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Administrator honored for his ability to bring people together

Michael S O'Malley, associate director, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, is shown in the atrium of the building.
Michael O’Malley

In his 2000 book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the value of connectors.

A connector, he wrote, is the human equivalent of a computer network hub — someone who knows many people from an array of circles and who makes a habit of introducing them to one another.

For the past 17 years, the connector at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center has been its associate director, Michael O’Malley. His unique ability to bring people together was one reason 27 of his friends, colleagues and students nominated O’Malley for a 2007 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Wendy Sarratt, the center’s assistant director, remembers that when she first arrived O’Malley took her on a tour of the guts of the building, from the steam pipes to the ventilation systems to the immense web of hallways.

She quickly found that O’Malley did not walk the halls to check on the building; his concern was the people who filled its labs and offices. These repeated hallway encounters, over time, have helped O’Malley learn the names, faces and work of all the faculty members.

Call it wandering around with a purpose. When you are a connector, bumping into people is never an accident. It is an opportunity waiting to happen.

“He can often be heard saying, ‘You know, you should really talk to X about her new project,’” Sarratt said.

And that is how, on his way to the drink machine, he spawns new collaborations, she said.

A student of history

Of course, O’Malley will say simply that his whole career in medical research and administration began as a fortuitous accident. His original plan as an Army ROTC student at Davidson College was to be a great historian.

After graduating cum laude from Davidson in 1972 and a short stint of active-duty service, O’Malley came to Carolina in fall 1973 to pursue his master’s degree in history and add his voice to telling the story of the American South.

As a boy growing up in Atlanta, he could not escape understanding — and telling — that story.

“History is something that Southerners grow up with,” O’Malley said. “Some of it is not great history, but it is who we are and what we have to move on from.”

But he did not move on from studying history until he had nearly completed his master’s degree thesis on the 1906 lynching in Salisbury of five black men who had been accused of murdering members of a local family. A mob tortured the men with knives before hanging them. The governor, alarmed at what was one of the largest multiple lynchings of the 20th century, called in the National Guard to restore order.

The 1906 episode was a milestone in history, and O’Malley’s attempt to study it marked a turning point for him as well.

After nearly two years in graduate school, he no longer felt the same pull toward history he once did and he began to doubt whether he still had the obsession for it necessary to fuel a successful career. Those doubts led him to drop out of the program on the cusp of finishing it to take a nondescript job at N.C. Memorial Hospital.

It was the kind of job someone in his circumstance had to take just to pay the bills. As it turned out, he worked in Patient Accounting where he was called upon to call people about their delinquent bills. It was a job he both loathed and learned from in ways that he could fully appreciate only in retrospect.

Without knowing it, in his role as bill collector, he found himself at “the place where the rubber hits the road,” where health-care policy either works for or against the people it is intended to serve.

And before he knew it, he was hooked.

He stayed there for two years — interrupted by a four-month detour through Europe — before he returned to graduate school in fall 1978, this time to pursue a master’s degree in health policy at Carolina’s School of Public Health.

He completed course work in two years and in 1980 went to work as a research assistant with Suzanne Fletcher in the School of Medicine’s division of general medicine. In 1981, he finished his paper to earn his master’s, but he continued doing research with Fletcher, later as a research associate, for nine years.

After a one-year stint as a senior manager with the United Mine Workers Health and Retirement Funds in Washington, D.C., he returned to Chapel Hill to become the assistant director at Lineberger. In 1997, two years after completing his Ph.D. in health policy and administration, he began serving as an adjunct assistant professor in addition to administrative duties.

In 1998, he was named associate director at Lineberger and continues in that role today while serving as an adjunct associate professor.

Knowing your purpose

Titles do a poor job of capturing what people really do, especially for people who hold more than one, like O’Malley.

Dianne Gooch Shaw, the center’s director of communications, said that to O’Malley his work is more than a job. From the time he walked through the door 17 years ago, she said, O’Malley has been a steady and innovative leader who always goes above and beyond what is asked of him.

No task is too big or too small, said Beverly Mitchell, Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Internal Medicine, who has seen O’Malley do everything from directing traffic to mopping floors to organizing bulletin boards. “Michael is simply one of those vital individuals who makes things run,” Mitchell said.

Jo Anne Earp, a professor in the School of Public Health’s department of health behavior and health education, met O’Malley in 1980 when he was a research assistant for Fletcher, now a professor of medicine at Harvard. Earp was collaborating with Fletcher on breast cancer research.

O’Malley not only helped with the their breast cancer screening projects, but quickly demonstrated extraordinary writing and analytical abilities.

“I have always prized good writing as the hallmark of good thinking, so I was delighted to embark on a collaborative co-author relationship with Michael, staring with our first publication together in 1983,” Earp said.

Little did she know that O’Malley would turn out to be one of the cornerstones of the Lineberger center and that they would collaborate regularly. O’Malley and Earp worked together to develop and implement evaluations of breast cancer screening interventions, particularly for underserved populations.

In 1992, they received major funding from the National Cancer Institute to support the North Carolina Breast Cancer Screening Program that sought to reduce the high breast cancer mortality rates suffered by older African-American women in five eastern North Carolina counties by offering them regular screening mammograms.

A passion for teaching

Even as O’Malley helped launch the breast cancer-screening program, he was taking the lead to establish the Cancer Control Education Program (CCEP) that he still co-directs with Earp. The National Cancer Institute now views the program as a model cancer control-training program for pre- and postdoctoral students.

Ahn Tran, a predoctoral fellow who has studied under O’Malley, said O’Malley not only promoted a strong sense of community among fellows, but he inspired excellent scientific discussion and research. “Dr. O’Malley sees ‘the big picture’ and knows that many disciplines need to come together to move science forward,” Tran said.

Annice Eu-Shin Kim, a doctoral candidate in health behavior and health education, remembers how O’Malley pushed his students during the weekly CCEP Journal Club meetings to think broadly about cancer prevention, beyond the limits of their specialized content areas.

As part of their journal club activity, the students co-wrote a paper titled “Cancer Burden in North Carolina: Priorities for Intervention.”

“No professor I know would suggest, let alone lead, an effort to write a research policy paper with nine other co-authors all early in their research careers and from different disciplines,” Kim wrote. “That is what makes Dr. O’Malley extraordinary.”

Jill Reedy, now a cancer prevention fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., remembers the detailed e-mail from O’Malley in response to her inquiry about the CCEP and what she could expect to get out of it.

“His genuine and caring personality is evident to those who know him,” she said. “It appears inherent within his character.”

‘Laugh and be nice’

O’Malley does not know what to say about all the nice things being said or written about him. He is so uncomfortable about the praise that he still has not read any of the nominating letters his friends and colleagues wrote on his behalf.

He appreciates the generous gesture so many people made on his behalf. He knows that what they had to say was sincere and heartfelt. But he also sees a danger in believing all the nice things said about him.

It is the work that galvanizes him and binds all of the people at Lineberger in a cause bigger than any one of them. It is their unending commitment that O’Malley sees as the center’s real connector.

The sense of purpose that O’Malley derives from his work is matched by the joy that his wife Nadine and their daughter Bailey, along with their dog Shelby, have brought into his life.

He credits his family for the qualities others ascribed to him. It was his mother and her mother — the grandma they all called Bubba — who taught him to laugh and be nice, he said.

His father, who died when he was a first-year college student, worked hard to make ends meet. In addition to his day job as an insurance underwriter, he worked at other jobs on weekends to support his family. “I hope I have some of his work ethic,” O’Malley said.

He learned about courage from his younger brother Richard, who was born with a number of medical problems and spent his entire life in and out of hospitals. He died in 2003 just short of his 50th birthday after spending 12 years on dialysis.

O’Malley learned more things that he can count from his sister, Mary O. Huff, who earned her Ph.D. long before he did. She is now an associate professor of biology at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky.

“In addition to raising her three kids and building an academic career, she’s taking care of Mom and before that she took care of both Mom and our brother Richard,” O’Malley said. “She’s a true and accomplished saint.”

O’Malley credited two people, Arnie Kaluzny and Jim Veney, for deepening and broadening his interest in health administration. “Arnie chaired my dissertation,” O’Malley said. “Jim chaired my master’s paper and served on my doctoral committee.”

He counted both men among his greatest advisers and colleagues, but they are part of a long list. At the top of the list is Shelton Earp, longtime director at Lineberger, who O’Malley described as “the best boss you can imagine.” It was Earp, along with Joseph Pagano, who brought O’Malley to work at the center in 1990.

“When Michael first started, the cancer center had fewer than 100 members and was seen as a basic science center with some public health research,” Earp said. “Today, we have 250 members with one of the nation’s premier population science programs, an active clinical care and trials program, translational research and faculty who are nationally renown is a wide variety of areas.

“The breadth of the center, and its ability to interact with so many faculty and administrative units, is largely thanks to Michael and his incredible skills at bringing people together.”

Earp also credited O’Malley for joining with his mentor Kaluzny to see the need for a course on cancer prevention and control, to create the course and teach it.

Pagano, Lineberger Professor of Cancer Research, said O’Malley may well be the finest administrator he has seen in his 45 years at the University. O’Malley keenly grasps every aspect of Lineberger and its complexities with great passion, vision and skill, he said.

“The exceptional day-and-night commitment needed for this kind of administrative leadership rests on superiority of intellect and performance — all done with a light touch that brings order and calm to the whole enterprise,” Pagano said.

“And humor! What gifts! Great things happen here every day thanks to Michael’s deft touch and perfectly tuned authority. He is at the top of his form, sought after throughout the country as a consultant and an ornament to Carolina.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Jan. 9, 2007

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