August 31, 1998
Volume 51, No. 2
Silberman and Emory enjoy a solid 25-year weld
Most people do not associate Hawaii with raising cattle. Most people don't shuttle back and forth between Atlanta and Washington to help U.S. senators write legislation. And almost no one would return to work with a vengeance after undergoing experimental surgery for debilitating lung disease. But then, of all the things Mort Silberman is at Emory, he definitely is not most people.
Since coming to campus 25 years ago, Silberman has performed in a bewildering array of roles for Emory, but he sums them all up with one title: firefighter. "That's how I spend my life, as a fireman," he quipped in his new office at Wesley Woods, "just putting out little fires here, there and the next place."
Currently assistant director of health sciences, Silberman is on a year's "semi-sabbatical." In between trips to Washington to help Georgia Sen. Max Cleland write a bill for the Senate Armed Services Committee, Silberman recently helped facilitate the merging of Wesley Woods and Emory Healthcare, and he also did much of the preliminary negotiations with the state in Emory's efforts to secure the property of the nearby Georgia Mental Health Institute. In fact, Silberman's "firefighting" career at Emory has largely involved bringing people together in one way or another.
It didn't start that way, though. Following graduation from the University of Georgia Veterinary School in 1968 he operated the first veterinary practice ever in Oconee County near Athens. Then he bought his own farm in central Georgia's Macon County before starting part-time work with Emory's laboratory animals in 1973. After three years he became the first University veterinarian, with responsibility for all research animals outside of Yerkes, and his task was to correct a situation he described simply as "in trouble."
"Every researcher was his own entrepreneur, had his own facilities and took care of his own animals. It was a mess. The problems were intriguing--not the medicine as much as the problems." Asked if one person could tackle the same problems today, Silberman shook his head and replied, "I don't know that one person could really do it back then; we just didn't know any better." But Silberman succeeded in centralizing veterinary care for the animals, and soon to follow were ultramodern facilities such as the Rollins Research Building.
But as the University changed, so did Silberman's job. He maintained his consulting business in the cattle industry-he's traveled to ranches as farflung as Mexico, Italy and other countries, not to mention his new operation in Hawaii--until administrative duties at Emory demanded more of his time. He began working directly with research programs. In 1988 he was named the first director of Government Affairs for health sciences. The same year another title was created for him: director of International Affairs.
"I never came planning to be at Emory 25 years, if you want to know the truth," Silberman said. "Mine was an evolution, it wasn't a plan. Everything was spur of the moment--it seemed like the best move at the time. I met some wonderful friends, people I really enjoyed being with, and I enjoyed what I was doing because it was never the same. No two days in my life are the same at this place."
Another factor was Silberman's health, which had begun to deteriorate. He suffered from emphysema but refused to stop working, even when he had to board airplanes in a wheelchair with an oxygen mask strapped to his head. Then in 1994 he became one of the first patients in the country to undergo a new lung reduction surgery, and all the fighting paid off.
Silberman, a man who likes challenges, said he relished being part of an experimental procedure. "It was also nice to start breathing again," he deadpanned. "Both of those experiences were enjoyable. Breathing again may have even been more enjoyable than the challenge.
"You can never allow yourself the luxury of self pity," he continued. "I don't care how sick you get, all you have to do is look to your left or right and there's some poor bastard worse off than you. You feel sorry for yourself, and you're going to be dead. And you're scared-there are days you don't want to do it, but you do it because the day you quit is the day you quit out."
Friendship, loyalty, honesty. Virtues Silberman had spent a lifetime learning the value of were driven home completely by his experience. "You survive because of people," he said. "You do it because there are people rooting for you, pulling for you, cheering you on. I'm talking about close, inner circle people who would die for you and you'd die for them, who you trust without question, no matter what the situation."
Now that Silberman has not only emerged but triumphed from his ordeal, one might think he's ready to enjoy life, perhaps spend more time with his grandsons, Gregory and Christopher, whom he adores. Maybe, he said, but maybe not. He's not about to make a quick decision. "I may decide January 1 whether I'll retire or not, I don't know," he said. "It depends how I feel that day.
"When I was young, everything was a fight. I was ready to take on the world, and everything had to happen in the next five seconds. But when I was doing my consulting in Mexico, Mexico grew on me and I learned patience. There's a cultural difference; you don't get as excited about things. It may be tomorrow, but that's all right. You live a little longer.
"It's like this: I used to do a lot of welding. One of the things you learn about welding is things you weld together quickly break and come apart. Things you take your time doing, take your time welding, hold together. That's how it is with people's associations. Every now and then it pays to do a good weld."