By Mary Sullivan
After a career spanning nearly three decades at NIH — at four institutes and one division — Dr. Donald Luecke retired on Dec. 31. In his most recent position, he was a senior advisor to the NIH director, working closely with Dr. Dushanka Kleinman, assistant director for roadmap coordination.
A native of St. Paul, Minn., Luecke received his M.D. degree with honors from Michigan State University and an M.S. in immunology and microbiology from the University of Illinois.
His involvement with NIH began after several jobs as a clinical microbiologist in the public health departments of North Dakota and Michigan. While at the University of North Dakota, he was supported by the National Cancer Institute for studies on the transmission of tumor viruses by certain insects and other arthropods.
In 1975, Luecke joined NIH as a medical officer in NCI's Viral Oncology Program. He later became head of the clinical studies section in the Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention. His extramural career at NIH began in the NIGMS Burn and Trauma Program where he later headed the physiological sciences section.
After NIGMS he returned to NCI, this time to head the newly created Special Programs Branch where he was responsible for multiple activities including establishing extramural programs in cancer epidemiology, biometry, diet/nutrition and tobacco carcinogenesis.
Then came a series of high-level managerial positions at NIH, many of them as a deputy director. In 1981, he became deputy director in the Stroke and Trauma program at the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke, focusing on spinal cord and brain injuries. In 1982, he accepted the deputy directorship of the NINCDS' Extramural Activities Program. He received the Commendation Medal of the Public Health Service for providing administrative support and coordinating the institute's grants and contracts programs.
Luecke's next deputy job came as a result of a detail to the Division of Research Grants. In 1986, DRG director Dr. Jerome Green recruited Luecke as his special advisor for extramural activities. A year later he became DRG's deputy director. He received the PHS Outstanding Service Medal for planning, directing and evaluating the operations and functions of the division. "As deputy director, I became involved in every aspect of the peer review process — it was challenging and provided me with great opportunities to work closely with others within and outside of DRG," says Luecke.
When Green left DRG, Luecke was asked to serve as acting director, a post he held for 2 years. He was engaged in many activities related to improving peer review and the extramural research and research training programs at NIH.
His next deputy job was with the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a position he held for 8 years beginning in 1996. "I had been at DRG for 10 years and felt it was time to move back to a program area," says Luecke. At NIDCD he participated in the day-to-day operations of the institute and contributed extensively to an evaluation of its extramural programs, leading to an increase in the number of individual postdoctoral fellowships and career development awards, more emphasis on new investigators and significant changes in the small grant program.
In 2000, Luecke retired from the Commissioned Corps with a rank of rear admiral.
Most recently, he has served as an advisor to the NIH director on the roadmap initiative. "The roadmap has been a wonderful final step in my career. It is very gratifying to see the tremendous enthusiasm of staff across the institutes for working together as project teams," says Luecke.
At his retirement party, it was evident that his colleagues both respected him and enjoyed his company. He was praised for providing "senior leadership at critical junctures for the evolution of the NIH " and for "contributions that transcend all ICs." He received numerous accolades from high-level staff including Kleinman, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, senior advisor to the NIH director, and former DRG director Green, who described Luecke as a "senior statesman," an "agent of change," and a "people person." Noting Luecke's fondness for cars, Green said it was especially fitting that he was involved with the NIH roadmap.
Kleinman read a letter from Dr. Elias Zerhouni, NIH director, commending Luecke for his "many contributions to the NIH, including his expertise and broad-based experience, which were critical to the success of the inaugural year of the NIH roadmap, and his ceaseless dedication to the NIH and its mission."
Dr. James Battey, NIDCD director, noted that he and Luecke "shared a passion for developing young scientists," and that Luecke had worked tirelessly to help young scientists establish themselves in research careers and to obtain research grants.
A donation was made to the NIH Children's Inn in Luecke's name and a poem, written by a friend who could not attend the party, was read in his honor.
Commenting on what he describes as a common theme across the various positions he's held at NIH, Luecke expressed his appreciation of "the incredible opportunities I've had working with outstanding people at all levels of the organization. It has provided me with constant reminders that good ideas and dedication are not exclusive to a particular group of individuals." Some of his newfound friends include people he met while exercising in the NIH Fitness Center, an activity he intends to maintain in retirement. "I'd like to see more people at NIH use the fitness center, it's such a great resource for the NIH staff."He's also planning to stay busy doing volunteer activities, spending time with his grandchildren and "spending some Fridays at the track in my Subaru WRX."
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