of Tennessee politics.”
She said the fight began with a dream and a desire to improve health care for all Tennesseans.
Bishop and others touted the efforts of Dr. D.P. Culp, ETSU president at the time, state Rep. P.L. Robinson, ETSU Dean of Health John Lamb and state Rep. Bob Good.
But there were other hard-hitting supporters, too, including Carl Jones, owner and publisher of the Johnson City Press back then, and local physician Dr. Ed Allen. All have passed on now, but their relatives were on hand Wednesday to celebrate their accomplishments.
The effort began in 1968 when Culp began his tenure as ETSU’s fourth president. The day he retired in 1977 Culp received a telegram notifying him there was “reasonable assurance” the medical school would be accredited. The first class of 24 students started that fall and graduated in 1982.
Since then, more than 1,700 medical degrees have been awarded — or earned, in Stanton’s view — and the class size has grown to 70 students.
Regardless of its size, Means said ETSU has a significant impact on training quality physicians for not only the area, but Tennessee and beyond.
Means said he may be new to ETSU — he’s only been on the job two weeks — but he’s been following the school’s history during his 30-year career in medical education.
“It is a distinct honor for me both personally and professionally to have the opportunity to lead the Quillen College of Medicine as it begins its fifth decade,” Means said.
Noland said the College of Medicine has been a great success story throughout the past 40 years.
“Today, they’re practicing in the region, across the state, across the country and around the world.
“Every day they are improving the lives of others and are carrying forth our mission of meeting the health care needs of the underserved. Our impact on medical education extends far beyond the classrooms in this building,” he said.
After the event, Culp’s daughter, Jean Culp Flanigan, said she remembers the fight her father had on his hands but knew he’d never give up.
“My daddy was one of those people who once he was on a course, you couldn’t threaten him or bully him or do anything personal to him that would cause him to deviate from his path,” Flanigan said.
But it wasn’t just the founders who were fighting for the medical school, Flanigan said.
“We felt like the entire family was involved. And I think the whole community felt like that. It was our fight, and it was a fight. There were people who had big influence with the governor who were adamantly opposed to it,” she said.
Stanton said during his keynote address it’s important to remember that nearly 50 percent of all graduates from ETSU’s medical school have remained in Tennessee, and most of those are in Northeast Tennessee.
“We’re providing the physicians now and for the future that would not have been here without the school.
“Before the medical school, most every county were health-manpower shortage counties ... now we’ve pretty much taken care of provision of providers throughout this region. Without the medical school and the compliment of nursing and public health and other things at the university there would still be a very dearth shortage of providers in this region,” Stanton said.
In closing, Stanton recited a quote he said he often used in ending speeches at the university.
“Listen to the train whistle in the night and dream of all the distant places that lay at the end of the track,” Stanton choked out, maybe as a challenge, before sitting down.