Conerly remembered for ‘transformative’ leadership, overseeing remarkable growth at UMMC
By Patrice Guilfoyle
Many people may have walked the hallway from the Rowland Medical Library in the Verner Holmes Learning Resource Center to the research wing without noticing the housekeeping employee who waxed the floors.
But not Dr. Wallace Conerly.
Every day for seven years, the man would clean his assigned area and Conerly would stop regularly to talk with him. It wasn’t uncommon for Conerly to know employees of the Medical Center by name, but for reasons only known to him, Conerly decided to take a personal interest in the worker.
Before his retirement as vice chancellor for health affairs in 2003, Conerly brought Celeste Eason, an administrative assistant, a sheet of paper with the name and position of the employee and another sheet of paper with a new position in another department on campus.
"He moved the employee to another position as a courier,” Eason said. ”It wasn’t a whole lot of money, but it was more than what he was making at the time.
"That’s the kind of man Dr. C was.”
Employees, friends and colleagues at UMMC shared similar stories and fond memories of Conerly, who served as vice chancellor from 1994-2003. He died Jan. 10 at the hospital bearing his name from complications related to Parkinson’s disease.
Conerly’s tenure at the Medical Center was marked by growth of the physical plant, expanded research, a more diverse student and faculty population, greater community involvement, increased endowment and increased national presence.
What Marilyn Bray, director of lab services, remembers is his genuine concern for people. He would routinely walk around the lab and ask about employees’ families and personal lives.
"He would know everybody by name,” Bray said. "He would ask, ‘How did that situation work out?’ or ‘How are your kids?’”
"I absolutely adored him. I don’t think there’ll ever be anyone like him.”
University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones said Conerly used his medical, business and political skills to the great benefit of all Mississippians. Before his appointment at Ole Miss, Jones served as vice chancellor for health affairs following Conerly’s retirement.
"His leadership at the University of Mississippi Medical Center was transformative for the Medical Center and for health care in our state,” Jones said. "I am personally grateful for his friendship and mentorship. He will be greatly missed.”
A native of Tylertown, Conerly graduated with honors from Millsaps College in 1957. He received the M.D. from Tulane University Medical School in 1960. After an internship in South Carolina, he served in the U.S. Air Force for six years, where he was director of aerospace medicine at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and director of base medical services at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
After military service, he returned to Mississippi, where he practiced general medicine in Jackson from 1966 until he pursued specialty training and a career in academic medicine. He went to Ochsner’s Medical Center in New Orleans for a cardiology fellowship, came to UMMC in 1971 as a resident in internal medicine and, from 1972-74, he was the Mississippi Lung Association Fellow in Pulmonary Diseases.
He joined the UMMC faculty in 1973 and held a variety of positions before being appointed vice chancellor, succeeding Dr. Norman C. Nelson in 1994.
Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs, said the word "legend” best describes Conerly.
"He put us onto the path of the 21st century when you consider the facilities we have now and our accomplishments in education, research, and health care in this state,” Keeton said.
Dr. Helen Turner, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, served as associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine under Conerly’s tenure. She said Conerly truly believed that employees of the Medical Center were family.
"Above all, he loved students and was accessible and responsive to their concerns,” she said. "He had a lunch meeting with a group of students every week and often would resolve their issues before the end of the meeting.” Eason said everyone knew of his love for the Medical Center and how that love guided his decisions.
"What he did came from such a pure place that if you didn’t agree with him, you understood him,” she said.