Comic, Highbrow Fun
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."
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."
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 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."
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.'
"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."
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