Congressman for 30 Years
By Rich McManus
Photos by Bill and Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
The Louis Stokes Laboratories Bldg. was dedicated in honor of its namesake June 14 on a sunny plaza just outside the 6-story award-winning facility, which will play host to scientists from nine institutes. The building honors a man who rose from humble origins in public housing to a 30-year (1968-1998) career representing Ohio in Congress, during which he championed biomedical research that improved the lives of all Americans, particularly minorities.
"Three years ago, I was absolutely surprised and stunned when Rep. John Porter (chair of the House appropriations committee with NIH oversight, on which Stokes served) told me that the Louis Stokes Laboratories would be established on this campus," said Stokes. "I had no idea what it would be like having a building bearing my name...on the campus of the greatest biomedical research institution in the world. It is totally overwhelming."
Stokes and his wife Jay came to campus several weeks before the dedication to survey the edifice for themselves, he related. "We walked around here in total amazement. My wife commented, 'Just think, from a little boy growing up in the projects in Cleveland, to having a building named after you at the National Institutes of Health.' That really summed it up for me. This is a magnificent and beautiful building."
The dedication, made festive by the performances of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble and the Morgan State University Choir, who entertained arriving guests, began with a stirring invocation by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., who was once copastor with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. "Give every person who labors here the wisdom and knowledge to go on in the struggle to prevent pain and suffering, and to create a greater, a better quality of life," he intoned.
Emceeing her second dedication event of the week, NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein noted that Stokes had founded the Congressional Black Caucus's health brain trust, and introduced Stokes' successor in that role, Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen, a physician who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Congress.
Rep. Donna Christian-Christensen
Former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, during whose term (1989-1993) NIH created both the Office of Research on Minority Health and the Office of Research on Women's Health (serving "communities whose medical needs were and still are underserved," noted Kirschstein), said, "Like so many of you, I am an unapologetic admirer of Lou Stokes. Also like him, I am a strong supporter of biomedical research, and am committed to the continued improvement of the health of the American people. Lou Stokes helped to provide the billions of dollars that our nation has allocated to biomedical research, over his 30 years in Congress. He was always available to his local and national constituencies. He was a good listener, a good strategist and a good negotiator. His word was his bond you could take it to the bank. And we did, many times."
He concluded, "Our nation is better because we have a Lou Stokes. I am a better person for knowing Lou Stokes."
Kirschstein observed that this is the first building on campus named for an African American. "Like proud parents, we feel each new addition to the campus is special," she said, noting the recent completion of the Vaccine Research Center, the still-growing Clinical Research Center, and the anticipated Neuroscience Research Center. She pointed out that the building incorporates environmentally friendly features and energy-saving elements that have already earned a $2 million rebate from the electric company. She further credited the advice of graduate students from Howard University's School of Architecture, who consulted on the project back in 1994; they recommended the "neighborhood" concept of lab arrangement to promote collegiality. The school's dean and several of the 10 students who advised on the project attended the dedication.
Two scientists who are moving into the new building testified to its appeal. Dr. Maria Morasso of NIAMS admitted that it was "bittersweet to leave Bldg. 6," but said scientists "appreciate the new vision used in the design" of the new labs. "The large, open working areas will lead to more communication and interaction," she predicted. "Researchers will greatly value the daylight and space" offered by the building. "It is a wonderful time to be in science," she said.
Dr. John Carpten of NHGRI seemed as overwhelmed by the structure as Stokes: "Coming from a small town in Mississippi who would have thought," he began. He is a member of the African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer Project, an international effort funded in part by the new National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD), and is also studying the genetics of breast cancer. "I have always felt that great scientists can do great research in any environment. However, great science is done in an environment that fosters interaction. And in this building, I'll only be a short walk from world-class collaborators...More buildings on campus should be modeled after this one."
NCMHD director Dr. John Ruffin noted that "Lou Stokes is not a scientist, but he has spent his life assuring that the less fortunate in society have access to the fruits of science." He called NIH's custom of hosting named buildings our "Hall of Fame. These monuments endure and inspire future generations to ensure that all share in the opportunities our nation affords...We now have a foundation on which we can ensure the health of future generations. We are most grateful for (Stokes') humanity. Today we open a door...to a state of the art research facility, but more importantly, to myriad new opportunities...for all scientists."
Dr. John Ruffin
With that, Kirschstein and Stokes raised the cloth covering the building's plaque as the choir sang "Wind Beneath My Wings."
Kirschstein called Stokes "my vocal ally in the fight to reduce disparities. I count Lou Stokes among my dearest personal friends. I testified (as NIGMS director) before his committee from 1975 to 1993. We were personal friends and allies in the struggle to increase the number of minorities trained to do biomedical research. It was probably the hardest struggle either of us has had."
Answered Stokes, "It is an honor, Dr. Kirschstein, to have you present me on this occasion we have a very special friendship. Our work has resulted in legislation that has bettered the health of all Americans."
He said the Minority Biomedical Research Support and Minority Access to Research Careers programs headquartered in NIGMS "produced thousands of minority scientists, researchers and physicians," and said of Kirschstein, "You are indeed an institution within this institution, and it has been an honor to work with you."
Stokes called the event "a moment I will savor for all of my life." He credited the love of his family and friends as buttressing his accomplishments, and thanked each speaker, even unleashing his signature laugh, which the crowd recognized with pleasure. He particularly thanked former Rep. Charlie Vanik (D-OH), who served for 26 years in Congress and is now a colleague of Stokes in the law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. "Charlie took me by the hand and mentored me 32 years ago," Stokes said. "He said the appropriations committee needed its first African American, and got me on the committee. I want to publicly thank a great American it couldn't have happened without you, Charlie."
Stokes also mentioned his close association with NIH's chapter of Blacks in Government, noting that although it fell outside of the scope of his professional duties, he was nonetheless attentive to the group. "NIH was always responsive to my concerns with respect to BIG."
Aware of the many awards the building has already garnered, he said it is "destined to certainly win many more awards. I must say, you are a magnificent architect, Frank Kutlak (ORS project officer for the building)."
He concluded, "I hope that out of this building will come the final fruits of my work, and that of many others, to eliminate disparities." He also hoped for "future medical research which will prolong life and benefit all mankind." Quoting George Bernard Shaw, he said, "'Life is no 'brief candle' to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.' Thank you very, very much."
Presented with a replica of the dedicatory plaque, he enthused, "Isn't this beautiful?" then retired to the building's lobby for a reception at which his friend, jazz bassist Keter Betts, performed with his quartet.
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