A success story

Published 6:06 am Saturday, January 10, 2009

Few would have seen potential in the kid pumping gas at a downtown service station in the summer of 1947.

Gene “Buster” Pierce, fresh out of Franklin High School, didn’t even see it in himself.

“At 17 years old, I didn’t know doodly-squat,” Pierce says some six decades later.

That the self-described “little, insignificant guy from Franklin, Virginia” would go on to found the United Network for Organ Sharing and become a world leader in the field of organ sharing and transplantation may have surprised many, including Pierce himself, but not Bob Edwards.

Now a retired dentist, Edwards was a Randolph-Macon College student when he stopped at the station to fill up his tank while home in Franklin one weekend. Edwards, still wet behind the ears himself, was wise enough to know that Pierce, five years his junior, was underachieving as a gas attendant.

Edwards encouraged Pierce to apply to Randolph-Macon, where, after a stint in the Korean War, he would earn a chemistry degree in 1958.

“It was very fortuitous for me that you stopped that day to get gas,” Pierce told his Lambda Chi fraternity brother last week over lunch with this columnist.

For an hour or so, I learned of the mutual admiration between the lifelong friends. Edwards spent much of the time deflecting any credit for Pierce’s considerable achievements, all the while Pierce kept heaping it.

“He played a vital role,” Pierce said, in jump-starting the ambition of a young man who would eventually meet world leaders and achieve at the highest levels in administration of the lifesaving field of organ transplants.

Out of respect for Edwards, who insisted that I keep him out of the spotlight, this column will focus on Pierce.

After graduating from Randolph-Macon, Pierce worked six years as a chemist and marketing researcher with Chesapeake Corp.’s pulp and paper division in West Point. Grateful for the opportunities his early employer gave him, Pierce nonetheless grew bored and restless. A tip from a friend led to the life-altering decision to apply for an administrative job at the Medical College of Virginia’s Department of Surgery.

For three hours during his job interview, Pierce was sequestered in a library with Dr. David Hume, the world-famous transplant surgeon. The two formed an instant bond, and the job was Pierce’s, even though he knew next to nothing about medicine.

Even in his administrative role, Pierce was inspired by Hume’s pioneering work in organ transplantation, especially his research on tissue typing as a way to determine the compatibility of donors and recipients. The first computer program for matching donors and recipients came on line in 1969.

Hume died in a 1973 plan crash, but Pierce was determined to see that his mentor’s efforts were not for naught. In 1975, Pierce was named executive director of the new South-Eastern Organ Procurement Foundation. Over the next couple of decades, Pierce’s work would expand far beyond SEOPF’s original nine-state, East Coast region.

He was named founding executive director of the United Network for Organ Sharing, which has worked nationwide – and even internationally – to enhance the effectiveness of transplantation, including the distance organs can be transported and the time they can be preserved.

Pierce, who retired more than a decade ago, lives in Midlothian with his wife, the former Glenna Webb of Franklin. They have five daughters, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

At age 78, he is waging a so-far successful battle against cancer. Humble about his achievements, he nonetheless confesses to occasional ventures into the “I Love Me” room of his home, where newspaper, magazine and journal clippings tell the story of his unlikely journey.

A prized possession is a composite photo of the Franklin High Class of 1947.

“Franklin has always been very dear to me,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It is where I grew up, and I have many fond memories of it. It is wonderful place, and I do enjoy returning.”