By Rich McManus
James S. Alexander, who was most recently director of the Fellowship Training Program in the newly created Office of Intramural Training and Education, retired June 30 after 30 years at NIH, an institution he felt lucky to serve.
"To be even remotely connected to an organization whose work results in the alleviation of human suffering is really special," said Alexander. "Once I came to NIH, I knew I was here for the duration. I was never tempted to go elsewhere."
Long involved in trainee programs, Alexander said he always gave young professionals the same advice: they were about to embark upon a rare opportunity and they ought to make the most of it. "I have suggested that they were indeed fortunate to be compensated for an educational experience that many would be willing to pay for," he said.
When the former Office of Education was established by the NIH scientific directors in 1990, Alexander was named deputy director, a post he held until a month prior to retirement (although he was acting director of the office from 1997 to 1999). He credits a cast of former CC officials with trusting him with the chance to show what he could do, among them former CC directors Dr. Mortimer Lipsett and Dr. John Decker, as well as former CC Executive Officer Earl Laurence and former associate CC director for medical education Dr. Jay Shapiro. "They gave me opportunities that I will always be grateful for," Alexander said.
"Jim has been an effective and devoted supporter of the NIH intramural research program for his entire career," noted Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research. "In the last dozen years or so, he helped build the Office of Education in the Office of Intramural Research and will leave a legacy of well-run and high-impact training programs at the NIH."
Added Brenda Hanning, former acting director of OE who now directs the Medical Education Program, "Jim's lodestar, throughout his NIH career, has been our mission to improve human health. His constancy and unwavering focus on training the students, for whom a research experience here has shaped their careers, have truly changed many students' lives. If NIH's greatest resource is its people, Jim is one of our luminaries."
Alexander won the CC Director's Award in 1981, received an Achievement Award from the National Alliance for Business for contributions to the youth motivation task force in 1984 and won an NIH Award of Merit in 2001. He also received the Recognition Award for contributions to the development of minority physician-scientists from the National Association of Medical Minority Educators in 1985.
Alexander embraced the mission of NIH and does not rule out the possibility of future consulting work, after he's had a few months to enjoy his freedom. As he used to tell trainees, "This is not your average 9 to 5 job. This is a rare opportunity to learn from people who are at the cutting edge of science. For those fortunate enough to come here, there are thousands who would love the opportunity."
In the end, Alexander was proud of his association with NIH but humbled, too, by the company he kept. "There are two things you can do at NIH," he said. "You can either do science or support it. Those who do are far more deserving [of accolade] than those of us who don't. I'm genuinely appreciative of having been a part of this agency."
By Mary Daum
The woman on the other end of the phone confided that she and her sister were on the brink of committing their mother to a psychiatric ward. The woman said her mother constantly complained that her mouth burned, but the sisters understood from various doctors that there was no such condition. Luckily the caller was talking to Sally Wilberding, an information specialist in the NIDCR communications office. Wilberding explained that yes, there is a condition called burning mouth syndrome that can be associated with various oral or systemic conditions. The caller was so relieved and grateful for the information that she contacted Wilberding's boss, who passed along the compliment to the institute director.
"Sally came to work every day with an eagerness about her job and a smile on her face; she exuded that warmth to every person she communicated with in the course of getting accurate health information out to the public," said Brent Jaquet, former chief of the institute's information office and now an appropriations fellow in the office of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). "She seemed to connect with everyone who needed help or health information. And she always went the extra mile.
"In the old days (before the web) if we didn't have printed information on a particular problem, Sally would find it by reading through dental text books or medical encyclopedias," Jaquet added. "She is the epitome of a government public information specialist. I know she has earned her right to retire, but it's a shame we have to let her go."
Wilberding began her government career at Walter Reed Army Hospital and then took a job at the Pentagon. She arrived at NIH in 1966, when she worked for the Division of Biologics Standards. Two years later she joined the information office at the (then) NIDR as a secretary. She subsequently served as an editorial assistant and in 1982 assumed the job of information specialist.
"By sitting in the same room with the former information specialist, I was able to hear how she handled the calls," Wilberding recalls. "We didn't have a clearinghouse at the time, so every call and letter that came in was handled by our office," she said. "That's how I learned the subject matter."
"Sally has a wonderful combination of traits: wisdom, compassion, generosity and grace under pressure not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of oral diseases. And it's a good thing, because her job required all of those," said Susan Johnson, NIDCR's communications director. "It wasn't only the public that looked to Sally for help; so did her colleagues at the NIDCR, and we were never disappointed. She organized tours, handled press calls, served as FOIA officer, and oversaw the design and production of many high-profile publications and exhibits. Sally is one of those people who gets things done and makes it look easy; heavy workloads and short deadlines don't faze her. I learned a lot from Sally in the 20 years we worked together."
Reminiscing about her career, Wilberding laughs as she describes the office when she began working. "I had an electric typewriter, some oral pathology books and journals, and a rotary telephone. But no parking problems! In fact, everyone who worked in Bldg. 30 (the institute's research building) could park right out front."
After answering public inquiries for more than 20 years, Wilberding said she still got questions she'd never heard before. "Oftentimes, people would call after being diagnosed with a systemic disorder," she said. "And sure enough, after looking it up I'd discover there was an oral complication related to it. So I'd be able to offer them information they could discuss with their doctor or dentist."
Offering information seems to come naturally to Wilberding, who is teased by her colleagues for giving out "free advice." "I'll really miss the people here," she says. "But I'm looking forward to the next chapter in my life." Retirement plans include spending more time with her family, fishing and travel a trip to Austria is already being planned.
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