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Honorees Deeply Moved
President Clinton Dedicates VRC Cornerstone

By Rich McManus

Photos: Bill and Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Professing that "it's not the name on the facade or the beauty of the building that really matters — it's the indescribable relief millions of people all over the world will get as a result of what goes on in that building. That's what really counts," Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and his wife Betty, longtime advocates of childhood immunization both in their home state and the world, were guests of honor June 9 at a ceremony in which the new Vaccine Research Center cornerstone was dedicated by President Clinton and the building was formally named in their honor.

Unveiling the cornerstone of the new Vaccine Research Center at a ceremony June 9 are (from l) HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, President Clinton, Sen. Dale Bumpers and his wife Betty. The Bumperses also got a smaller version to keep as a memento of the occasion.

Built primarily to answer a challenge Clinton issued 2 years ago to develop a vaccine for AIDS within 10 years, the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center "will be the Cape Canaveral of vaccine research," predicted HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. Anticipating the day when the vaccine effort finally pays off, Sen. Bumpers concluded his remarks in tears: "Betty and I, wherever we are, will smile down and say we had a small role in it."


The heartfelt ending to a 75-minute ceremony conducted in an air-conditioned tent on the outskirts of the VRC construction site touched deeply the hundreds who saw it live, and many others who watched on video.

Clinton said he hopes to return some day to the VRC (rear) to announce the end of AIDS.

The ceremony began just slightly late, at 2:47 p.m., when Clinton escorted Betty Bumpers, who had had back surgery only 2 days earlier, across the stage erected on parking lot 10D. A warm ovation washed over the President, who had arrived in a motorcade moments earlier. As the guests took their seats, NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus quipped, "Even though I am the host, I'm probably the least familiar face on the stage. This is indeed a great day for the NIH, and a great day for the world. I am glad to welcome the President back to NIH [his first official visit was in August 1995]." He then introduced Shalala, whom he credited with "setting a record every day for length, and more importantly for quality of service, as secretary of Health and Human Services."

Shalala was quick to return the accolade, thanking Varmus "for his brilliant leadership, which may be the legacy (of the Clinton administration) that has the longest and most sustained impact on this country and on the world." Shalala said of the Bumperses, "They are smart and savvy, and saviors, too. From Arkansas to Washington, to the far corners of the globe, they are guardians of the world's children." She recounted the couple's quarter century of efforts on behalf of childhood immunization, an effort that began in Arkansas (where Dale Bumpers was elected governor in 1970, then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, serving four terms) and was later adopted by every state. "In 1997, the Bumperses were honored in an East Room ceremony when the immunization rate in the United States reached an all-time high — more than 90 percent of the nation's children were immunized by age 2," Shalala recalled. "The message that (the Bumperses) brought to the nation was clear: Vaccinate your children on time, every time." She continued, "The VRC is the next step — it will be the Cape Canaveral of vaccine research, bringing us closer to President Clinton's goal of having an HIV vaccine by the year 2007."

President Clinton gives his trademark "thumbs up" gesture to someone in the audience, as Sen. Dale Bumpers looks on.

She noted that AIDS "is no longer one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States," but cautioned, "We are a long way from winning this battle. While we must do all we can to prevent AIDS, we must also unlock the secrets of this disease." She predicted that Clinton's speech at Morgan State University commencement exercises in May 1997, which launched the vaccine initiative, "will one day be as famous as the grainy black-and-white film of President Kennedy challenging the United States to reach the moon."

Next on the agenda was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose amendment to the FY 1999 omnibus appropriation bill named the VRC in honor of the Bumperses; Shalala introduced him, calling him "a strong and ferocious fighter for research, and a great namer of buildings."

Sen. Tom Harkin served for many years with Bumpers in the Senate.

Harkin, too, recounted the Bumpers' advocacy on behalf of children, supplying details of their work at the state and federal level, and particularly crediting the partnership that evolved between Betty Bumpers and First Lady Rosalynn Carter that resulted in immunizations becoming standard requirements nationwide for public elementary school enrollment. He also credited Sen. Bumpers and his wife with leading an effort to eradicate polio from the world, and with dramatically increasing funding for community health centers nationwide. "They have always looked out for the unserved, and the underserved," Harkin said.

NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus was host on the occasion.

The President opened on a light note, observing that since Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, "it's been impossible to get anything named for a Democrat. I just came to be sure it really happened." He recalled the words of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow 44 years ago, when Dr. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine "heralded the development of a golden age in medicine" which has led, now, to vaccines for some 20 infectious diseases. "We have eliminated polio from our own hemisphere, and by early in the new millennium, it will be eliminated from the whole world. This is one of the great achievements of a remarkable 20th century." He called NIH "one of America's great citadels of hope, not only for our people, but also for the world." And he labeled medical triumphs not only victories of scientists, "but also countless citizens, including the couple we honor today.

In a holding room outside the main part of the tent, the President greets guests including the Bumpers' children and grandchildren.

"More than 25 years ago, Betty (Bumpers) opened my eyes to the fact that too few people in my state were being immunized," said Clinton. He joked, "Betty is so closely identified with the immunization cause that kids cried when she came to visit their schools. They knew that someone was going to get a shot."

He marveled at Mrs. Bumpers' energetic legacy of crisscrossing the country and globe on behalf of children, and informed the audience, "She's here only 2 days after having back surgery, which is the ultimate testament to her grit and determination." And though he admitted he has railed against too-brief hospitalizations, he called Betty, "Exhibit A for drive-by surgery.

"I have long been inspired by Dale and Betty's personal crusade," Clinton said. "It is entirely fitting that today we dedicate this state-of-the-art facility to them. They are two great Americans. This is a hopeful moment for vaccine research in America."

Noting that AIDS is "the leading infectious killer in the world, claiming some 2.5 million lives in 1998," Clinton said, "We can't afford to waste a second in our fight to cure AIDS." He said an AIDS vaccine "will remain the primary mission of the VRC. I am confident this is the place where miracles will happen. I look forward to the day when I can come back here, and in the words of Edward Murrow, with banners flying and trumpets sounding in the distance, announce the end of AIDS. When that day comes, it will be due in large part to the work of the people at this center, and to Dale and Betty Bumpers."'

With that, he unveiled the building's cornerstone, and a smaller, mounted version that the Bumperses can take as a keepsake.

Sen. Dale Bumpers and his wife Betty have spent the last 25 years urging childhood immunization worldwide. "Our gratitude to them cannot be larger," said Varmus.

Mrs. Bumpers then spoke briefly, first thanking "my husband for giving me the courage to go and be what I wanted to be while he was governor." She called Rosalynn Carter "my unfailing companion. She was the one who asked me, 'What are we going to do about all these babies dying?'"

Sen. Bumpers told the crowd, "NIH has always been my favorite foil. I always cited that famous statistic, that NIH can only fund 25 or 28 percent of those projects deemed worthy. I could pull it out whenever my colleagues were considering something like the space station, which I detested, or some weapon system the Pentagon didn't need. It has provided me with many opportunities for righteous indignation."

A legendary raconteur and orator, Bumpers picked good-naturedly at the weaknesses of age in one of his trademark jokes, then observed that "if it weren't for Hillary Clinton and Betty, I'd probably be working at the sanitation department back in Little Rock." But his tone became somber as he recalled "a brilliant, sunny afternoon last fall, at the last appropriation committee hearing I would ever attend," when he realized, at the appearance of two of his grandchildren, that his colleague Harkin was planning to introduce an amendment naming the VRC in his honor.

"There are honors, and there are honors," he began, "and I can think of only one other that even comes close."

He recalled a Sunday long ago in Charleston, Ark., when the town's seven ministers gathered to shepherd the community's children to the local elementary school to take an oral polio vaccine, an innovation "that gave us something no monetary value could match — the tremendous parental relief we felt."

He remembered another Saturday when his colleagues immunized 300,000 children in one day, adding that his wife was administering polio vaccines herself recently in Africa.

"Betty told me the immunization campaign was good for my political career, but it was only a one-shot thing," he recalled. "She said we needed to monitor every child, so she started that day and never stopped. She could not have been more right."

He concluded, "Words could never profess our profound gratitude" for the honor of having the VRC named after them.

The President greets new VRC director Dr. Gary Nabel. Looking on is Dr. David Baltimore, chair of the NIH AIDS vaccine research committee.

Bringing the ceremony to a crisp close on a very hot afternoon, Varmus said, "It's my job to end this wondrous event before it's marred by heat stroke. Years of dedication and concentration lie ahead of us, but we have done this before on this campus," he said, listing vaccines for haemophilus influenzae, rotaviruses, improved pertussis vaccines, and treatments for other pathogens. "AIDS is different," he cautioned. "HIV is a formidable obstacle, but we will work on that disease as well as malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis C and others yet to be discovered." Turning toward the Bumperses, he said, "Our feelings of gratitude cannot be larger." And to the President, "We hope to have President Clinton out here next year for the dedication of the Louis Stokes Laboratories, named after a Democrat of Ohio, then again in 2002 for the dedication of the Clinical Research Center, named after Mark O. Hatfield. I know he's not a Democrat, but he's as close as you can get to one."

Entertainers at the event included the World Children's Choir
(above) and the Howard University Jazz Quartet.

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