Celebrating the Retirement of Dr. Richard Vari
On Friday, October 29, 2021 we honored the legacy of Dr. Richard Vari, Senior Dean for Academic Affairs and founding faculty member of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
- An image of the Hokie Bird statue inside the VTCSOM building
- Dr. Vari and his wife Patty, sitting side-by-side in a tent at the groundbreaking for VTCSOM
- "Dr. Vari and his lovely family" - seven adults and three children on a beach with ocean in background
- The VTC Godfather poster with Dr. Vari in a tuxedo and red rose in his lapel
- Caricature of Dr. Vari and his dog.
- Group shot of first administrative team at VTCSOM. Nine individuals. Dr. Vari is seated at the far right.
- Dr. Vari wearing white jacket and panama hat, and other individual, seated outside a tall construction fence where VTCSOM would be built.
- Dr. Vari seated on the edge of a table in future PBL room at VTCSOM.
- Three pictures. Upper left: Dr. Vari seated in an audience. Top right: Dr. Vari seated in a PBL room interacting with students. Bottom: Closeup of Dr. Vari seated in PBL room.
- Two pictures: Upper right: Dr. Vari seated in PBL room interacting with students. Lower left: Dr. Vari seated behind a female student in PBL room taking notes.
- Elf on the Shelf: Dr. Vari wearing red and white elf suit, including stocking cap smiling behind a board being held up by four females.
- Two pictures. Top left: Dr. Vari helping a male student don his white coat. Lower right: female medical student being assisted by Dr. Vari to don her white coat.
- Two pictures. Top left: Dr. Vari with Drs. Criss and LaConte speaking from a meeting room table. Lower right: Dr. Vari standing with a microphone and making a presentation.
- Dr. Vari in a tuxedo holding his Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teaching Award from the AAMC. Two AAMC individuals flank him on either side.
- Two pictures of Dr. Vari at the IAMSE welcome event at Roanoke’s Rockledge House. Top left: He is speaking with a microphone and holding a plaque. Bottom right: Still speaking with a few individuals to his left. Aerial vies of the Roanoke City skyline in the background.
- IAMSE Conference: Three pictures. Top two are Dr. Vari speaking with a microphone at the IAMSE meeting in Roanoke. Top right is Dr. Vari and his infamous mic drop. Bottom: Dr. Vari in a group shot of 11 individuals at VTCSOM. He is on the far left.
- Four photos. Top left: Dr. Vari in a group shot of 10 individuals from VTCSOM. Top right: Dr. Vari with Adalaida Stambol. Lower left: Dr. Vari with Lynn Boone. Bottom right: Dr. Vari with David Trinkle.
- Dr. Vari at a Docs for Morgan basketball game. He is standing on the court with five medical students, each holding a plaque.
- Dr. Vari on front row in large auditorium cheering with his arm and fist in the air.
- Success: A graduating class at VTCSOM tossing their caps in a group photo on the front steps.
- Recent photo of Dr. Vari in a suit with the VTCSOM building in the background.
We all love you and will miss working with you!
This slide show contains photos and images that tell the story of Dr. Vari's 13 years here at VTCSOM. It played on the screen in the room while people were arriving for the retirement celebration.
Music credit: Schlagerparty by AriesBeats
Thanks everyone for being here. We're just going to wait a couple of minutes for those that were going to watch the stream. We were told that we were starting at 5:30 so we'll just give them a couple more minutes before we get started.
All right well my clock says 5:30. Gentlemen in the back are we ready to go? All right, thank you.
Well, good evening everyone. I'm Lee Learman, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. I want to welcome you to our retirement celebration of Dr. Rick Vari and I am just so delighted to see so many professional colleagues, friends, students, and alumni present in this room. Overflow rooms are watching the live stream. It's also wonderful to welcome Rick’s family here to share in our celebration. So glad you can be with us.
Our program was carefully put together to feature many different aspects of Rick’s contributions to our medical school. We will hear from our founding Dean Cynda Johnson who was there in the room when it happened when we hired Rick to the medical school some years ago. She made such a fortunate decision for us and we're also going to be hearing from many members of our VTC community who Rick has touched and influenced during the time of his service to the school.
We are so pleased that our first speaker is Nancy Howell Agee. As president and CEO of Carilion Clinic since 2011 and Carilion's chief operating officer before that, Ms. Agee has played a pivotal role stewarding the development of our school ever since it was a gleam in the eye of Carilion’s former CEO Ed Murphy and Virginia Tech's president at the time Charles Steger. Please join me in welcoming Nancy Howell Agee to the podium.
Thank you, Dean Learman. I will say this quickly and that is when Ed Murphy came into my office, put his feet up on the desk, and said, “Why don't we start a medical school? How hard can that be?” It would have been a lot harder if we hadn't had Rick Vari, so thank you Rick.
You know um they told me I had about five minutes and those of you that know me know I can't say hello in five minutes so just sit back, relax, I'm getting my notes ready.
And here's my notes. 41 pages.
Okay maybe maybe not.
This is actually Rick Vari’s CV. Single spaced, 41 pages.
A quick look at that CV and you know he's dag gone smart. I mean after all, you don't get a PhD in physiology - physiology and pathophysiology gave me shivers in graduate school - by being a laggard.
And he's a southerner from coal country. Tiny little Lynch Kentucky in Harlan county. Lynch Kentucky population today 747.
When I saw that, I didn't know that. Rick and I've never talked about it, but my aunt was actually the principal of the high school in Harlan county, so they may have crossed paths one day.
Well, after grad school, Rick moved around a little bit. I don't know, around here we say you couldn't keep a job, but you keep that to yourself. Yea, he moved around a bit. He was in Missouri and then Tulane and then North Dakota.
His list of awards go on for three pages single-spaced. His devotion to medical education didn't stop at our borders. Through his leadership in the international fellowship of medical education, in IAMSE, he influenced medical education literally around the globe, including Canada and Switzerland, Scotland, The Netherlands, Mexico, and most recently Asia.
Others tonight will tell you how Rick left a prestigious, safe position in North Dakota to join us here in Roanoke. And I don't think it was just the weather that brought him here. They're going to tell you how he designed and implemented a problem-based learning curriculum and kept us faithful to PBL principles even when it was hard. I'll leave others to share those comments.
What I want to leave you with is this: the Rick Vari that I've come to know. Not just the medical educator, the builder, the influencer, the disciplinarian, but the good, kind, gentle, humble family man, the true friend of many, the terrific dad of Elizabeth and Alexander, the grandpa of two beautiful granddaughters, the beloved husband of Patty. The Rick Vari who's genuinely interested in others; who's always asking, “How are you?” If he said to me once, he said to me ten times, “Nancy, how are you doing? What's the family doing? What about your cousin who was sick recently? I really want to know.” That's our Rick Vari, the Rick Vari who lives our values: curiosity, compassion, collaboration, commitment, and courage. The Rick Vari, because all of you are here, who created this sense of community, and most of all, the Rick Vari who brought me pickles at Christmas.
Rick, if my thoughts of you were flowers, we'd be walking through a beautiful garden. We will miss you my friend. Thank you.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Nancy. Thanks for being here this evening and for getting us started. Our next speaker needs no introduction. Our founding dean Cynda Johnson takes all responsibility, well part of it, Rick had to say yes, for for bringing Rick to us um before the school was actually a physical school if I'm correct. Cynda, will you come to the podium and share some thoughts with us?
Thank you, Dean Learman.
Good evening everybody. I'm so so happy to see you all here tonight. Dr. Richard Vari - a speech prequel. I thought I'd written my speech yesterday, and then I went to CVS and I met a VTC M1. I knew that because she was wearing her name tag. We chatted. “So what do you like best about VTC so far?” I asked. “PBL,” she answered. Now I begin my story.
Dr. Richard Vari has put his heart and soul, his skill, and lots and lots of time, into making the Virginia Tech Carillion School of Medicine into the premier new medical school of the 21st century.
Rule number one in speech making: tell the audience what you want to tell them. Rule two: tell them.
I began my job on January 13, 2008. The “medical school,” not yet named, as Nancy said, consisted of Terry Workman, vice dean, who came with me from East Carolina University, and Phyllis Irvine, my executive assistant, the institutional memory from Carilion. I had been given three directives for the school: it was to be research intensive, require clinical rotations were to be carried out at Carilion, and the pre-clinical education was to be delivered using the problem-based learning curriculum, or PBL methodology.
All good, but wait! Who was going to introduce PBL at VTC?
I knew about PBL and what an excellent form of education it provided, but I also knew that it was only taught in a few medical schools. It is faculty intensive, and requires continuous refreshing because it is patient patient-based. Ideally, the curriculum is taught in small groups of seven students, each with a doctorally trained facilitator. Based upon a real patient, learning objectives are embedded in the case for the students to discover, research, and report to their classmates. One case a week is studied with the culmination on Fridays, when the students meet the patient and hear their personal story. That is why PBL is so powerful.
Physicians retain best, and utilize information best, when gained through patient cases and encounters, but you can see why the process is challenging and time consuming, and why it is also ideally suited to a small closely knit medical school like VTC.
So where in the world was our very own Rick Vari? Well, I found out where he was when several of my colleagues at different institutions contacted me, knowing that I had been challenged to create a PBL curriculum at VTC.
They were effusive with praise for Rick. He had studied PBL methodology at the University of Missouri and introduced it at North Dakota, taking the lead in totally overhauling the pre-medical pre-pre-clinical curriculum, and finally the ultimate marker of success: the imprimataur of the LCME, the accrediting body for MD medical schools, which granted full reaccreditation to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine on his watch.
I “cold called” Rick operative word “cold” to talk about our dreams for VTC. I knew others had tried to woo him away but yes, it was February in North Dakota and when Rick came to visit, we were having one of our lovely early spring moments in Virginia.
That did give us an edge for sure, but the truth of the matter is that just like the rest of us, he felt the pull to create something from a blank slate, using what he had experienced, but with the opportunity to take PBL to another level.
“PBL Vari style,” I call it. “PBL version 2.0,” Rick called it.
With a class of brilliant, well-prepared students, a couple of whom I have seen here tonight who are now in practice, he was able to tighten the process into 18 months creating a large block of time for student research while also weaving the basic science, research, clinical medicine, and interprofessionalism - our four value domains - into the process.
But you know what's really scary for the Dean of a developing medical school? It's thinking that the students seem to be doing well, but having no national benchmarks to test that premise until after the second year. I turned to Rick again.
Help! Rick to the rescue!
To demonstrate that all the required basic science was being taught, he mapped the curriculum to the objectives that would be covered in STEP I, introduced topical standardized tests along the way, and brought us The Step One Method: a program to help prepare students to take this high stakes test. And prepared they were, knocking it out of the park on the very first attempt. And what about our own LCME accreditation? When that day came in 2014 after graduation of our charter class, we were awarded full accreditation with no citations.
So that is the Rick's remarkable skill as an educator. But did I mention, he is one of the nicest human beings on earth? A great friend to people all over the world, a wonderful husband, father, and grandfather, who knows how to work hard and play hard.
Giving a speech step three - tell the audience what you told them. Yes, VTCSOM is the premier new medical school of the 21st century, and Rick, you have made it so. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Thank you Cynda, for taking us back to some of those key moments in the development of our school and how important Rick was for that. Another fellow who's been around for quite a while and has worked with Rick through the years is our own senior dean for research, executive director of FBRI, and VP for health science technology at Virginia Tech, the one and only Mike Friedlander. Mike um did I hear you have slides?
[Mike Friedlander]: I do
[Dean Learman]: Oh my gosh that
[Mike Friedlander]: You know me
[Dean Learman]: that's right, I mean I hope everyone's in a comfortable spot right.
You know, I was asked to come here and speak at the “Celebration of Rick's retirement” and that phrase just kept sticking with me and left me a little uncomfortable. Sorry, I can't celebrate your retirement Rick, but I will celebrate your contributions, celebrate your career and friendship that'll be missed by many during your retirement. Heck, I don't want you to retire. I want you to go on forever continuing to make VTCSOM a better version of itself in the future. However, I digress. Let's celebrate Rick!
So when Rick is focused on something, he is laser focused as you can see in that slide. I love the way he sits and listens and then at the appropriate time, he adds the critical observation or question - boom! Right then you know that. Everybody has worked with Rick knows that and I think that picture captures it. We already heard a little bit.
Rick’s career has taken him from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbia, Missouri, New Orleans, Louisiana, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and then to Roanoke. By the way, I've heard climate mentioned a few times. Rick has lived in communities, I did a little research on this, with average winter low temperatures ranging from 2 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit and average summer highs ranging from 79 to 92. He is clearly resilient and well prepared for climate change, no doubt about that.
Rick trained as a physiologist specializing in renal physiology. Rising from grad student to postdoc, assistant, associate, full professor, assistant dean for med-ed, senior dean for academic affairs. Along the way served his institutions, medical and graduate students, and fellow faculty in many many ways. He's been recognized for some of those contributions we've heard about: the prestigious AAMC Paul Glaser distinguished teacher award, serving on the IAMSE Board of Directors, and being elected to serve as the president of IAMSE, serving as department chair, and multiple times being invited by students multiple times to deliver PEARLS at graduation for our medical students here.
Meanwhile he's published a whole bunch of papers, both on renal physiology and medical education as we've heard, including key findings on the role of atrial natriuretic factor and the renin-angiotensin system in hypertension, as well as a landmark paper in academic medicine on patient-centered learning curriculum and how to change institutional culture, of what we've heard a little bit about up until now.
Rick took the lead here at VTCSOM designing and implementing the curriculum. It's been a major part of the initial and ongoing success in the enterprise, facilitating smooth growth of the various accreditation processes, as we heard from Cynda, and winning the hearts and minds of students and faculty alike. Rick never shrinks from volunteering or accepting key roles in leading and working areas in these aspects for the greater good of the school and his colleagues.
Just to show you some of the key roles and things he stepped into, there's a couple pictures from graduation with Rick involved at the hooding ceremonies. And uh, you know if you take a look over there at their attire, it's like oh my god they're going to decapitate that student. And the other one looking up saying I know there's a hood up there somewhere but it was kind of interesting. I had the honor a couple times doing the joint hooding with Rick and trying to get our heights adjusted for the students and getting things over their heads, but we we got it all worked out, and like everything Rick does, it came out absolutely perfectly.
As a fellow physiologist, I saw Rick's passion, education, and skills in the importance of fundamental medical and basic science med ed, and I knew the school would be successful, from day one interacting with him. Nowadays everybody's got some cool name, right? They’re molecular biologists and neuroimmunologists and immunoendocrinologists and cell biophysicists. Rick's a physiologist and I'm proud to say I'm a fellow physiologist tried and true he is. Probably the closest basic science discipline of medicine that prepared him extremely well for the career and the contributions that he's made here over the years, as you’ve heard about.
I'll tell a little story about one interaction Rick and I had. Rick called me once in his characteristic understated fashion and asked if I had a minute, he could stop by my office and chat. I said sure, Rick, come on over. He ambled in, sat down. We chatted a bit and then he asked me he said, “Hey Mike, will you be willing to be a plenary speaker at the next IAMSE conference?” He explained that a well-known thought leader had to cancel after agreeing to speak. I said I'd be honored and I asked when it was. He said “Sunday.”
I asked Rick, “Sunday in what month and what year?” He said, “This year and this month.” I then said, “Which Sunday this month?” He said, “This Sunday.” I believe that was on Tuesday if I remember correctly. And that would be Sunday at 8 a.m. also, if I remember correctly. So being that it was Rick I of course accepted and it was an honor to be able to speak and represent the medical school here at that meeting and it went very well. And after my talk soon thereafter a, fine bottle of sip and whiskey appeared in my office, so that's characteristic Rick, thank you Rick.
So there's been a lot of terrific hard-working people in this place that have contributed, and this is really a team effort clearly, but I guarantee you and this is reiterating I guess what Cynda said. I guarantee you though without Rick Vari, this would not be the crown jewel that it is today. Absolutely not. His hard and careful work on the curriculum and his sincere caring for others’ success has touched the professional development and lives of many medical students who in turn are touching the lives of many other people and will continue to do so.
So I just want to add one thing here my grandmother, my paternal grandmother, who was Jewish and uh emigrated from Russia as a little girl, fleeing persecution, used to tell me stories when I was a little kid. And I listened to these stories intently, they were, they were fascinating, she occasionally would lapse from English into some other language that I later learned was a language called Yiddish. And in Yiddish my grandmother would often refer to something called a “Mensch.” She would tell me about people that were a mensch. You look up the definition of the word in German it's a human being or a person, a man, a mensch, but what it really is… A mensch is really a person of integrity and honor. And somebody you'd like for yourself and your children to be exactly like them.
Rick Vari is a mensch.
I haven't used that word since I was seven years old talking to my grandmother, Rick, and I am honored to be able to use it today. And you heard some of the reasons why. He's an all-around mensch.
Rick is facing a big challenge of his lifetime I want him to know that we cannot be there with you every step of the day in these buildings as we have over the decade we are with you in spirit all the time.
God speed to you and Patty.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Oh thanks so much Mike. Thank you so much Mike. Somewhere your grandma is kvelling at your use of the word mensch. Just it's a little inside joke there. Well as many of you know um our medical school is a partnership between Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech and a little something happened a few years ago. We actually officially changed ownership from Carilion Clinic to Virginia Tech but for the first, what, 10 years of our history we were a Carillon Clinic owned and operated medical school, although the partnership has always been very strong and during those years, Jeannie Armentrout has been a very important person in terms of collaborating with the school and getting to know Rick, and so she has a message for us, which is a video message. She's an executive VP of Carillion Clinic so I don't know what she has to say but I know it'll be right up there.
There she is. All right.
Good evening. I so wish I could be with you as you celebrate the accomplishments of Dr. Rick Vari. Rick and Patty, how wonderful to celebrate this evening with your family and friends. I know each of you recognize just how special Rick is.
I first met Rick over 10 years ago, during the middle of a small project you know as building a medical school. I was in human resources at the time and I didn't have any experience with providing HR expertise to a school startup. However, Rick, I think we did a pretty good job together.
Rick and I had a few things in common. Neither of us had planned to teach but both fell hard for the joy of seeing the light in students’ eyes. He started with a course explaining the complications of the kidney. I started with a course explaining fluid and electrolytes. He taught medical students. I taught nurses. We had an immediate connection and trust as well as a passion and that connection enabled us to get through some pretty tough challenges.
When I think about Rick, the phrase “still waters run deep” emerges. He leads and teaches from the heart. Rick's passion for student success is infectious. He is courageous and brave and his care of this school has a huge impact upon her.
Rick, you are an amazing educator. I admire you so much. It has been my honor to work with you and a privilege to call you a friend. Remember, we are family and as you start another journey, we will always be cheering you on. Much love to you.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Well that was, that was lovely. We have several more um folks going to come to this podium and you've all heard from the folks already, how Rick is is able to not just do all the amazing things he does as an educator and an education administrator and thoughtful leader, but the way he cares and how that caring starts to transcend the kind of the typical connections we have with our colleagues.
And so our director of education technology Dustin Womack's going to come up and and to talk to us a little bit about what what the relationship with Rick has meant to him. Dustin thanks for being here thanks for being down here, I should say. You're always here.
Dr. Johnson mentioned some tips about developing a speech. I should have looked at those beforehand.
Dr. V. You may know Dr. Vari as Dr. V. or Rick, but some of us referred to him as “The Godfather.”
I'm told that Dr. Vari has been called The Godfather by others throughout his career, perhaps due to his rasp and his demeanor, but the origins for us specifically go back about six years ago.
I had just started working for Dr. Vari, and about a week into my new role, he called me in his office and he said “we have a situation…I need you and Andre to run our next set of exams”
At the time, my only experience with any kind of formal exams were my middle school SOLs. I was slightly freaked out by having to administer exams to top notch and occasionally opinionated medical students… Also knowing that the integrity of assessment at VTC is vital. I had overheard Dr. Vari state this repeatedly.
But, If you have ever had the opportunity to work with Dr. Vari, you know he has this special ability to convince you that you can do something with full confidence.
He kicks his feet back on his desk and offers you one of those cinnamon candies from the 1930’s and then encourages you, makes you an offer you can’t refuse.
So fast forward, Andre and I were steadily trekking through our first exam week smoothly… until day 3 we had major issues! The exam was formatted incorrectly, we left off important details and instructions/features. The students were in a complete frenzy, even asking the IT guys about anatomy - which I do not recommend.
This was definitely our fault. This week was SO Important to Dr. Vari and our students. Andre and I were pacing, knowing we needed to give Dr. V a heads up. So, we called.
He answered with great enthusiasm: “How’s it going boys!” We said: “there maybe room for improvement” and we let him know what happened. Without hesitation he simply replied, “it’s okay, we’ll figure it out” then he paused… and in his rasp of rasps he said: “at least you didn’t lie, you only get one of those!” …. Andre and I were immediately like “ohhh, he’s like the Godfather! Loyalty is everything!”
Later that week after the assessment storm had settled, we created the Godfather office label and snuck it on his door. Dr. V always appreciates a good laugh, and that sign has been there ever since. I now often wonder how alarming it must be for a new M1 to stroll through the Dean’s suite for the first time and see… Dean this, Dean that, Vice Dean… and “The Godfather” then M122. Like, “what did I sign up for!”
The following week Dr. Vari had us down to his office to discuss the issues that had occurred. He opened with, “I appreciate you both. I trust you boys, and we’ll figure this out…don’t let the small stuff bother you.”
At a time when you could have easily dismissed us, blamed us, lost trust in us, you chose to invest. Invest in our relationship, invest in your people. You put us before the work and you chose to build us up and stand with us. You are a true leader. I will never forget that moment, the tone you set, and how you have always made the people around you a priority. I have seen you do this time and time again throughout the VTC Family.
Tonight, as we celebrate the many achievements, accolades, curriculum innovations, and the long list of Dr. Vari’s contributions to VTCSOM, understand, when you peel back the layers, it’s Dr. Vari’s deep love of people, his commitment to family and community, and his true authenticity that propel the outcomes.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Vari in many environments… from VTC events, to IAMSE events. He was President Godfather there, LCME Site visits, Facilitating PBL, at Family Barbeques, striking out medical students on the baseball field, and even at the VTC Crystal Spring Campus, which is Fork in the Alley.
His character, what he stands for, and even more so, who he stands for never waivers. He is the same Rick in any role, any circumstance, with anybody.
Dr. Vari, you are genuine, one of a kind.
There is so much more to you than the accolades. Your ability to connect and care for our VTC community is unique. I can’t say enough how you have forever impacted the VTC family and my very own family.
You are the heartbeat of this medical school, you are the glue, you are the “special sauce.” Rick’s better than hot sauce.
Thank you to your amazing family for also being such a huge part of VTC. Thank you for making us ALL a priority, and most importantly, thank you for being you. Happy Retirement my friend.
I love you man.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Well Dustin, thank you so much. We really appreciate you sharing those thoughts with us this evening. We have a couple of folks that are going to come down and try to represent the perspective of our medical students, so this is a tall order. This is a challenge. Will Reis is up to the challenge. Our class president, Will Reis, come on down.
When I first came to VTC, Giovanni, who was the class president the year above me, said, “Will, one of the things you really need to do, and sooner than later, is meet Dr. Vari”. Dr. Vari’s office is not one that students immediately walk by, so a few months had past and I still hadn’t met him. And yet, every few weeks, Giovanni hounded me to meet with Dr. Vari. Every few weeks, a reminder.
I have had the immense privilege of learning three lessons from Dr. Vari, which is convenient given the amount of time I have to speak:
First, somewhere in Dr. Vari’s office is a binder, maybe even more than one, that is bursting full of accreditation documents that he had a role in authoring. These documents, while surely prosaic and bromidic, represent just how much Dr. Vari has done for this school.
I’m not sure I even know how much work, how many hours (years, really), Dr. Vari has spent doing this kind of work because he never really talks about it.
I’m not sure I know any of the problems our school may or may not have faced because Dr. Vari never really talks about it.
I don’t even know what kind of work he doesn’t care for but does anyway, because he never really talks about it.
But I do know, there is a generation of physicians who would not be practicing today, and tomorrow, were it not for Dr. Vari, his work and his binders.
The lesson I learned from Dr. Vari is the value, and the profound consequences, of doing the work we believe in, whether or not others will ever know about it.
Second, he technically taught me how the kidneys work-it works with tubules and a lot of water- but he impressed upon me that we should have considerable respect for our working kidneys. So, it is out of respect to him and his life’s work, that I really ought to share, now even, some kidney health recommendations.
Out of respect to Dr. Vari, let us all exercise when we can, follow a balanced diet, quit smoking, stay hydrated, get regular physicals, and, topically, get our vaccines.
The lesson I learned from Dr. Vari, seriously, is the complicated nature of renal homeostasis and appreciation we should have for when it works.
Finally, Dr. Vari participates in this committee called “LEAC.” And LEAC is a group that, essentially, evaluates complaints and finds ways to resolve them. To be sure, I actually know very little of these meetings because I am not on this committee and their work is confidential. However, that makes me qualified to say the following: among all students, the near totality of whom do not serve on LEAC, it is somehow a well-known fact that Dr. Vari is not afraid to confront anybody in the defense of us students. There are important and necessary reasons why medicine has a hierarchical structure, but I will say, as one much closer to the bottom than the top, that it makes an immense, propitious difference, to know that Dr. Vari is the cogent force that advocates for students.
The final lesson I learned from Dr. Vari, and it could not be said more simply, is that the very best academic leaders care about their students. It is well known that Dr. Vari does.
I finally asked Giovanni why I needed to meet with Dr. Vari and why he was so tenacious about this. Was it something administrative? Was it about networking? Was I in trouble? And Giovanni said, and I still have this text message on my phone, “Will, you need to meet with Dr. Vari because he’s like the coolest dean in this place”.
I have learned from Dr. Vari, that I should commit to the things I care about, so then let me say this: thank you Dr. Vari, you are, my apologies, in fact, the coolest Dean in this place.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Well, I'm sure I speak for all of the deans here: past, present, and future, when we say we agree with you, Will. No question. No question about it.
Allie Strauss is now going to add some of her perspectives to this uh wonderful relationship that Rick has with our students. And I can almost randomly pick students and alumni here to, to make these presentations but Allie, you are the chosen one. Come on down.
Good evening all! My name is Allie Strauss and I am a member of the Class of 2023 here at VTC. I am honored beyond words and very grateful to have the opportunity today to talk about a person who means a great deal to me, Dr. Vari. To sum up his career and impact in a short five minutes is, of course, an impossible task because, in reality, I could talk about him for five hours and it still would not be enough time to properly articulate all of Dr. Vari’s impressive accomplishments and milestones, and the lasting impact of his career.
So instead, I want to share a few stories of moments when Dr. Vari’s passion, energy, and commitment to his work shined through for me and my fellow classmates. Let me first take you back to orientation week for our class of 2023 in late June of 2019.
Sitting in the good ‘ol lecture hall of M106 were 43 nervous, naïve, newly minted medical students. As Dr. Vari began his presentation, he mentioned that a prior class once asked him what his “baseball walk up song” would be if he ever needed one. Let me queue up his choice, and I hope this works.
[EMINEM Lose Yourself: “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?”
For starters, I personally love that song, so I immediately gave Dr. Vari some brownie points for being cool and relatable. But as I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Dr. Vari more personally over the past three years, work with him in a number of endeavors here at the medical school, and be graced by his southern charm and true leadership by example, I have realized that these lyrics are more than his walk up song. They articulate and embody a philosophy for how Dr. Vari has approached his career, and his life.
The lyrics ask a fundamental question - if you could seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it? I think it is clear that Dr. Vari’s answer to that question is always a resounding yes.
His career is a true testament to what it means to take full advantage of opportunities and make the most out of every moment. When he was offered the chance to become a founding dean for a new medical school, he jumped, impacting a city, a hospital system, and the lives of hundreds of students in the process.
When the COVID pandemic hit and he was challenged to rework the curriculum to accommodate a virtual format, he never hesitated to put in the work, making it a smooth successful transition for all involved.
Dr. Vari, you have seized so many opportunities and, in doing so, have opened doors for others to seize opportunities of their own.
I distinctly remember one meeting I had with Dr. Vari in his office where he pulled out this thick pad of paper with his “To do” list written on it. The list probably spanned a mile, but he was so organized and deliberate about writing down items that mattered to him. I felt truly honored when the matter Sahana and I brought up got added to the list.
As I have reflected on this interaction, I have a deep respect for Dr. Vari’s willingness and desire to always strive for greatness. Complacency is simply not a word in your vocabulary, Dr. Vari. You always search for and worked diligently to make yourself, this school, and each of us students better. In your pursuit for continuous progress, you manifest the things you want to achieve, writing them down on paper until those dreams, goals, and “To dos” become reality.
In talking with many fellow classmates over the past few weeks, a common sentiment I’ve heard from so many is that “Dr. Vari is the reason why I chose to come to VTC.” To be honest, that is true for my own experience as well. Many were captivated by the presentations he gave during interview weekends and second look days. Many were intrigued by conversations they had with Dr. Vari during which he conveyed, so genuinely, his passion, admiration, and belief in this school. Many were simply enthralled by Dr. Vari himself – his personality, his energy, his kindness. We believed then, and we know now, that with Dr. Vari as a cornerstone of VTC, the school must be pretty dang special.
While the beginning of the Eminem song is a charge to seize opportunities, I want to end by addressing an equally powerful message at the end of the song. The last lyrics read, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Dr. Vari, you picked a heck of a walk out song because these last lyrics summarize how you have constantly made VTC students feel.
You have made us believe, without a doubt, that we can achieve greatness and accomplish what we set out to do. You have believed that we will make great future physicians and your confidence has empowered us to believe more deeply in ourselves.
At the conclusion of exam week for the first block in medical school, I remember you waiting for us in the hallway with a huge smile on your face as you congratulated each student on a job well done. During dedicated study time for STEP I, I remember you strolling through the hallways between PBL rooms, checking in on us and providing the encouragement, love, and support that we desperately needed. I must admit, these are the special moments I will miss the most.
In short, I truly believe that we ALL need a person like Dr. Vari in our lives, and I am so grateful that I’ve had THE Dr. Vari in mine. You are incredible, you are so loved and respected, and there are a tremendous number of doctors and future doctors in the world shaped to a large degree by you.
May your retirement be filled with all of the things and people you love. And may you never forget the tremendous impact you’ve had on VTC. Your legacy will truly live on forever. Happy Retirement, Dr. Vari!
Wow Allie. Thank you so much for those heartfelt comments.
It is my honor to be the last of our official speakers, and so that I can speak a little more clearly, I am just going to take my mask off for this part. Rick, you have gifted us an amazing legacy. You defined who we are in so many ways – that identity is now part of our academic DNA that will be handed down to the many generations of educational leaders and learners that succeed us.
How did you do it?
Business experts have opined about how to leave an enduring legacy, but you didn’t need to read an article in Harvard Business Review or Forbes – you just did it. In fact, the folks at Forbes must have been thinking of you when they offered these characteristics of successful legacy builders.
Legacy builders know themselves. They are extremely connected with who they are and what they represent as an individual and a leader. They translate these values into a set of guiding principles that others can begin to expect from them.
Rick, you came to Roanoke after three decades of achievement in medical education and research. Your first publication in 1979 was a collaboration with your mentor at the University of Kentucky, Cobern Ott. It focused on the autoregulation of blood flow in the kidney, of course. After completing your PhD and a post-doc you joined the faculty at Tulane, where you established yourself as an expert in renal physiology and published several high impact papers, including a landmark publication on contrast-induced acute renal failure that has been cited nearly 100 times. You were promoted to associate professor and joined the faculty in North Dakota, and then something changed.
You were given an opportunity to help reform the medical school’s curriculum and you jumped right in. You connected this opportunity to some guiding principles that mattered most to you, in terms of the legacy you wanted to leave, and you transitioned from a successful biomedical researcher and physiology instructor to additionally becoming an expert in patient-centered learning, ultimately directing the office of medical education and serving as associate dean at North Dakota. In 2001 you finally got around to writing your first educational publication, and it was a doozy, as Mike mentioned, it described how changing the curriculum from traditional to patient-centered learning became an intervention to change the institutional culture and promote professionalism at the University of North Dakota.
A curriculum changing an institutional culture! Well, go big or go home, Rick, that is an amazing concept. Mind blowing.
Which brings me to the next quality of legacy builders. They are courageous. They trust their gut enough to take calculated risks. They challenge the status quo. They push envelopes even if this means putting their reputations on the line.
Rick, we are grateful for your courage – coming here not to a physical medical school but to an idea, helping shape and mold that idea, creating our cutting-edge curriculum, and trusting your gut that we would be successful.
Legacy builders also walk the walk. Once they set the tone and define the standards they expect for themselves and others, they hold themselves accountable to be consistently someone who meet those standards every day, and every step of the way.
Rick, we have seen you walk the walk through many changes of seasons, through the challenges of accreditation, through a transition in the school’s ownership, through a change in deans, through a pandemic, and through health challenges. You have accepted and adapted to these curveballs with grace and patience. You have persisted with grit to meet your goals with a healthy dose of pragmatism and as much humor as possible. Here are some examples of how you walk the walk:
Dr. Vari is down-to-earth and always accessible. His presentation on the curriculum during MMIs was a huge part of why I chose to come here. He embodies the culture of our school.
From team members:
Dr. Vari has a way of bringing out the best in people, but he’s also strict and will take people to task if need be, but it’s always for the better. His educational accomplishments have made it to the world-wide stage, and the curriculum that he brought with him put VTCSOM on the map.
And finally, and most importantly, legacy builders care – they care deeply about others and use that caring to advance others. They understand what inspires happiness in those who support their leadership. They strive through their careers to serve and genuinely support the success and career advancement of their team members.
Rick, you know that part of your legacy is how you make others feel. We’ve heard all about that this evening. We feel that caring from you every day. In the words of your colleagues and students: People love Dr. Vari. He has a unique and priceless sense of humor. Talk to him about gardening and you’ll end up with bottles of his homemade hot sauce. He is a kind and humble gentleman. His fingerprints are all over this school. He is woven into our fabric.
But, Rick, we are not the first to be moved by your friendship as a colleague, your caring and your sense of humor.
We checked with a few old friends and they told us what your friendship has meant to them.
You met Steve Vallance when you were both college students at the University of Kentucky. You and your friend, Bob, taught Steve how to golf but you had a little fun along the way. You taught Steve that to play golf correctly he should tee up the ball even when hitting from the fairway.
Many years later, when Steve was in the Army in Fort Knox and playing golf on the course there, a Colonel pulled him aside to tell Steve he had never seen anyone tee the ball up on the fairway, and that Steve would need to find a new course to play on if it ever happened again. This was sometime later. Steve sends you his love and says, “I am honored and proud to be Rick’s friend. His accomplishments in life, physiology, and medical education are immense!"
You met Bill Welch in graduate school, where Bill says you immediately bonded. You had similar scientific interests and grew up about 30 miles from each other, but at different times.
Bill talks about all the fun you had hanging out together, at dive bars, softball fields, football games, race tracks and once in a while, the research lab where you worked with the same PI. Bill, who is now at Georgetown, calls you his brother from another mother and then corrects himself “actually, closer than a brother.” Many of your colleagues here today will appreciate one of Bill’s favorite Rick moments – “When life has dumped on you for the hundredth time and you don’t want to talk to anyone for a while, the phone lights up “Rick V” and you smile and say ‘what’s up?’ and then life moves on.”
We can all agree that throughout his storied career, Rick Vari has been a legacy builder. Rick knows himself. He lives by his values. He is courageous and risk-taking. He walks the walk of self-expectations and accountability. And most important of all, he cares. He cares genuinely and deeply.
Rick, there is so much more we can say and that people want you to know. We have assembled an e-card and a scrapbook with photos and notes for you. I understand that Karen has given that to you. She has assembled it with great care into an album and I am glad you were able to receive it earlier today. Thank you, Karen.
And there is more. Rick, your impact to our school is indelible, and to honor it we have established a new tradition that will launch next year and continue in perpetuity.
Rick, will you and Patty please come forward?
I am going to read this so everyone can see. This is a plaque, and on the front it says, “In honor of his retirement after joining the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine on April 1, 2008, as founding associate dean for medical education, and in appreciation of his commitment, dedication and service as senior dean for academic affairs and architect of our innovative curriculum, we are delighted to announce the creation of the Richard C. Vari, Ph.D., Endowed Lectureship, established on October 29, 2021.”
Rick, the lectureship will feature an internationally renowned innovator in medical education to give the keynote address here in Roanoke at our TEACH Education Day, beginning next year. The plaque is for you to keep and we have also created one that will be mounted on the next panel of our history wall in the lobby.
And, working quietly over the past 4 weeks, your colleagues and friends, faculty, staff, students and alumni, we’ve been connecting with each other. You brought us together. As of this morning, we have received over $146,000 in gifts and gift commitments from exactly 100 Friends of Rick Vari. Next week we will launch the public stage of our fund-raising campaign to get us the rest of the way to $250,000 for a fully endowed lectureship, we’re more than half the way there.
On behalf of a grateful medical school we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all you have done for us, and how you have led us, cared for us, taught us, humored us, nourished us and supported us over the past 13+ years. Please join me in expressing our appreciation to Dr. Rick Vari.
Rick has asked me to read his response for today. Thank you, Dean Learman and all of you. That is such an honor thank you so much.
This is Rick's response: Although my voice is softer now, I hope you can hear on the back row how hard my heart is beating in gratitude for the kindness you have shown me this evening and on behalf of my family who are here with me and those who are afar, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this honor.
I want to thank Dean Learman, Dr. Tracey Criss, and the committee for orchestrating this event. I want to thank all the distinguished leadership of VTC, Carillion Clinic, the student representatives, and my colleagues here at the school for your kind words and remembrances that serve as a lasting tribute to my career.
I have worked for the past 13 years to make VTC one of the finest medical schools in the country. That was my pledge to Nancy on the first day of my job. She smiled then and I hope she's smiling today, for I believe that this is true. And I don't say these things out of hyperbole or exaggeration. I can say this because of what we know, as the evidence speaks for itself.
We have over 5,000 applicants for 49 spots, national board scores of which other schools are envious, and a consistent successful match with students obtaining their first and second spots to premiere programs across the country. And then finally the circle is complete, as we now have our graduates returning to assume faculty positions in the school.
When we received our preliminary accreditation as a brand new medical school in 2008, Cynda asked me what I was feeling at the time of this accomplishment, and I said, “I believe that my whole career was preparing me for this moment.”
With all of your help and dedication we have achieved a dream in this little corner of southwest Virginia. Now that my career is coming to a close, I am feeling a distant voice from the past.
So too I must say I am the luckiest man on earth to have been a part of this experience. Patty and I will not be far away and will continue to hope and pray for all good things to come to VTC. And with that I bid you farewell and God speed on your journey.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Although that would be a fine opportunity to call the evening over, we have something else.
Before we wrap up, Ryan Anderson has worked a little magic. He has taken hours of video interview material recorded over the past several weeks and created this montage to conclude our ceremony, although I do have some comments on the other side. Rick, Ryan will also get you the full-length version to view at your leisure in the coming days. So thank you very much, Ryan!
And it may be easier to see that back in your seats if you'd like or you could stay here but I think a lot of craning of the neck would occur.
[ON SCREEN: IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS A SCHOOL, IN NEED OF SOMEONE TO CREATE A CURRICULUM. WHO WE GOT WAS SO MUCH MORE BECAUSE WE GOT… DR. RICK VARI]
- Dr. Vari is the godfather.
- Dr. Vari to me is a dean in the best way.
- A role model
- A leader
- Someone at the school who has always put me at ease.
- That calm you know confident wry smile.
- He's always been somebody that I I felt like I could trust.
- He represents the can-do attitude that I think of when I think of our school.
- He's truly an educational renaissance man.
- He's so talented and I think that's something that really stands out about Rick is he brings a lot to the table.
- He is all at heart head and hands. He is representing the same qualities that we hope to develop in our medical students.
- Rick is really the the guts of the school of medicine, the embodiment of it.
- He is just genuine really shows that he he cares a lot about everyone.
- And he has been sort of a steadfast rock there for all of us.
- Rick has this ability to give energy off. People come to him and they love being around him.
- He is illuminating.
- What an enjoyable and engaging person he is.
- The way that he motivates and inspires everybody around him.
- He leads with his heart.
- I think everybody likes to be appreciated and rick knows how to appreciate people he gets the best out of people he gets the best out of every single person he works with.
- I think of him as the biggest advocate for us.
- He always is putting students opinions and students desires and education first before anything else.
- Anything that we needed um he was there for us.
- He cares about how you're doing this person and that means so much.
- To me he's like my work father.
- He wears his heart on his sleeve and he tells you what he's thinking.
- What you see is what you get.
- Someone that I can count on to give me honest advice on any issue that I could possibly imagine.
- You can talk to him about pretty much anything from whiskey to to academic success and pretty much anything in the middle.
- We love chatting movies at lunch time.
- His humor and his enthusiasm is kind of infectious.
- He can light up a room with laughter.
- I love Rick Vari’s sense of humor
- No one else can make renal physiology that much fun.
- They broke the mold when they made Dr. Vari.
- Rick's creativity and ingenuity and easygoing style went a long way to creating a very unique product for this med school.
- This was not just checking the boxes and doing the typical things new medical schools do. It was doing it in a very innovative and robust way that really set it apart from the other new medical schools.
- There was never any question that he was in it for the long haul.
- He put us on the map from a national perspective and an international perspective. Being president of IAMSE and putting a real spotlight on the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
- He won one of the Glasner awards you know with the AAMC and and there are not many people who rise to that level.
- In terms of our uh attractiveness and our ability to offer the type of education that every medical student really wants.
- He's actually a huge part about why I came to Virginia Tech Carilion.
- One of the great things about the school is that there are so many people there that were there to support us, there that cared about you know making sure that we were successful, that we did great and Rick is probably the standout of them in terms of you know just caring about about the students.
- He is the reason I think the school has been as successful as he has been because of the curriculum.
- The way that he approaches curriculum is not just based on the science, it's also based on how do we apply the science in a very real human context, and it just has a profound impact on the knowledge base and the retention and the skills of our medical students.
- Yes, he's helped shape our curriculum, but he has helped establish a culture at our school that places our students at the center.
- We were like his mission the the love that he had for students and for things that's it's it's so true. I think we're so successful and so much of that is because of the amount that Rick cared in us the amount that he believed in us.
- I had the privilege of having him as my block one PBL facilitator and it doesn't get much better than having the man, the myth, the legend, you know, the guy who designed the curriculum show you the ropes and really that's where I found my love for teaching and without being in block one PBL with him, I don't know if I love education as much as I do and that it became such an important part of my life.
- His enthusiasm I think was contagious and that week I was just I remember getting on the flight and thinking my gosh if I and if I don't get in here I'm gonna be so so sad.
- We are who we are, our graduates are who we are, our current students are who they are, because of the vision and the passion and the energy that Rick Vari has brought to all that all that has occurred in the school.
- Thank you Dr. Vari.
- Thank you Dr. Vari.
- Thank you Rick.
- Thank you so much for helping build the foundation upon which future generations of doctors will be able to serve mankind.
- For believing so strongly in what medical school should and could be.
- For your leadership for your kindness.
- For helping me to become a better version of myself.
- For the passionate teaching.
- Thank you for just being a friend.
- For all the many years that you've invested in so very many people you are awesome.
- Thank you for always taking our opinions into account and making us really a part of the decision making at this school.
- And also thank you for such a good unlimited supply of homemade hot sauce.
- Thank you for all you've meant to me our school our learners and those who educate them.
- You are not just my boss you are my friend my mentor my family.
- It was a pleasure working with you although it was brief. I enjoyed our conversations together.
- Rick you mean so much to us our friendship runs deep we love you Rick.
- You will always be the cutest elf on the shelf VTC has ever seen.
- Dr. Vari, we love you. There is always a box of hot tamales waiting for you.
- Kick up your feet and look back on the wonderful impact you've had on the students here.
- And I hope that you know that your legacy and impact will remain here at VTC forever.
- You’ve put a lot of time a lot of effort and a lot of care into the education that we've received and we really appreciate it.
- You'll never truly know the incredible ways in which you've impacted each one of us.
- Your impact on medical education and on this school will be felt for generations to come.
- How do you create an enduring legacy that remains after you retire? Well, you've done it. You've done it in all the ways you needed to by by being there for us by being part of our culture and community and so we thank you for this gift as much as we wish you a happy retirement, we know that you're always going to be with us.
- Thank you for everything and I love you very much.
[ON SCREEN: Footage of Rick Vari dropping the MIC at IAMSE superimposed with the words YOUR LEGACY AT VTCSOM IS THE ULTIMATE MIC DROP]
We all know the godfather legacy will live forever.
[DEAN LEARMAN]: Wow, I didn't know about the hot tamales. I was thinking more m&m’s. Well that's that's a musical joke. Okay.
Well, I just have a few closing remarks, Rick. In the words of Maya Angelou that I’ve adapted just a bit for this occasion, as you could just hear:
Rick, people may forget some of what you said, they may even forget some of the things you did, but we will NEVER forget how you made us feel. Never.
It is our wish that your retirement will open up time for you to enjoy meaningful moments with your family and dearest friends, and moments of joy as you reflect on the many gifts your legacy has bestowed upon them, and us.
Before we close I’d like to thank the folks who have worked so hard to plan and organize this event: Dr. Tracey Criss, Karen Burns, Sammi Hoover, Brittany May, Brian Brindle, Dustin Womack, Catherine Doss, Ryan Anderson, Gwen Ghee, and Brian Stanford.
Thank you to Drs. David Musick and Cynda Johnson for leading our quiet, and quite successful, fund-raising campaign.
And thank you again to our speakers for sharing their reflections and tributes for Dr. Vari – Nancy Agee, Cynda Johnson, Mike Friedlander, Jeannie Armentrout, Dustin again, Will Reis, and Allie Strauss.
And with that, this retirement party is over? Or is it actually just beginning? We’ll be around for a while down here to say hi. Thanks everyone for being here. Good night!
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- Richard Vari receives Excellence in Teaching Award from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech
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- Medical conference to bring in more than $1 million to local economy
- Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine to host 2019 IAMSE conference
- VTCSOM’s Richard Vari serving as president of the International Association of Medical Science Educators
- VTCSOM's Richard Vari wins prestigious national award for medical student education
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