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Pull a weed, plant a flower

The new Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences is unveiled in a dedication ceremony celebrating the life of the man known as “The Great Unifier”

by Tracy Curlee (ABJ ’90), Sam Fahmy (BS ’97), and Matt Weeks (ABJ ’05)



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In speaking of his longtime friend and political ally—the late Sen. Paul D. Coverdell—President George H.W. Bush quoted another former president: “Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Die when I may, I would like it to be said of me that I always pulled up a weed and planted a flower where I thought it would grow.’ That sums up Paul to a tee.”

Bush’s remarks were made at the April 7 dedication of the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. The ceremony, in honor of a man who dedicated his life to bringing people together for a common cause, featured tributes by friends and associates across political lines. More than 1,000 students, faculty, staff and invited guests attended the ceremony on the plaza of the College of Veterinary Medicine, which sits opposite the Coverdell Center across D.W. Brooks Drive on South Campus.

There have been only a handful of U.S. presidents, present and former, who have visited the University of Georgia, from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy to Georgia’s own Nobelist and Delta Prize recipient Jimmy Carter. So when Bush and his wife Barbara, escorted by a cavalcade of Secret Service agents, arrived on campus, it was an occasion worth noting.

Bush, who appointed Coverdell to head the Peace Corps in 1989, praised the statesman’s ability to narrow the gulfs of political division and focus on results.

“The dedication of this biomedical and health science center is really a fitting tribute to this man who could bring people together for a common purpose,” Bush said. “Here scientists and students will come together to tackle some of the most pressing health-related challenges we face and come to push back the frontier of discovery and progress.”

Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the Coverdell Center is the fact that scientists with common interests who were once scattered across campus are now housed under one roof, creating the centerpiece of UGA’s interdisciplinary biomedical enterprise. Together these scientists from multiple disciplines can conduct groundbreaking research in health studies, with the potential to draw in millions of dollars toward development of cures or treatments for diseases plaguing the world.

“The spirit of cooperation is not just helpful, but necessary for progress,” said Patricia Thomas, Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Most of us learn more when we ask the right questions, and experience teaches that these questions are easier to frame with help from people with expertise different from our own. That’s why many of today’s best biomedical questions are being asked by interdisciplinary teams.”

Republican Paul Coverdell, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, whose family later settled in Georgia, led a life of distinguished public service that spanned three decades and provided quiet yet effective leadership as a Georgia state senator from 1970-1989. As director of the Peace Corps from 1989-91, Coverdell is credited with much of the organization’s revitalization. However, it is his tenure as U.S. senator, a position he held from 1993 until his death in 2000, for which most remember him.

“The first thing I learned about Paul,” said former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (AB ’57, MA ’58) at a luncheon prior to the dedication ceremony, “was that he was ambitious to do, not ambitious to be—and there’s a difference. He was a strong, principled man, a tireless worker. He would always be there, informed and ready, not just willing, but insisting to carry the heaviest load.”

“Paul was a gentle soul, a leader of conviction. [He] was … a distinguished public servant that ennobled the concept of politics by his innate decency,” said Bush. “More importantly, he was someone that my family was proud to consider a very close, personal friend.”

In the weeks following his death, university officials began discussions with then-Senators Miller and Phil Gramm (BBA ’64, PhD ’67) of Texas about an appropriate memorial that would reflect his interest in education and research. What is now the Coverdell Center grew out of those discussions. With the assistance of Miller, Gramm and Georgia members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congress appropriated $10 million. Governors Roy Barnes (AB ’69, JD ’72) and Sonny Perdue (DVM ’71) and the Georgia General Assembly matched that amount, and UGA pledged $20 million.

“[We] wanted to build a memorial that would be alive, that would be used, that would be perpetually cared for,” Gramm said. “And I believe we have done it.”

Three years after its 2003 groundbreaking ceremony, the Coverdell Center totals 135,000 square feet, with sufficient laboratory space to house two dozen research teams or approximately 275 scientists, staff and graduate students. It is home to some of UGA’s premier life sciences programs, including the Biomedical Health Sciences Institute, the College of Public Health, the Health and Risk Communications Group, the Bio-Imaging Research Center, the Center for Tropical and Emerging Diseases and the newly organized Developmental Biology Group.

The open layout of the building facilitates communication between disciplines. The hallways on the second and third floors where the labs are located feature informal seating areas with electronic whiteboards; these provide space for impromptu discussions and collaborations between scientists and researchers.

The $40 million edifice, constructed of Georgia granite and brick at the request of the Coverdell family, has many “green” or environmentally friendly components. It has energy-saving features, such as dimmable fluorescent fixtures controlled by daylight sensors and occupancy sensors that turn off lights when rooms are unoccupied. The building has a “gray water” system that stores rain water collected from the roof, condensate from the air handling units and groundwater from the building perimeter. This water is used to irrigate the surrounding landscape, flush toilets and supply water for the air conditioning system.

The center also includes memorials in honor of the late senator: four inscribed quotes, along with a biographical display and portrait in the central lobby, a bronze casting of the seal of the U.S. Senate in the rear lobby, and a memorial garden behind the building that includes some of Coverdell’s favorite plants—plus a Georgia oak, also requested by Coverdell’s family, that symbolizes his life of service.

Perdue emphasized how the new center plays a role in economic opportunity, one of the three pillars of freedom that the late senator said were vital to the greatness of America and its people.

“It will help Georgia remain a leading state of innovation as it attracts hundreds of millions of dollars into our economy and provides answers to some of the stickiest problems of our health and mankind,” he said. “Sen. Coverdell made meeting the needs and solving the problems of Georgians a priority of his life and of his career. This outstanding research center will stand as a fitting tribute to his life, work and to the Coverdell spirit.”

University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis offered similar remarks at the luncheon. “This great new facility exists because of the types of partnerships that Sen. Coverdell worked to create and to sustain. Funding [for] this facility came from a partnership, which included the federal government, state support and internal funds from the University of Georgia.”

What this also means,” Davis said, “is that while some of UGA’s share of constructing this building came from private donors, the facility will be supported by research funding that the faculty will generate in the future.”

When Coverdell spoke at UGA’s spring semester commencement ceremony in May 2000, he addressed the graduates with these immortal words: “Each of you will make a difference. No one can manage our communities and our nations single-handedly. It takes us, as a family of citizens.”

With the depth of research and collaboration that this new facility allows, there is no doubt that Coverdell’s philosophy of working together for a committed purpose will produce unprecedented results.

“Paul was a great proponent of higher education,” Miller said, “and he understood how important development and research are [to higher education]. That is why this building is such a meaningful memorial.”

Bush added, “In the Washington world of bitter partisanship, Paul was indeed a voice of reason, always reaching out, always putting the good of the country first, always finding solutions where others may try to find blame or an issue to use as a political weapon … He was successful in bringing together people across the political aisle. I’ve heard it said that to the end Paul Coverdell was the Great Unifier, and so he was.”


Tracy Curlee is a contributing writer for Georgia Magazine. Sam Fahmy is a science writer in UGA’s News Service. Matt Weeks is a reporter for Columns, UGA’s faculty-staff newspaper.

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PHOTO GALLERY



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The new building faces the College of Veterinary Medicine across D. W. Brooks Drive on south campus. Photo by Paul Efland.

Former President George H.W. Bush spoke at the April 7 dedication of the new Paul D. Coverdell Center for Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. Photo by Dot Paul.

(from left) Gov. Sonny Perdue (DVM ’71), David Lee, UGA vice president for research; Frederick E. Cooper (JD ’67), Arch Foundation trustee and Coverdell family spokesman; President George H.W. Bush; Hank Huckaby, UGA senior vice president for finance and administration; and Nancy Coverdell, widow of the late senator, were among honored guests at the dedication ceremony. Photo by Peter Frey.

After the dedication ceremony—attended by more than 1,000 students, faculty, staff and invited guests—the facility was opened for tours and a reception in the memorial garden, located behind the building. Photo by Peter Frey.

A biographical display in the central lobby contains memorabilia from Sen. Coverdell’s life. Photo by Peter Frey.