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Remarks In Memory of John R. La Montagne

Delivered by
George T. Curlin, M.D., M.P.H.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD
November 30, 2004

It was my privilege to have worked with or for John for 27 of his 28 years at NIAID. Although his influence on public health research was felt throughout many agencies, I would like to recall a few of experiences of his day-to-day colleagues at the NIH, which number in the hundreds, and, especially, those in the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases of NIAID, which he directed for a decade.

Twenty-eight years with one unit seems to be a very long time these days, but really experienced hands in research and public health will tell you that there is no substitute for tenure in successful programs. If success is measured by how many good ideas actually get implemented, time is a critical factor. But this is not about new ideas. All successful programs in our line of work have novel concepts. It’s about the messenger. People don’t really pay attention to you for the first ten years, and after that apprenticeship, you are trusted, you get a seat at the table and your influence grows. John logged the time required at one location to establish a remarkable career in public service with wide-ranging impact. His tenure at NIAID was a tremendous asset in having our ideas considered, and, more importantly for these remarks, it was the foundation of a wealth of long-lasting friendships.

Ideas are important in our line of work, of course, but John also valued the person with the ideas and those who implemented them. In their recollection of John, nearly all of his colleagues mentioned first their personal connection with him. This was true whether the relationship was occasional and strictly programmatic or regular and more routine. Everyone feels the loss personally because they felt a personal connection with John. And he stayed in touch, even long after separations from promotions and reassignments. For instance, years after he learned a bit of baseball trivia in a chance conversation and after he left DMID to become Deputy Director, he sent one of the staff an email – unsolicited and completely out of the blue - with a reproduction of the baseball card of her great uncle, Edward Abbatichio, who was a Pittsburgh Pirate teammate of Honus Wagner. Thanks to John, a color copy of the card is on her sons’s bedroom wall, and a family legacy was burnished. Such long-distance contacts were not unusual, and they demonstrate the personal touch that characterized John. Most of the people in this room could relate a similar story.

Admittedly, John’s style of management was a little mysterious – but effective. He carefully considered new initiatives and new ideas, but exactly how he set priorities was never spelled out entirely. Once, John stopped by personally to tell the chief of the respiratory diseases branch, apparently after careful consideration, that he had approved her major new initiative. His management mystique was only reinforced by the fact that he stopped by to pass along this critical information on his way to the rest room. Apparently, “location, location, location” applies to office space as well as real estate. And when the Department sent around its occasional reminder to improve the syntax of government memos, we heard that some managers were actually editing outgoing memos. John’s approach was different. He gave everyone their very own copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”. I suspect that John’s approach had a more lasting effect.

But John had many roles to play in addition to directing infectious disease and microbiological research. He and Elaine were aspiring farmers, too, and tales of John’s attempt to tame the wilderness of Loudon Country are legendary. The gist of this vast oral tradition lore is that he was more adept, apparently, at research programming than he was at weed-whacking. And his rural land-use disputes with beavers took several years to resolve, and none too peacefully, either. The beaver’s skull is on display in a DMID office.

And John was a baseball nut. He was always going-on about his beloved Pirates. But baseball taught him a lesson about government ethics. In 1979 John asked me to accompany him on a site visit to the influenza research program at the University of Washington where John Fox and Hjordis Foy ran a long-standing, successful community respiratory disease project. After weeks of negotiating calendars and many weeks before the trip, John discovered that the All-Star Game that year would be played in Seattle during our visit. At first he talked enthusiastically about getting tickets, and then he started to worry about the appearance of a conflict of interest. And, man, how he could worry! To hear him tell it, he was convinced that we would be sitting next to Jack Anderson. He was convinced that someone would think that we had arranged the visit so we could go to the game. Imagine! But John always counseled taking the High Road. He knew that appearance of conflict trumps personal interests, and he was terribly disappointed to be caught between love of baseball and the ethical High Road. Disappointment faded quickly, however, when Pirate all-star outfielder Dave Parker gunned down the go-ahead run trying to score from second on a single. He jumped straight up out of his seat at the King Dome! Baseball had trumped appearance - at least for nine innings a quarter-century ago.

Speaking for many, many NIH staff, we will miss John.

Last Updated March 17, 2005