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Dr. William L. Henrich

Transformers: Education, experience and inspiration cast Henrich in role as president

September 2009

by Natalie Gutierrez; Profile photos by Lester Rosebrock

If you told William Henrich, M.D., MACP, years ago that he'd be president of a major health sciences university, he never would have believed it. But a solid education, extraordinary experiences and people who inspired him along the way transformed his life and prepared him for the leading role ahead.

Dr. Henrich grew up in Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. His parents, products of the Great Depression, were hard workers. Neither had a college degree, but both had steady jobs. His mother was a piano instructor and his father worked as an accountant for Paramount Pictures. As technology advanced and television sets were developed in the 1950s, the film industry began widespread layoffs. At 53, his father lost the job he'd held for 30 years.

The young Henrich would lie awake on muggy nights, wondering what his future would bring. Just 7 years old at the time, he watched his parents struggle and asked if he should quit school to help the family. But his father wouldn't allow it.

"He'd say, 'Bill, you've got to get an education. Learn a great skill,'" Dr. Henrich recalls his father insisting. "I loved my dad. I respected his perseverance. Every day, for the next three years, he would get up, put on his suit, and pound the pavement looking for work. He never gave up."

His family's resilience during those tough economic times inspired Dr. Henrich. His father's advice resonated like a powerful crescendo from his mother's piano, instilling a determination and drive in the youngster that took him on a journey from Columbia University in New York to Baylor College of Medicine and The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He later held leadership positions at the Dallas Veterans Affairs medical center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and was a visiting professor at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, where in 2006 he was named dean of the School of Medicine. In January 2009, he assumed the role of interim president after Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. was appointed chancellor of The University of Texas System.

Leading role
After a national search, the Board of Regents of the UT System decided the best person for the position of president of the UT Health Science Center was already on the job.

On June 18, the regents officially named Dr. Henrich president. On campus, his transition to the permanent post occurred with little fanfare as the new president preferred to continue business as usual. But Dr. Henrich admits he was overcome with emotion.

"I am honored that the regents have put their faith and trust in me to lead in such an important position," he said. "I'm humbled by the outpouring of support from our campus and community at large. It really means a lot to me."

Dr. Henrich said he wishes his parents were alive to share his joy. They died in the 1980s. "I would have thanked my father for his advice and encouragement. He taught me to give it my best every day."

Giving his best is exactly what Dr. Henrich plans to do.

He didn't plan on being president of a university. It wasn't his lifelong dream. He entered the field of medicine because, he says, he wanted to help people.

"When the opportunity arose to lead our university, at this time, I felt compelled to apply for the position," Dr. Henrich said. "The Health Science Center and its people are special, driven by the missions of each of our five schools. There are myriad exciting and remarkable endeavors here that have the potential to change the human condition for the better - this is our work, our vocation."

Dr. Henrich believes the Health Science Center deserves to be recognized among the nation's pre-eminent health science centers.

1972 photo of Dr. Henrich graduating from medical school
Michael E. DeBakey, M.D., world-renowned cardiac surgeon, medical pioneer and educator, (left) awards Dr. Henrich his medical degree. Dr. Henrich graduated from Baylor College of Medicine in 1972. Dr. DeBakey was president of Baylor at the time.
"This is my goal - to help lead us there by leading with the determination, drive and resolve to inspire excellence in all of our missions," he said. "The health and well-being of our community depends, to some degree, on the strength and vitality of the Health Science Center. I will work to ensure we all thrive for generations to come."

'Education is in my DNA'
As the first in his family to graduate from college, Dr. Henrich shares a common bond with the many first-generation college students at the Health Science Center.

He remembers receiving a full scholarship to attend Columbia University.

"I was just a kid from a small town who landed on the corner of 116th Street and Broadway in New York wearing my corduroy suit," he said with a chuckle. "I didn't know what I was doing." Outstanding faculty and mentors who encouraged him along the way guided him on a path toward excellence.

"This is exactly what we will do here - steer our students toward success," he said. Dr. Henrich plans to continue recruiting the best and brightest faculty whose diversity mirrors the population of the city, state and region. He said choosing the right people is the single most important ingredient - faculty who will lead the next generation of physician researchers, who will in turn become compassionate caregivers, future Nobel-laureates, inventors and university leaders. He also plans to participate in educating students as much as possible by lecturing in a course in nephrology, which is his specialty, attending on the hospital wards and working closely with interns, residents and fellows. Dr. Henrich recently edited the fourth edition of the leading dialysis textbook, "Principles and Practice of Dialysis." He also continues to author numerous professional papers and often presents at national nephrology conferences.

"I will do everything I can to lead by example," Dr. Henrich said. "Education has transformed my life, and it is embedded in my DNA."

He also looks forward to expanding his involvement in philanthropy. "Many of our students wouldn't be able to attend classes were it not for scholarships. Our researchers can make crucial discoveries while our physicians provide exceptional care largely because of philanthropic support. When you believe in our missions as passionately as I do, it is a privilege to ask for support. Philanthropy is more important than ever to our overall success."

Igniting science
Dr. Henrich is energized by the discovery that will occur within the South Texas Research Facility (STRF), scheduled for completion in 2011.

"Dr. Cigarroa left a legacy of unparalleled advancement and expansion at this institution," he said. "I pledge to strive to continue this momentum and ignite a new sense of collaboration and success through science."

The Health Science Center's receipt of the $26 million Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA), Dr. Henrich said, is proof positive of a flourishing cooperation among researchers locally and nationally.

The award is one of the most significant federal selections in the Health Science Center's history. Faculty researchers work alongside investigators at multiple institutions across the country, fostering what Dr. Henrich says is the key to the future of health - bench-to-bedside collaboration. He believes the STRF and CTSA will attract additional world-class researchers who will conduct lifesaving discovery related to diseases that affect the South Texas population the most. With new investments in science through the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the School of Medicine, plans are under way to increase the number of scientists at the Health Science Center substantially.

Dr. Henrich with students
"Whether you have something in common with Dr. Henrich or nothing at all, he is inspiring. His experiences and good choices led him to where he is today, and his presence at this institution gives us strength. He sends a message we can all relate to: Never settle for anything less than the best you can be." -Jessica Treviņo, first-generation college student, School of Medicine, San Antonio
Offering our best to patients
The robust research environment that will evolve at the STRF will complement the Medical Arts & Research Center (MARC). The MARC, scheduled to open its doors this fall, will be the new home for the Health Science Center clinical practice UT Medicine San Antonio. The facility will feature 250,000 square feet of clinical space with physicians representing more than 60 branches of medicine.

"The close proximity of the STRF to the MARC is certain to fuel exciting and innovative translational research and encourage the movement of lab-bench discoveries to the delivery of compassionate care by our clinicians," Dr. Henrich said. He plans to work closely with Thomas C. Mayes, M.D., M.B.A., UT Medicine San Antonio president and CEO, to make the Health Science Center the choice destination for the very best and most convenient health care available.

"Community physicians in private practice are invited to collaborate closely with physicians and clinician investigators at the MARC," Dr. Henrich said. He envisions UT Medicine San Antonio clinicians working with private community physicians to benefit patients and to ensure San Antonio retains a thriving university-driven health care practice for the entire community, including the uninsured and underinsured.

Building bridges
Some of Dr. Henrich's first orders of business will be to recruit new deans for the School of Medicine and for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. He plans to expand on programs of excellence in all five schools and at campuses in Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg.

"We must nurture existing relationships and build new bridges in South Texas," he said. "Strong partnerships will allow us to expand on programs such as our Laredo oral health initiatives, our medical research program in Edinburg and our vision of working with the UT System Regents, the state's elected officials and the Valley community to create a four-year medical education program at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen. These goals are within reach, but it will take a personal commitment from each of us and support from our colleagues throughout South Texas."

'Our time is now'
One of Dr. Henrich's most loyal partners is his wife, Mary, of 40 years. The high school sweethearts have seen each other through thick and thin.

"Mary is brilliant. Her wisdom, counsel and unflagging support are a personal blessing," he said.

Dr. Henrich said he is thrilled that Mary, an attorney by profession, will continue her leadership involvement on the boards of some of the university's outreach programs, many focusing on women's and children's health.

"Mary is a master negotiator and counselor and, by nature, warm, kind and sincere," he said. "I am proud of her and consider it an honor to have her by my side."

Today, Dr. Henrich doesn't lie awake at night worrying like he did as a kid. Instead, he reflects on the day's events and looks forward to the road ahead.

"Being president of this institution is an honor I embrace every day," he said. Armed with the support of his Health Science Center family, Dr. Henrich is ready to ignite transformative progress unlike any in the university's history. "Our time is now, and I pledge my best efforts for the Health Science Center, and our city, region and state."

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