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A personal history of House Organ

Posted by on Thursday, December 1, 2011 in December 2011/January 2012, Features.

The first issue of House Organ came out in January 1982. This issue is the December 2011–January 2012 issue.

House Organ is 30.

A lot has changed around VUMC since 1982. At that time, there was no Preston Building, no Robinson Building, no Eskind Biomedical Library, no Frist Building at the School of Nursing, no Medical Center East, no Dayani Center, no Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt, and no Stallworth Rehabilitation Center building.

The “new” Vanderbilt Hospital, opened in 1980, actually was still new. The Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt was still just called Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, and was located on the fifth and sixth floors of the adult hospital. The Critical Care Tower, in some form, may have been in somebody’s long range plan/dream stage, but that’s about all.

One Hundred Oaks was still a mall (and a pretty good one). Williamson County, which now has thousands of VUMC employees working there, was a place to live, but not a place to work.

The location of The Vanderbilt Clinic was a big parking lot. Really.

It’s not that the Medical Center wasn’t a thriving enterprise then, because it was. But it was certainly smaller, and there was a lot less going on.

In that year Dr. Roscoe R. “Ike” Robinson was in his first year as vice chancellor, and the School of Nursing was still an undergraduate part of the College of Arts and Science, which means it wasn’t part of VUMC at all.

There were no designated smoking areas because everybody, including patients, smoked wherever they wanted unless there was a “no smoking” sign. And there weren’t that many of those. The cafeteria was a low-ceilinged, smoky windowless enclave in the basement of Medical Center North.

Like I said, a lot has changed, and directly and indirectly, House Organ has chronicled those changes. Because it is a feature magazine, not a newspaper, House Organ’s focus has never been to print the definitive version of VUMC history. Its sister publication, the VUMC Reporter, which began publication a few months later in 1982 under the name MedCom, does that.

But as a social history, as a view of how the place looked, worked and felt, the pages of House Organ are a great source.

House Organ’s first editor was Mike Cline, a newspaperman with two Pulitzer nominations and a desire to put out a magazine that people would want to pick up and read because it was interesting and told them things that they couldn’t find out anywhere else.

A lot of the things that make House Organ, House Organ were started by Mike: the editor’s column; the annual photography contest with the winners published in a calendar; and, maybe most memorably, its name.

“I remember it was hard selling the name,” he said. “But I remember that Dean [John] Chapman liked it.”

Mike, who returned to his home state of Indiana after working a few years in Nashville, said the publication’s mixture of features and news was no accident.

“Coming from newspapers, that’s the kind of stuff I was used to. I wanted something that folks would say was theirs, something that would have some entertainment value and some fun.”

When Mike graduated law school and transferred to a job as a patient advocate in Patient Affairs, I took over House Organ, and though my job has changed a lot over the years, House Organ has always been part of it.

I have worked with great writers, photographers, proofreaders and designers, including web designers, over the years. There’s a line from a Bob Dylan song that goes, “I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.” That’s it.

In my early days as editor, pretty much every word that showed up in the magazine, I wrote. As my other responsibilities have grown and changed, that changed, too, allowing the voices of other writers to tell stories in House Organ, which is a very good thing.

Not to be puckering up too much, but I have to thank my bosses over the years for supporting the magazine, for letting it grow, for recognizing its importance in telling the story of this place that is our work home.

During the course of doing my job, I have gone on trauma flights with LifeFlight, seen babies born, witnessed transplants, had myself put in an iron lung to see what that felt like, and have been welcomed by staff and faculty of virtually every unit, department, division and office at VUMC at one time or another. I have been with patients during times of great joy, and also great pain. Patients have allowed me and our other writers, and by extension the readers of House Organ, into their lives to tell their stories, and that is a great honor and, I know, a great responsibility.

House Organ has published fun and interesting features, lists of employee discounts (we still link to the list from our website), the annual list of Service Award honorees and photo features on topics as varied as the training of Vanderbilt Police canines and the experience of working in the tunnels that run under all parts of the Medical Center.

And although we’ve wanted House Organ to be fun to read, and we’ve done silly things like April Fool’s issues, we’ve never shied away from serious topics: babies born addicted to cocaine, domestic violence, the impact of gun shot wounds to the human body and to our trauma center, and a special report on death and dying have all been published and sometimes led to great controversy.

One of the issues of which I am most proud was the June 2010 “Flood, Sweat and Tears” edition, which was a team effort of the whole News and Communications team to document the effect of that spring’s Nashville Flood on Vanderbilt. We told the stories of individual staff and faculty members, departments, vendors and the institution as a whole, and I think anybody looking to understand what that flood meant to Nashville should read that issue.

House Organ was first published online in 2002, and, thanks to Google Analytics, which provides information about online readership, we know that House Organ is read by tens of thousands of people in other states and other countries. We used to feel pretty good if we could get people to pick up issue in the south lobby of Light Hall. Now we have readers in Cape Town.

The most popular story we’ve ever published online is the piece written a couple of years ago by Leslie Hill, with photographs by Dana Johnson, about Kaitlyn Lasitter, the teenage girl who had her feet severed in an amusement park accident in Kentucky. She was treated here, one of her feet was reattached, and Kaitlyn and her family, after turning down dozens of national media interview requests, agreed to be interviewed and photographed for a House Organ story. Our story is the only complete account of this compelling story of tragic injury, medical skill and human spirit. Two years after its publication, it is still read by hundreds of people a month from all over the country.

The possibilities of online publication also sort of got us in trouble a couple of years ago with the Pets of Vanderbilt issue. I had come up with the idea of a poll to vote for the Vanderbilt dog and cat of the year. The poll consisted of two online ballots, one of dogs and one of cats, and we asked readers to vote for their favorite of each—as many times as they’d like, American Idol-style.

I thought it would be a fun thing, with groups of friends rallying to vote for their favorite dog and cat. The numbers were posted instantly online, so it was possible to follow the results as the votes came in. And boy did they come in. Votes were pouring in at such a furious rate that University servers were strained, and we eventually had to call off the unlimited voting poll. Before we did, more votes were cast in the House Organ pet poll than either candidate for president got in Tennessee.

We learned our lesson. The pet poll continues and is popular, but only one vote per person, please. At least I got a good column out of it.

Which, sort of, brings us to Watching the Wheels.

When Mike Cline wrote the first editor’s column (his column was titled “Please Read This”) in House Organ in January 1982, he described it as “My little corner of the magazine…A few witty insights, some biting social commentary, bad puns, and assorted drivel.”

That strikes me as a pretty good formula.

The column in the first issue I edited—August 1984—was about a vacation Sharon and I had taken to Montreal. In the intervening years, I have also chronicled trips to Seattle, Florida, Europe, New York and Zimbabwe. I have angered people with remarks about, among other things, the Oak Ridge Boys and my old neighborhood in East Nashville.

I have written about dumb stuff like telemarketers and cell phones, and serious things like being held up at gunpoint and having my house burglarized. I have written about Phil Niekro and the Atlanta Braves, and about world events, including the September 11 attacks.

And my dogs. Always the dogs. The columns about the antics of my dogs over the years—Natchez, William, Tyler, Stella, Sugar, Jake, Zoe and Maisie (along with cats F.X. and Martha)—have been more popular than anything I could possibly have written about my own life. The Watching the Wheels about the decision to have my beloved beagle William euthanized got more response than any other column I have written.

Of course, how much all of us enjoy putting out the publication would be pretty much irrelevant if it wasn’t any good or if people didn’t enjoy reading it.

But over the years, I’m proud to brag, House Organ has won numerous national awards for its writing, photography and design.

Awards are nice and we all like them, but the real contest takes place when readers pick up House Organ or find articles online. That is the highest honor I, or any of the rest of the staff, could ask for.

Not many human enterprises are still thriving after three decades. House Organ is. Thanks.

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