Characterizing himself throughout his life as a country boy done good, Dr. J. Harold Harrison never forgot his roots.
But he sowed seeds for the future as well—both literally and figuratively. After the 1948 Medical College of Georgia alumnus retired from a 50-year career as a vascular surgeon characterized by pioneering advances in repairing and replacing diseased arteries, he returned to his rural roots by embarking on a second career as a cattle farmer in Bartow, Ga. And while he was at it, Harrison ensured that the fruits of his labor would reap rewards for generations to come.
“His legacy is that those who follow will have the same opportunities he did,” Harrison’s stepson, Scott Fitzgerald, said during the Nov. 28 groundbreaking ceremony of the J. Harold Harrison, M.D. Education Commons.
The facility, scheduled to open by fall 2014 adjacent to the new College of Dental Medicine building, honors Harrison, who died June 2, based on a $10 million leadership gift from him and his wife, Sue W. Harrison.
“His gift will help young minds and bring about good,” his friend, Loran Smith, said during the standing-room-only groundbreaking ceremony. “We would not be here today if he was not imbued with the motivation to make life better through medicine.”
President Ricardo Azziz concurred. “Harold Harrison was a true friend and a true visionary who recognized his gift would change the shape of health care in Georgia,” he said, citing the importance of the building in increasing the class sizes of GHSU’s College of Dental Medicine and Medical College of Georgia to meet the workforce needs of the state.
The 172,000-square-foot building will include ample classroom space for both colleges, two 300-seat auditoriums, an interprofessional simulation center and much more. The total construction cost is $76.5 million. The state of Georgia is providing $42 million in bond funding, and the university raised the additional $34.5 million through private philanthropy, including an $8 million gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which supports charitable, scientific and educational activities.
“Without our donors,” said College of Dental Medicine Dean Connie Drisko, “we wouldn’t be in the envious place we are now, looking at our beautiful new dental school and envisioning the building that will arise from this ground.”
Donor support has never been more important than it is now, said University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby. “The Harrisons epitomize the kind of community concern and support that we’re looking to in the years ahead. What we’re here to do today is recognize another milestone for this university and its future development, but even more so for the future development of the state of Georgia.”
The importance of the building in accelerating the growth of GHSU and ensuring its national prominence, particularly after consolidation this January, has not gone unnoticed by key constituents, the speakers said.
“This is a special day,” said Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. “What it really culminates is the investment the state continues to make in this great community. We know this university will continue to be elevated in a national platform.”
The Augusta community will benefit from the investment for years to come, he said. “We want to continue to make strategic investments in Augusta because we know what it means. I look forward to the exciting things that are going to happen in this great city.”
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver agreed. “This represents what can happen when people dream big and are willing to work together to make something happen,” he said. “We are once again at a transitional moment for the city of Augusta and I am so excited to see the shape of things to come.”
MCG Dean Peter Buckley shared his excitement about what the new facility will mean for the university’s students. “The enthusiasm you see here today is infectious,” said Buckley, who along with Drisko was flanked by dozens of medical and dental students clad in their white coats. “People in Georgia are interested in signing on here for their training. We appreciate all the efforts that have gone into our future, and we will deliver on that promise.”
Drisko particularly lauded the future-oriented mindset of those who planned the building. “One of the toughest things was to envision not what health care will look like tomorrow, but 30, 40, even 50 years from now,” she said. “Interprofessional education, or IPE, will become the norm on this campus, thanks to this building.”
“The commons meets a very real need, enabling MCG and the College of Dental Medicine to train the health care professionals of the 21st century,” echoed Georgia Health Sciences Foundation Board Member Will McKnight.
Student representatives at the ceremony shared their gratitude for this investment not only in their educations, but the educations of many generations of health care providers to come.
“Students at our institution are supported like no other students,” said College of Dental Medicine Class of 2013 President Ben Popple. “The state of Georgia has blessed us with some of the best facilities in the country. This building creates a learning environment that not only optimizes dental education, but allows us to share ideas with our fellow students in medicine.”
MCG Class of 2015 President Lael Reinstatler agreed. “With the new building, our faculty and students now have the ability to compete on a national level,” she said, noting that classroom space is currently dispersed all over campus. “Of all the things that we are thankful for most, finally having a home is what matters most.”
But for all of the talk of a high-tech facility, the prevailing mood at the groundbreaking reflected Harrison’s legacy of down-to-earth altruism.
“Away from the operating room,” Smith said, “I find it uplifting that he loved being down on the farm. His work included surgery and corn on the cob, both done by his own hands.”
Smith counseled the audience to follow Harrison’s lead of keen appreciation for the simple things in life. “Don’t fret about life’s great rewards; enjoy its small delights. To me, that sums up Harold.”
MCG Foundation President and CEO James B. Osborne, describing Harrison as exceedingly modest yet “larger than life,” said, “This building will be a lasting tribute to an extraordinary man.”
Nothing could be more fitting, Osborne noted, than to tangibly express Harrison’s stalwart support of his beloved alma mater. “I remember him saying, ‘I am so proud of MCG because they took a country boy and made a doctor out of him.”
Fitzgerald, whose tribute to his stepfather included lavish praise for the role of his mother, Sue, said Harrison was a man “of conviction and tremendous heart. He never pretended to be something he wasn’t. He was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known and was very comfortable in his own skin.”
He was also perhaps the world’s most dogged Georgia Bulldogs fan. “I wish he was here to watch [the Bulldogs’ next game],” Fitzgerald said. “But then again, he has a much better view.”