Before Dr. Steve Case joined the admissions committee in the
School of Medicine, his predecessors were already trying to turn the clock
But Case and his committee made it spin.
The lasting impact Case has made on the School of Medicine
began when he and his colleagues began asking themselves certain questions,
such as: “Is a student’s head for medicine more important than the student’s
The answer is found in the balance and blend of backgrounds
that mark the medical school classes since Case began serving in admissions 14
Now, as his career comes to an end, a great part of his
legacy will be this: He helped students find something he had once longed for:
a sense of place.
On Long Island, N.Y., where he grew up and played baseball
and where the high school football team held its games on Saturdays, he took up
He liked music and his arms were long.
But, on game days, instead of playing with the band on the
football field, he worked with his father in the cemetery.
The man was actually Case’s stepfather, and he’d been a cop
before he got a job setting place cards for the dead.
“I spent a lot of Saturdays and holidays putting in
gravestones with him,” Case said.
“What I admired about my father was his worth ethic. What I
didn’t admire about him was that he never came to one of my baseball games. We
never took a family vacation.”
The rest of the family included one sister and a mom who
worked, in effect, as a nurses’ assistant. She had re-married after her
Much of the adult attention Case received came from his
uncles, who pitched in when he was 8 and sent him to 4-H camp, a place he
retreated to every summer until he was in his 20s.
“I was looking for a way to stay out of my house.”
By the time he was 12 or 13, he was a counselor at camp,
where he would learn how to frame cabins and do plumbing and electrical work
and to drive a dump truck.
Camp nurtured him and gave him a sense of responsibility,
accomplishment and camaraderie. At least for the summer, it was home.
Dr. Nina Washington
Dr. Nina Washington was with Steve Case the day he ran out
An undergraduate at the time, she had been accepted to
several medical schools, but she’s from Jackson – one reason she chose UMMC.
Another was Case – the man who drove to New Orleans to
recruit her and a fellow Xavier University undergrad, Rozell Chapman.
“The three of us were on the way back to Jackson, and Dr.
Case and I were just yakking,” Washington said, “and on I-55 the van suddenly
stops and we’re stranded outside Terry, so we had to call Rozell’s dad.
“That shows how open and causal and charming Dr. Case is –
that we could be talking away, not realizing we didn’t have enough gas in the
But what he really did to draw her to UMMC was this, she
said: “He believed that, to be a physician, you didn’t have to have a 4.0 or a
high score on the MCAT. He believed you didn’t have to look a certain way.
“He looked for the well-rounded person. He saw beyond the
Dr. Rozell Chapman is now a pediatrician in Lexington.
Washington is an assistant professor of pediatrics at UMMC.
Case was one of many at the Medical Center who wanted them
to succeed, she said. “From the beginning, this was home.”
They came from Pennsylvania to California in a bug – a
yellow, ’71 Volkswagen – pulling a U-Haul trailer that held about all they
owned: wedding gifts.
Case and his new wife Gay slept in an Army pup tent by night
and saw America by day, traveling across the country so she could work in
California as a nurse and he could earn his Ph.D. at USC on a tuition-free
fellowship in cellular and molecular biology.
They arrived in Los Angeles with $100, cash. “We were on an
adventure,” Case said.
Searching through a medical school yearbook, Dr. Steve Case, left, dredges up some memories with Dr. Lyssa Weatherly, an internal medicine resident, and Eric McDonald, a fourth-year medical student.
Their adventure began where they had met, at Pennsylvania
Military College – now Widener University – in Chester, Pa., where Case was a
student. Gay, enrolled in the
Hahnemann Hospital School of Nursing, lived nearby in Ridley Park.
In 1965, using student loans and some money from his
parents, Case became the first in his family to go to college; he played
trombone in the PMC band.
“I got to go to football games,” he said.
But music didn’t interest him the way science and numbers
did. Apparently, his aptitude made an impression on “the professor I hated the
“My senior year in college, for some reason, he looked out
for me,” Case said.
With his professor’s connections, Case was able to pursue
his master’s at Wilkes College (now a university) in northeast Pennsylvania,
paying his tuition with a teaching assistantship in chemistry, “which I also
hated,” he said.
(Left): Dr. Steve Case in his biochemistry lab, in the 1980s. (Middle): Case lectures first-year medical students in biochemistry class, during the early 1980s. (Right): In a photo taken in the early 1980s, Case examines a strainer containing adult midges, which were raised in his biochemistry lab to study genes that encode proteins used by aquatic midge larvae to form underwater silk fibers.
Later, he switched to biology, to try and satisfy his curiosity
about fruit flies and genetics, which fascinated him. As did “that nursing
student down in Philly.”
He and Gay began dating again.
“She gave me direction and focus,” Case said. “Once we
became a pair, I had a purpose. Until then, I hadn’t any.”
Soon, together, they would also have a home.
Dr. LouAnn Woodward, Class of ’91, was an M1 when she
noticed the “tall, scary man.”
That was her original impression of Case – a notion that
soon vanished under the power of his charm.
“He remembers students’ names,” she said. “He remembers
details of conversations with them. He makes them feel comfortable.”
This was Case during his career as a researcher and
molecular biology instructor in the late 1980s.
Until his retirement, he reported to his former student:
Woodward, UMMC’s associate vice chancellor for health affairs and vice dean of
the School of Medicine.
He did so as associate dean for medical school admissions, a
position he held since 2000. He did so, apparently, without worrying that he’d
“He’s so good, you just stay out of his way and don’t mess
it up,” Woodward said.
Each year, the admissions committee accepts 145 hopefuls,
interviews more than 200, and is lobbied by more than 300.
“You call him up about a certain applicant and he knows just
who you’re talking about,” said Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health
affairs and dean of the medical school.
“It’s phenomenal. There could not have been a more perfect
person for that job.”
In the world of medical school admissions, Case built a
His committee is known for overseeing a series of
mini-interviews, calling it “speed dating.”
It’s known for building relationships with other colleges
and universities, particularly those that are historically African-American.
In the pre-Case era, 44 percent of African-American students
accepted to the School of Medicine chose to enroll here. Today, it’s 83
percent. Before Case, 55 percent who applied were accepted; it’s 94 percent
The committee is known for its “holistic review” – weighing
not only the prospects’ academics, but also their character and compassion, to
ensure that Mississippi’s doctors look like its patients.
How is that working? Medical school students come here with
GPAs and entrance exam scores below the national average; by graduation, their
test scores have shot above the norm.
Because of the admission committee’s work, more women and
minorities are practicing medicine in Mississippi, Keeton said. “The impact is
But, as Case will tell you, diversity is not about just
gender and race. It’s also about people like Eric McDonald, a husband and
soon-to-be father of six who worked 10 years as a firefighter before taking a
stab at medical school.
“If Dr. Case didn’t have the ability to look outside the
box, to look at someone like me, I wouldn’t be here,” said McDonald, a
fourth-year medical student.
Recently, McDonald dropped by Case’s office, where the two
exchanged a bear hug. As if one of them had left and come back home.
UMMC was not on his A-list.
“I had a long, hard discussion with Gay,” Case said. “Los
Angeles, Fort Knox, Stockholm, Yale. And now Mississippi?”
The road to his Ph.D. and beyond – actually, the road, ocean
and airway – led from California to Kentucky, where he learned to “shoot, drive
and take apart tanks” in the Army Reserve, and then to Sweden, where the
National Institutes of Health (NIH) paid for his post-doctorate fellowship in
It led back to the States, to Yale University, where he
earned a second fellowship, in the Department of Biology. Now, he was ready for
a real job.
He wanted to do research, preferably in a medical school. He
interviewed at UMMC – to “rehearse.”
But UMMC “kept rising to the top of my list,” he said. The
new chair of biochemistry was building the department, equipment was
state-of-the-art; he’d enjoy “maximum lab time.”
In Mississippi, the cost of living was as friendly and
pleasant as the people.
“It was a combination no other school could touch,” Case
said. “Gay said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ ”
The tryout lasted 35 years, beginning under the vice
chancellorship of the late Dr. Wallace Conerly, Case said.
“I once told him, ‘You gave me the chance to have two
different careers and keep the same parking space.’ ”
Case came here, with an NIH grant, as a researcher in
recombinant DNA and chair of what is now called the institutional biosafety
committee. But, when it came time for a grant renewal, there was no talk of
leaving the Medical Center or Mississippi in the Case household.
“We had found everything we came looking for,” Case said.
Dr. Steve Case, back row, center, is surrounded by his family during a reception at UMMC honoring his years of service. With him are, back row, from left, his son Chad Erik Case, wife Gay Lynn Case, daughter-in-law Mary Margaret Case and granddaughter Catherine Bryan “Kitty” Case; front row, from left: granddaughters Audrey Davis “Dee” Case and Mary McLauren “Macky” Case.
They brought up two children, Chad and Jill. Because of
their parents’ work schedules, they spent much of their early lives at the
Medical Center with a dad who picked them up from daycare and took them with
him to the lab, where they fell asleep on his desk. Then he’d take them home
and put them to bed.
He worked a lot of weekends in the lab, but he took time out
for his kids. He even attended the away games of his son’s high school baseball
team and daughter’s high school basketball team, although he doesn’t remember
her getting off the bench the first season, he said.
“Later, she told us the parents of some of the starters
never showed up.”
Case believed that was no way to make a home.
Lyssa Taylor had a sister who “broke a boy’s heart.”
Normally, this would not be big news – unless she, that is,
Lyssa, was trying to get into medical school, which she was, and unless the boy
was Dr. Steve Case’s son, which he was.
“I was terrified that Dr. Case was not going to like me
because of my sister,” she said. “I was so nervous during the interview that I
finally brought it up. He acted as if he hadn’t even made the connection.
“I say that to show that he has tons of integrity, to show
how impartial he is, which is hard in his position – people begging to get in
Lyssa Taylor did not get in the first time. But it wasn’t
her sister’s fault. It was, she believes, because of her MCAT score, combined
with her admissions essay, a “cookie-cutter” work she wrote with her head.
On her second try, she wrote from her heart. Today, whenever
she visits Case, it’s as Dr. Lyssa Weatherly, third-year resident in internal
medicine, and one of those success stories he might have never helped write if
he had left UMMC. Which he almost did.
After 20 years as a “lab jock,” he said, “the thrill was
gone.” He might have been, too, if the departing chair of admissions, Dr.
Virginia Read, hadn’t encouraged him to give her job a try.
“It was an opportunity to give back to the institution. Dr.
Conerly gave me two years to try it out. I found out I had a passion for it,”
He had a passion for finding the “right students” to fulfill
the Medical Center’s mission. It put the thrill back in his work. He enjoyed
thrilling the students as well.
“There was an emergency room tech working here who had
applied to medical school,” he said. “So I got on a gurney and hid under a
sheet in the hospital hallway. A nurse, who was in on the plot, reamed him out
for leaving a corpse on the floor.”
The ER tech was mortified – especially when the corpse
heaved a big sigh and sat up.
“I had his acceptance letter on my chest,” Case said.
Even if Case hadn’t found a new career at UMMC, he said, he
and his family would not have left the state that will always be home.
He has a dream in which he’s playing golf.
His own dad had played, he said. “He had a beautiful swing.”
The difference is Case plays the game with his son and
youngest granddaughter. It’s a dream he expects will come true many times after
Dec. 31, 2014 his official retirement date, in his and Gay’s new place in
That’s 60 miles closer to West Point, where his son and his
family have made their home.