Since the announcement of its formation in 2007, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM) has grown rapidly and adapted to fill the needs of its students, its community and the nation’s health care system as a whole. Through nearly 15 years of continuous changes at the school, at least one constant has remained.
Daniel “Dan” Harrington has served as the living history of VTCSOM, helping launch the medical school as a unique public-private partnership and seeing it incorporated as an official college at Virginia Tech. In his current role as vice dean of VTCSOM and formerly the vice president of academic affairs at Carilion Clinic, Harrington has played an integral role in establishing the school and developing its path toward a strong future. On Sept. 30, he will officially begin his well-deserved retirement.
“What I’m most proud of is to have been part of this incredible group of people from academia and health care who have come together to develop this school and change Roanoke,” Harrington said. “It’s really changed this community for the better, and to have even been a small part of that has been wonderful.”
Although Harrington has made Roanoke his home, he grew up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia, where his father was the outside superintendent of the mines. Neither of his parents went to college, but they made it a priority for him and his two siblings to pursue higher education. He credits the “Harrington gene” for developing his work ethic at an early age and the fact he would later become widely known as the first person arriving at the VTCSOM building every day at 5 a.m.
“Dan possesses a rare combination of skills grounded in a strong work ethic, patience, humility and deeply held humanistic values. His visionary leadership and operational excellence are evident in all we do at VTCSOM,” said Lee Learman, dean of the school. “From his uncanny ability to manage challenges as complex as multidimension chess to his wise counsel and heartfelt listening, Dan has served as a trusted advisor to me and many other leaders at VTCSOM.”
After the mines closed in his childhood hometown, Harrington’s family moved to Beckley, West Virginia, where he stood out academically in high school. He eventually decided to attend West Virginia University and graduated from pharmacy school, but after a year working in the university’s pharmacy, he chose to pursue medical school. He graduated West Virginia University’s medical school with Alpha Omega Alpha honors and went to the University of Virginia (UVA) for a five-year residency in internal medicine and psychiatry, which was a new program at the time.
After a series of faculty roles at UVA, Harrington had a meeting with his mentor and the chair of the psychiatry program that would change the trajectory of his career and life.
“He said ‘Carilion is starting a psychiatry residency program. What do you think about moving to Roanoke?’” Harrington recalled. “I said, ‘Not much. Are you firing me?’ And he said, ‘No, you know you will always have a job here. But if you go to Roanoke, I think you have a chance to develop something that is all your own.’ ”
Harrington took that opportunity and left for Roanoke in 1990 along with his wife, Gil; their young son, Alex; and infant daughter, Morgan. Joining Carilion, he developed the psychiatry residency program, took on additional leadership roles, and eventually became the head of all residency programs. In 2006, Carilion’s chief executive officer came to Harrington with another opportunity to develop something new.
“Ed Murphy called me in and asked what I thought about starting a medical school here along with Virginia Tech,” Harrington said. “He gave me and Donna Littlepage, who was in the finance department, about a week to put together a plan of what it would look like. And you know what, most of that plan came true.”
Harrington traveled around the country with Murphy and then Virginia Tech President Charles Steger to learn from other medical schools and develop the problem-based learning format that VTCSOM has today. Harrington was on board when Cynda Johnson became the founding dean of VTCSOM, and he served as interim dean when she retired, helping the transition to Learman’s leadership.
“Talk about being there from the beginning! Dan was there before the beginning,” said Johnson. “When I was being interviewed, he had already sketched out a curriculum. He was always ahead of the game, and yet, he was always still there in the middle, doing the detailed work too. What a gift he has been to me — to us all.”
One of Harrington’s fondest memories is of the summer when his daughter Morgan worked as an intern at VTCSOM while a rising junior at Virginia Tech. He said that it was an eye-opening experience for her to see so many strong women in leadership roles as she began formulating plans to become an educator herself.
After Morgan’s tragic death in 2009, the outpouring of support from VTCSOM, Virginia Tech, Carilion and the community helped the Harringtons heal. In honor of Morgan’s life, they developed the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship at the medical school, constructed the Morgan Harrington Educational Wing at OMNI Village in Zambia, and founded Help Save the Next Girl, a national nonprofit that educates children and young adults about the need for safety and personal responsibility.
Tracey Criss, associate dean for clinical science, helped establish and manages the annual Docs for Morgan charity basketball game pitting VTCSOM students again Carilion doctors. The game and other fundraising efforts have helped the Harrington Memorial Scholarship generate more than $500,000 to benefit students at VTCSOM.
“Dr. Harrington is the model of professionalism, kindness, and giving of oneself for the betterment of those around him. He has had a career many would hope for or dream of as a highly skilled and respected physician,” Criss said. “He also started a psychiatry residency program at Carilion, grew the Graduate Medical Education programs, and then helped to lead a team to start the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. He has mentored many and is a loyal and trustworthy friend and colleague. He will be missed on a daily basis at the school.”
After more than 14 years as a leader at VTCSOM and more years earlier on helping plan the school with Carilion, Harrington and the school’s history will forever be intertwined. While he may sleep in a little bit later soon, Harrington’s devotion to VTCSOM will continue.
“It’s been such a wonderful experience to be part of this,” he said. “And really, it’s been my life.”