New medical school leader honored in hometown of Macon

alopez@macon.comFebruary 21, 2014 

During her childhood, Valerie Montgomery Rice was not unlike other young girls in Macon. In the summer she played hopscotch, went plum picking and swam in Memorial Park’s pool.

She graduated from Southwest High School in 1979, one of about 1,000 students in her class.

Last summer, Rice became the first black woman to be named to lead a free-standing medical school.

She returned Friday to her old stomping grounds to be recognized as a “hometown hero” by Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert, to be commended by the Bibb County school board and to speak to young people and their teachers at her former high school.

She gave advice to students and veteran community leaders alike, and she spoke about the future of health care in Georgia. Inadequate access to health care in the state is one of the problems she wants to help solve in her new position as president of Morehouse School of Medicine, which becomes effective July 1.

Georgia ranks 39th of 50 states in the number of doctors per 100,000 people, Rice told community leaders. There are 31 counties with no internal medicine doctor, 79 with no OB-GYN and 66 with no general surgeon, she said.

“When I drive around and look at some of the communities, I can see the impact of the health disparities on people’s quality of life,” Rice said.

Morehouse Medical School, which is in Atlanta, was established in 1975 as part of Morehouse College, the all-male, historically black college.

“We were founded to address the physician shortage in the state of Georgia and the nation and to diversify the health care workforce,” Rice said. “Sixty-eight percent of our students will come back here and practice in the state of Georgia and will go into primary care. And they will go to underserved areas.”

Rice said she is excited about leading Morehouse School of Medicine while it’s on a trajectory for growth. It’s important that the school expand its class size, she said.

From Southwest High to Georgia Tech to Harvard

When she graduated in 1979, Rice was a top-five student. She also was a cheerleader and homecoming queen.

“She was a phenomenal student,” said Eli Morgan, a former classmate. “I admired her then, and I admire her now.”

Morgan is co-chairman of the Macon Promise Neighborhood initiative and one of the people who helped organize Rice’s visit to Macon.

At least 500 people attended Friday’s health and safety fair at Southwest High School, said Jeff Battcher, who also helped bring Rice for Friday’s Macon visit through his work as a volunteer for United Way of Central Georgia.

Students, parents and neighborhood locals sat inside the school’s auditorium to hear Rice speak. She told young people to seek out mentors, leverage opportunities and take risks.

“Listen to what I’m saying, y’all,” she said. “Follow your passion.”

Rice said the confidence she left Southwest High with propelled her to Georgia Tech and then to Harvard Medical School.

At Southwest and later at the Promise Center at the historic Ballard-Hudson building on Friday, she gave credit to former teachers and other mentors for her success. She recognized and embraced several men and women in attendance who helped raise her.

“It took a village to get me where I am,” she said.

Reichert proclaimed Feb. 21 as “Dr. Montgomery Rice Day” in Macon-Bibb County. Bibb County interim Superintendent Steve Smith commended her for her “remarkable achievements” and for the examples she has set for others.

After her speech at Southwest High, she spoke with Kyle Allen, a junior at the school who wants to attend Morehouse School of Medicine.

“She told me I could do it,” Allen said. “She inspired me.”

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Rice said after talking to Allen. “What I want kids to feel is what I felt here. I felt that all things were possible.”

To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 744-4382.

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