March 28, 2008

DeWeese set to ‘graduate’ from VUMC architect role

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Fred DeWeese, who has shepherded VUMC’s phenomenal growth the past decade, is retiring at the end of the month. (photo by Neil Brake)

DeWeese set to ‘graduate’ from VUMC architect role

When he was asked recently whether the presumably enormous pressures of his job would make his approaching retirement an even more momentous transition, Fred DeWeese mentioned a recurring dream of his, set around a college examination.

“It's like your last final exam in your graduate year — I still have that dream,” DeWeese said. “That's how it feels. It's such a relief.”

DeWeese, who studied architecture at the University of Oklahoma, is retiring as vice president for Facilities Planning and Development at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (March 31 is his official last day.). So, the job pressure in his case would have to do with VUMC spending $85 million to $100 million a year on major construction projects and renovations, all of it managed by DeWeese.

Having arrived at Vanderbilt in March 1999 from a similar post at Washington University in St. Louis, DeWeese has managed what he calls a mushrooming of VUMC facilities, occurring under the leadership of Harry Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs.

In the past nine years, VUMC has gone from nearly 5 million square feet of space to more than 9 million square feet.

DeWeese allows that, yes, switching from all this to activities like home gardening feels like a big change.

He also mentions offhandedly — and this is a bit unexpected coming from someone who seems so perpetually buoyant and good-humored — that some fearfulness goes with managing big building projects.

“It's a scary journey. You offer solutions and they say, 'Yeah, let's do it,' then it's time to deliver.”

Odds are you may work in one of DeWeese's “deliveries.”

In terms of design or construction or both, the building projects he has shepherded for VUMC have included the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, Medical Research Building III, the Vanderbilt Institute of Imaging Science (a major addition to Medical Center North), Medical Center East South Tower, and, now under construction, the Vanderbilt University Hospital Critical Care Tower.

And then there is the mother of them all, Medical Research Building IV — not the biggest, but the most challenging to construct. The main body of MRB IV rises high above Langford Auditorium and rests not on Langford itself, but on trusses that run across the top of the auditorium — four truly massive trusses, each 25 feet deep and 125 feet long, like you would find supporting a major bridge.

The safety record is among DeWeese's proudest achievements at VUMC — 15 million man-hours of construction, no lives lost.

“That's rare, given these sorts of projects,” he said.

“He's very passionate about his people,” said DeWeese's boss, Rick Wagers, senior vice president and chief financial officer of VUMC. “He's a very caring person, and people reciprocate. You also see that in his mission work overseas and his work with the American Heart Association.”

“All the staff loves Fred, and he really cares about us,” said Cyril Stewart, director of Facilities Planning.

In a recent conversation about retirement, DeWeese neglected to mention his exceptional extracurricular achievements as a fundraiser for the American Heart Association. To raise contributions in the annual Nashville Heart Walk, DeWeese over the years has apparently honed a systematic appeal to vendors who do business with VUMC — architectural and engineering firms and construction companies.

For the past three years, he's been among the top three Heart Walk volunteer fund-raisers nationally, according to Kelley Tune of the American Heart Association in Nashville. Over the years, DeWeese's Heart Walk team in Space and Facilities has raised around $800,000.

“Fred has been the No. 1 walker in the nation, and the only reason he slipped to number three this year is that other people around the country have successfully begun to adopt his model. He has set the standard,” Tune said.

DeWeese and his wife, Kathleen, have six children and 13 grandchildren. In retirement, the DeWeeses plan to stay put in their home in Franklin, Tenn. Veterans of three mission trips to Kenya, the couple plans to undertake more trips there once the political strife in that country settles down. They both enjoy gardening, but DeWeese says neither of them can claim special achievement in that area.

“I just move grass from one side of the yard to the other. We kind of play in the yard,” he said.