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NIH Record

Comic, Highbrow Fun
Director's Farewell Leaves Crowd Laughing through Tears

By Rich McManus

Photos: Bill Branson

On the Front Page...

This is what happens when the Saturday Night Live generation bids adieu to a hero: the "Farewell and Tribute to Harold Varmus" on Dec. 16 in a crowded Masur Auditorium featured heartfelt sincerity, videotaped greetings from President Clinton and Rep. John Porter, a cracklingly witty segment of videotaped reminiscences from Varmus hires and associates, a typically broad-looking and informative — poetic, even — reflection on leavetaking by Varmus, and lastly a trio of rock-and-roll numbers by The Directors, whose lyrics urged their esteemed leader to "stay, just a little bit longer."


NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus admires commemorative T-shirt as (from l) Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, Varmus's wife Connie, and HHS Secretary Donna Shalala look on.

The 70-minute ceremony began from the heart — emcee Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, announced, "We are here today for the bittersweet task of celebrating and saying goodbye to an extraordinary man," noting that Varmus has been at NIH for "6 years, 23 days — and counting." He then recalled a meeting 3 years ago with Varmus, when Fauci brought him "an issue combining scientific, policy and budget aspects. As usual, Harold Varmus was interesting, informative and decisive. The meeting was a combination of tension and anticipation, but at the same time it was totally relaxing. It was so much fun to spend any amount of time with him. We were lucky to have him as director, colleague and friend."

Fauci confided that, walking back to Bldg. 31 after the meeting, he felt "a vague feeling of sadness. It was an intangible sense of living through an unusually happy time, and then the realization that it, unfortunately, cannot last forever." He recalled Beatle George Harrison's album All Things Must Pass, but determined not to "dwell on the sadness. My thought was to just keep enjoying what all of us here were so lucky to have.

"Although your daily physical presence here at NIH will be missed," he continued, addressing Varmus, "your influence, impact and spirit will not pass, for you have assumed a permanent place on this campus. You demanded nothing short of excellence, and drove us to perform at the highest possible level." Fauci said Varmus introduced "creative tension (that) became a part of our daily life here" and that Varmus' term as director is "the highlight of my long NIH experience." He thanked Varmus's wife Connie, who was present on the stage, and their two sons with giving Varmus "the joy, love and comfort that made you a better person for us to benefit from," and said Varmus raised morale "to a new and unprecedented level. It was already outstanding before you came, but you made it much, much better. For this we owe a great debt of gratitude, and a heartfelt thank you."

Shalala pays tribute to Varmus.

As Varmus reached across the stage to shake Fauci's hand, the first of two cameo appearances by politicians on videotape occurred; Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the house appropriations committee overseeing NIH, said he was "sorry I can't be there as you ride off into the sunset," but lauded the many achievements of the Varmus era. "You have done magnificently for all of us," he said. "We are proud to have been foot soldiers in your army of biomedical advancement."

Next came a comic video segment in which institute and center directors hired by Varmus, or members of his Bldg. 1 coterie, appeared in short clips offering facetious answers to such questions as "What convinced you to accept Varmus's offer of employment?" ("The Armani suits he wore," deadpanned NIDCD director Dr. James Battey), "What have you learned from working with him?" ("He really doesn't ride his bicycle 12 miles to work each morning —he gets a ride to within a block of NIH, then gets out and pedals the last 12 feet, then sprays on some sweat," reported Marc Smolonsky, NIH associate director for legislative policy and analysis) and "What advice would you give to those who will work for Harold Varmus in the future?" ("Never use 'impact' as a verb," counseled CSR director Dr. Ellie Ehrenfeld. "Try not to b.s. him — it doesn't work," warned NIGMS director Dr. Marvin Cassman.)

NCI director Dr. Rick Klausner sheds his shirt to reveal rock T-shirt.

NCI director Dr. Rick Klausner then toured highlights of Varmus's directorship through a series of real photographs (including Varmus with Hillary Clinton at the 1998 State of the Union address; "It was sort of like Zelig — what is he doing there?" quipped Klausner) and doctored ones (including Varmus as King Kong waging war with clinical department heads at Memorial Sloan-Kettering from atop the Empire State Bldg.)

"This has been a marvelous time of accomplishments, laughter, and being challenged," Klausner concluded. "And Harold, we will deeply miss your presence here."

The director offers views on leavetaking.

NIH deputy director (now acting director) Dr. Ruth Kirschstein then introduced HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, to the first standing ovation of the afternoon. "I do consider this my campus," Shalala noted. "Now, if you only had a Division I football team I'd be very comfortable."

The secretary surprised the audience by immediately introducing the President of the United States. As the audience looked toward the stage curtains, expecting perhaps an impromptu visit, a videotaped greeting from Bill Clinton rolled. The President credited Varmus with "quickly cracking NIH's genetic code" and lauded a variety of achievements before concluding, "A grateful nation will be forever in your debt. Good luck and Godspeed."

Shalala recalled details of recruiting Varmus to NIH, including a consultation with the late Nobel laureate Howard Temin at the University of Wisconsin. "He whispered 'Varmus. NIH and Varmus.'

The faces of Bldg. 1 staff were edited into this photo of the terra cotta likenesses of Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang's lieutenants, which were buried with him at the end of his reign.

"Nothing could have prepared me for my first meeting with Dr. Varmus," Shalala said. "I was expecting some incoherent, bookish type, and what I found was the consummate schmoozer. He had an infectious intellectual curiosity, abundant energy and a titanium bike. The only drawback I could find was his taste in clothes."

Her tone warmed: "Harold Varmus has changed Washington. He was the right person at the right time. It has been my experience that the appointment of one individual doesn't usually make a huge difference, but this time it did. His commitment to quality and excellence in science will be the lasting legacy of the last part of this century. He probably won't win the Nobel prize again, because his achievements are ultimately broader than any single field — the sheer breadth of his exploration has been astonishing...We honor his enthusiasm for building science, and for building buildings, for it is true — Harold Varmus has an edifice complex."

Shalala said Varmus "has literally revolutionized the value of research in this country, which will last for years to come. Harold Varmus has ennobled this job. We will miss your humor and your humanity, but your impact will be felt no matter where you park your bicycle."

Clapping along to the music of The Directors are (from l) Kirschstein, Connie and Harold Varmus, Shalala and Fauci.

The director then rose, to a standing ovation, to offer reflections. "I can envision myself sitting in a nursing home, watching a video of this event on TV someday," he joked. But he quickly became philosophic, noting that the sadness of leavetaking is "life's common, banal lesson. Even birth is a sad departure from the warmth of the womb." He said he's been "mildly obsessed with the problem of leavetaking, and the proper 'way to go,'" in recent weeks. A trip to China provided him with a range of artistic representations of departure, from Emperor Qin Shihuang's elaborate exit plans of 2,200 years ago (he had 8,000 life-size terra cotta likenesses of his regiment leaders and top staff buried with him — Varmus showed both real slides of this archaeological find, plus doctored images of his own IC directors and OD staff faces superimposed on the sculptures) to a more "soothing" image of departure from the Ming dynasty (a landscape, common for its time, of an honored civil servant bidding farewell to a clutch of associates at water's edge before embarking by sailboat). As the slides on the screen focused closer and closer on details of the portrait, Varmus acknowledged that he is about to "head across a wide distance," but emphasized the good humor and seriousness of purpose that has characterized his stay. "It is a good way to go," he insisted, "a prelude to the pleasures of an arrival elsewhere."

Whimsical artwork announcing the farewell included caricature of Varmus biking to a new job.

Having elevated the tone of the proceedings to the poetic, Varmus waved to acknowledge the day's third standing ovation, then made way for The Directors, introduced by Klausner, who stripped down to a black commemorative T-shirt while introducing bandmates Francis "Human Genome" Collins and Steve "Blind Lemon" Katz (along with crack session musicians John O'Shea, Tracey Rouault and Chuck Allerson). The group raced through three tunes (see sidebar below) as the audience clapped along.

As the ceremony drew to a close with presentation of a band T-shirt to Varmus and group photographs, someone in the audience remarked, "This kind of thing will never happen here again." To which his companion replied, "No, it won't."

Directors Send Varmus Off in Song

Hoping to ease the pain of Harold Varmus's leavetaking, The Directors "interrupted their world tour" to perform a salute to their beloved boss, said NCI director Dr. Rick Klausner. "So that Harold will leave with a smile on his face, I present to you the band none of you have heard of, and that few of you will want to have heard. No one can leave, by the way." "Yeah, the doors are locked!" said guitarist Dr. Francis Collins, NHGRI director.

To the tune of Last Kiss

Chorus: Oh where oh where can that Harold be?

Paul Marks took him away from me

He's leaving heaven so he's got to be good,

So he can get grant funding like he thinks he should

He biked to town, Nobel Prize in his hand

Thought he'd returned to the promised land

Went to the Congress and said "Show me the money"

But in '94 there was no milk and honey

He hunkered down, talked 'bout a steady state

But it really bugged him, what a terrible fate!

So he pressed on and said "Look what we do –

Medical research is good for you."


Six years have passed since we first saw his face

Buildings are sprouting all over the place

Now science rules, it's a new world order

Thanks to Specter, Harkin, Obey, and Porter

He's left his mark, he's nobody's fool

Let's not discuss the graduate school

Clad in spandex, he's plunged on ahead

With cre-lox, stem cells, and E-Biomed.

The Directors are (from l) NICHD senior investigator Dr. Tracy Rouault, NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz, NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins, NCI director Dr. Rick Klausner, NICHD postdoc Chuck Allerson and NIAMS scientist Dr. John O'Shea.

To the tune of Teen Angel

We knew the day would someday come when you'd be lured away

There are some perks for leading us, but probably not the pay.

Chorus: Oh Harold, can you hear us, will this song endear us?

The Big Apple's not that great, you can stay, it's not too late.

We know that you have lots of plans up there in New York town

But did you know you had to do night call and daily rounds?


And when they show the books to you, and black ink turns to red

That Senate seat's not settled yet, just run for that instead.

Alternate Chorus: Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Harold will be your bettering

But raising funds is moot, he only owns a single suit.


Oh Harold, Oh Harold, Enjoy your loot!

To the tune of Stay

Harold, stay, just a little bit longer,

Won't you play just a little bit longer?

Well Donna don't mind,

And the Congress don't mind,

If you take a little time, just to keep the budget fine,

do it one more time.

Oh won't you stay, just a little bit longer?

Please, please, please say you will.

Now the White House don't mind

and the Directors don't mind

and the postdocs don't mind

and the PIs don't mind

and Vida don't mind

but Connie she might mind

If you take a little time, just to keep the budget fine,

do it one more time

Oh won't you stay, just a little bit longer?

Please, please, please, say you will

Come on, come on, come on, stay.

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