‘Mac’ Comes Back
A onetime bricklayer, railroad worker, and semipro quarterback—orthopaedic surgeon and Rochester graduate C. McCollister Evarts returns to lead the Medical Center. By Mark Liu ’87
It was the fall of 1952, and Mac Evarts thought he had just lost his chance at medical school.
Evarts was interviewing for admission with George Whipple, the Nobel Prize–winning founding dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. Evarts had worked a grueling summer schedule: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in railroad maintenance (because he needed the money), then 4 p.m. to midnight as a hospital orderly (because he needed something medical on his résumé).
When Whipple asked Evarts what he had done that summer, Evarts proudly stated he was an orderly. But Whipple responded, “No no, what did you do,” and pointed to Evarts’s hands, which were raw, hard, and calloused.
“I remember thinking in those few seconds: ‘I’ve blown my medical school career,’” says Evarts. Deflated, the son of a steel mill worker and gym teacher admitted he had driven spikes and tightened bolts on a railroad section gang between Buffalo and Erie. Not exactly surgeon’s work.
Whipple replied: “You’re going to like it here.”
C. McCollister (Mac) Evarts ’57M (MD), ’64M (Res) did, indeed, like it at Rochester. So much so, that 20 years after graduation, he returned to head the Department of Orthopaedics. And in 2002, Evarts arrived at the Medical Center a third time to serve as an advisor to the Medical Center CEO after retiring from a distinguished medical and administrative career.
But after the sudden resignation of former CEO Jay Stein in 2003, Evarts was named senior vice president and vice provost for health affairs and CEO of the Medical Center.
Evarts, who earlier this year underwent the kind of hip replacement surgery that he helped pioneer as an orthopaedic surgeon, now sits atop the institution he once worried wouldn’t accept him as a student.
Much has changed since his student days. The Medical Center campus itself is bigger by more than 2 million square feet, including the addition of a new hospital building, medical education wing, cancer center, ambulatory care center, biomedical research buildings, and other facilities. Hospital outpatient visits have increased more than five-fold, with clinical revenues now over $1 billion and a medical school that ranks in the top 25 percent in the country.
Leading all that might sound like it requires the skills of a juggler as much as those of a medical scientist, but Evarts brings a multifaceted background to the executive office. He is a surgeon who first got his hands dirty as an apprentice bricklayer. A CEO who learned leadership and decision making as a quarterback and as a medical officer on an aircraft carrier. A onetime attending physician who reluctantly agreed not to play in a rugby league because of the risk for injury, but who played semipro football while in medical school. A man who colleagues say maintains a meticulous attention to detail, but also was rumored to have hidden in laundry carts to sneak past monitors at the School of Nursing, where he courted the woman who would become his wife of 49 years and counting.
In other words, this is someone who knows when to take worthwhile chances, and no risk was bigger than one he took early in his career.
After his residency, Evarts joined the Cleveland Clinic’s orthopaedics department in 1964 and had to learn quickly: Within hours of arriving, he had a caseload of 35 patients. Then again, everything was quick about his tenure in Cleveland. Soon he rose to attending physician. Five years later, he was running the department.
Such a quick rise was “very unusual,” says Ken DeHaven, professor of orthopaedics at Rochester who was an intern at the Cleveland Clinic. But Evarts, who never needed much sleep, understood the merits of dedicated practice and training.
“You could just see the tenacity of the guy,” says H. Royer Collins ’57M (MD), a renowned orthopaedic surgeon who went to medical school with Evarts (and still remembers “getting clocked” by him during a “friendly” game of touch football). “He’s got a purpose and he’s going to accomplish things.”
Evarts also had a vision that would shake the establishment. While still in his 30s, Evarts traveled to Europe for six months to study a radical new technique: total hip replacement. He returned and made the Cleveland Clinic one of only a half dozen places in the country to offer the surgery.
“It was a gamble,” says Collins. “The establishment looked at it, well, let’s just say not favorably.”
In fact, even after performing several procedures, Evarts and his colleagues were giving a lecture about total hip replacement to several hundred orthopaedists when trouble began brewing. One surgeon stood and said, “I think what you guys are doing is criminal. These operations are all going to fail.”
Things might have gotten difficult if not for a patient who stood up and methodically walked up the steps of the auditorium. He reached the top, then started down. At the bottom, he told the audience he had been laid up for six months, unable to walk. Total hip replacement was the reason he could climb those steps.
Eventually, says Collins, the procedure became the gold standard. Evarts had gambled and won, and soon Rochester’s Medical Center came calling. Evarts agreed to look at the orthopaedics program and, true to form, spoke his mind. He said Rochester should create a department for orthopaedics in order to give the University the stature it needed to advance in the field. He was told how unlikely that was, and Evarts returned to the Cleveland Clinic. But the next call from Rochester carried the news that it was making orthopaedics a separate department and it wanted Evarts to lead it.
Evarts couldn’t help but feel a pull. “Here it was, my own school, and an opportunity to form my own department,” he says.
Success would depend heavily on the people Evarts chose to surround him. In that respect, he knew the score.
From his early days playing sports, Evarts understood teams and winning with them. As high school quarterback in his hometown of Fredonia, New York, he led his school to back-to-back undefeated seasons. On the basketball court, he helped his team win the section championship. He found time to play baseball and run track as well, and he afforded college by receiving a National War Memorial Scholarship at Colgate University—one of only 13 in the nation, given for both academic and athletic accomplishments.
Even when he lost, he won. As a first-year med student, rather than attend an anatomy class he had already taken, Evarts spent Saturday mornings earning spending money by playing in the old semipro football league. But a serious ankle injury in one game brought him to the emergency room back in Rochester—and dangerously close to his classroom. So he made up a story to tell the nurse on duty.
“The story wasn’t any good at all,” he admits. The nurse didn’t believe him, but she also didn’t report him. Her loyalty led to a date a few weeks later.
“It was the end of my football career, but the beginning of a lifelong relationship,” he says. He married that loyal nurse, Nancy Lyons ’54N, two years later.
Loyalty has always mattered to Evarts, and it showed in his first recruitment efforts at Cleveland. His former classmate Collins was practicing in Boston when Evarts asked him to join him to head the first sports medicine section in the country. Collins said no—a trifling obstacle for the likes of Evarts.
“He called me every night for two weeks, an hour and a half after I went to bed,” Collins says. “He knew he was waking me up. I told him, ‘Will you knock it off?’ He said, ‘I won’t stop calling until you at least come up for a visit.’” Collins did more than visit. He joined the department.
In building the orthopaedics department at Rochester, Evarts’s loyalty was returned. Surgeon Richard Burton, recruited by Evarts to Cleveland to direct the hand surgery program, joined him in Rochester as well. Likewise, DeHaven was happy in Cleveland but decided he had to follow Evarts’s lead.
“When it came down to the bottom line, there was only one person in the world I knew what I could expect from in a chair,” says DeHaven, who says Evarts’s integrity earns him such loyalty.
Many who know Evarts say his strength in recruiting comes from not being threatened by talent.
“Like a good quarterback, he knows he needs good folks around him,”
Accomplish they did. Burton went on to lead a group that developed a pioneering surgery for arthritis of the thumb, becoming internationally renowned for what is now known as the “Burton procedure.” He also served as president of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand and as director of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery.
DeHaven, who served as president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery, launched Rochester’s sports medicine program at a time when the field was in its infancy. The program trained orthopaedists who went on to become team physicians for the Boston Red Sox and other teams, save the careers of Olympic gold medal winners, and treat pro tennis players such as Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis.
Evarts had a transforming influence on orthopaedics at Rochester, according to Jules Cohen ’53, ’57M (MD), a senior faculty member when Evarts arrived. There were very good clinicians at the time, says Cohen, but Evarts “brought it to a whole new level” by establishing an academic component and building a research enterprise that brought the department to national prominence.
To Cohen, one reason Evarts works so well with people—and gets so much done—is that he’s “someone who is willing to be disagreed with. He’s a listener, and he’s a convincer.”
Other institutions were convinced as well. In 1987, Evarts was recruited to become CEO, senior vice president for health affairs, and dean of the College of Medicine at Pennsylvania State University. Under Evarts’s guidance, the organization’s faculty and research funding tripled. Just as telling, Evarts made a donation to Penn State that was the largest ever from one of its senior administrators.
He retired from Penn State in 2000.
Now, back in Rochester, Evarts envisions a new Health Sciences Park, which would represent a major expansion for the Medical Center and a new way of making care more convenient for patients.
Beyond another professional challenge, moving back feels like a homecoming to Evarts. He and his wife are closer to their beloved camp in the Adirondacks, where the two honeymooned (it was all they could afford). Ever the leader, Evarts has been known to rally almost the entire family—three kids and 10 grandkids—to tackle big projects like repainting the camp or replenishing the woodpile.
Sure, he takes time out for woodworking (“If you know how to deal with a good piece of cherry, you can deal with a femur,” he says). But he is someone who “is always busy,” says Burton, whose own camp sits near Evarts’s.
Ultimately, being closer to the camp means being closer to the family. Evarts is always quick to credit the people around him for his success, and he’s not about to forget his most important team of all.
Mark Liu ’87 is editor of Rochester Medicine.