By Kel Hahn
On a mid-February afternoon that surprises even longtime southern Californians with its mid-80s heat, Joe Halcomb tells stories. All of his anecdotes share a common denominator, and that is that none of them are really about him; rather, they are about the people who helped him get to where he is today. So when he is asked the burning question, Why are you making this gift to the college? Joe naturally turns the narrative to Father Ed Murray.
Father Murray’s earthly service came to a close several years ago, but as Joe shares one of the most pivotal moments in his life, the long-time hospital chaplain is present in the way only gifted storytellers make possible: how he and Joe hit it off during Joe’s first year of his residency; how they shared a love of corny jokes and joyfully inflicted them on patients; how he consoled Joe when the pressures of residency life threatened to consume him.
And finally how Joe and his wife, Joani, found themselves short of funds to move to Boston where Joe was set to begin a master’s program at MIT and Father Murray appeared on their doorstep holding a thick envelope stuffed with $20 bills.
“I have something for you and I want you to use it,” he said, handing Joe the envelope.
Stunned but grateful, Joe promised, “I don’t know how I’ll ever pay you back, but I will.”
“No,” Father Murray replied. “You will do this for somebody else one day.”
Over many years and through many different philanthropic channels, Joe and Joani have fulfilled Father Murray’s proclamation; but with their gift to name the Department of Biomedical Engineering, they have exceeded anything the humble chaplain could have envisioned.
When I reflect on my life experiences, I see that a number of people—my wife and family, my parents and sisters, my fraternity brothers, the engineering faculty at UK, managers who opened doors for me and numerous others—touched me and made it possible to be where I am today.
The F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Department of Biomedical Engineering is the first named department in the College of Engineering and at the University of Kentucky. The impact upon a program that has only existed for 30 years is seismic. Established in 1985, the Center for Biomedical Engineering resided within the Graduate School before joining the college in 2010. In 2013, it became an official department. Now, the Halcombs’ $7 million naming gift will add one endowed chair and two endowed fellowships to a faculty of eight—a 27% increase. Additionally, the Halcomb Family Graduate Fellowships in Biomedical Engineering will add fully-funded graduate fellowships to attract top graduate students and support their research. Dean John Walz says this first-of-its-kind gift taps into one of the hottest engineering growth areas available to graduates.
“Engineering technology has been responsible for huge advances in modern medicine. From implanted devices to prosthetics to regenerative tissue, biomedical engineers improve the well-being of those with significant health care needs. The Halcombs’ naming gift will ensure we provide the best education and training opportunities available to the students in this flourishing program.”
After 30 prosperous years in the medical device and biotechnology industries, Joe knows the demands facing today’s graduates and what is required in order to succeed. By the mid-1980s, he was vice president for product development for Zimmer’s Orthopedic Implant Division, leading the development of joint replacement implants that revolutionized the industry. In the early 1990s, he was senior vice president of operations and later president at Zimmer’s Hall Surgical Division, the world’s leading supplier of powered surgical instruments. He later joined Amgen, a biotechnology pioneer, and helped launch three new products with breakaway potential, generating incremental revenue and expanding Amgen’s reach to millions of patients around the world. Joe’s success and extensive knowledge of the industry give him a unique perspective on the potential of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“There are only seven or eight schools in the U.S. where medicine, engineering, pharmacy, dentistry and a first-rate hospital are within walking distance of each other and UK is one of them,” he explains. “The possibilities for interdisciplinary research connected to biomedical engineering are unbelievable. There’s no excuse for not collaborating!”
What I want to see more than anything else is that students in the biomedical engineering program make a difference in patients’ lives.
Joe was inducted into the College of Engineering’s Hall of Distinction in 2014. The honor is reserved for engineering alumni who have demonstrated distinguished professional accomplishments, outs-tanding character and commitment to community service; yet, as his Father Murray story reveals, Joe credits his success to the generosity and encouragement of others.
“When I reflect on my life experiences, I see that a number of people—my wife and family, my parents and sisters, my fraternity brothers, the engineering faculty at UK, managers who opened doors for me and numerous others—touched me and made it possible to be where I am today,” he says humbly. “They are the reason why I can even consider giving something back.”
Two giants who nurtured Joe’s interest in combining engineering and medicine were professors James F. Lafferty and Charles F. Knapp. A contrast of personalities, the serious-minded Lafferty complemented Knapp’s effusive energy. Lafferty quietly encouraged Joe’s enthusiasm and involved him in the Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory’s transition from missile development to work with living systems. Knapp told stories.
“I have at times reminded Dr. Knapp of stories he shared in class and he’ll laugh and say he doesn’t remember telling them; but I remember. I couldn’t get enough,” Joe reminisces. “Faculty members should never let go of the possibility that they are making a tremendous impact on their students. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was speaking on my frequency.”
Joe and Joani Halcomb have been married nearly 42 years and live in Camarillo, Calif. Their daughter, Allison, and her husband Jim, have four children: Reese, Autumn, Brit and Jillian Fessenden. They live in San Diego. Their daughter, Alyssa, and her husband, Lt. Michael Shaughnessy, also live in San Diego.
As much as past friends and mentors factor into the Halcombs’ naming gift, Joe also points to present relationships. He serves on the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Advisory Council and supports the college’s goal to make UK a top 50 college of engineering. When it comes to UK President Eli Capilouto, Joe speaks with emotional depth.
“I had not known President Capilouto for a long time, but when my dad passed away, he drove to Scottsville, Ky., for the funeral. Now and then he calls to see how I am doing. He doesn’t have to do those things; he does them because that’s just who he is. The university has a secret weapon and he’s not on the basketball team,” Joe jokes. “His name is Eli Capilouto.”
“Joe speaks eloquently of how his life was changed by the generosity and mentorship of others. Through his gift, he is having the same impact on the UK family,” said President Capilouto. “His support for the College of Engineering and the biomedical engineering department is not about today, it’s about tomorrow – it’s about the future students, faculty and staff served by his philanthropy and the lasting impact they will make on the people they serve across the Commonwealth.”
If Joe has one predominant hope for this naming gift it is that patients will be served. His father, a rural southern Kentucky physician, brought his young son on his rounds. As Joe envisions it, the naming gift will serve the very students and faculty whose innovations will improve the lives of patients in Kentucky and beyond.
“What I want to see more than anything else is that students in the biomedical engineering program make a difference in patients’ lives. It would thrill me if their advances in research lead to the development of products with clinical applications. Think of the impact: students get a head start on their careers, people with debilitating medical issues are helped and UK enlarges its reputation within the biomedical engineering industry. My mission is to give back from what I have been given and I believe this gift will accelerate the program in ways that will multiply over many decades and lifetimes.”
Thus, inspired by the good doctor’s own vision, the University of Kentucky College of Engineering is pleased to announce the F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Department of Biomedical Engineering: where tomorrow’s leaders in biomedical engineering come to achieve their dreams.