In the stitches of labcoats worn by thousands of Northeast Ohio Medical University graduates, in the bustling hallways of its sprawling campus buildings and in the numerous partnerships established with private and public agencies are just a few of the places Dr. Jay Gershen’s legacy lives on.
Gershen, who served as president of NEOMED in Rootstown for 10 years, died Nov. 12 from lymphoma and related complications. He was 74.
A little more than 11 years ago, Gershen had thought retirement was in his cards, as recalled by his widow, Carol Cannon.
He was working as vice chancellor for external affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, preparing for years of bicycling, when NEOMED reached out in attempt to recruit him as its university president.
Gershen, whose life had been heavily spent in the medical field as a pediatric dentist, educator and leader, declined numerous times.
“They kept coming back and saying, ‘You’ve got the right fingerprints for what we’re looking for, so please just consider coming out for an interview,’” said Cannon, of Colorado Springs, Colo., where she and Gershen moved after he retired. “He went out there on a whim, and he fell in love with the campus, the people and the possibility that it could be completely transformed.”
His 10-year tenure began Jan. 1, 2010, and continued until he retired Sept. 30, 2019. During those years, his vision to bring the university into the forefront of medical education became a reality.
“He really grew the university in many ways, including our presence in Cleveland and the development of new facilities,” said Daniel Blain, vice president of advancement and president of the NEOMED Foundation. “He was the first NEOMED president to put an emphasis on involvement with organizations throughout the region. ... He was always seen as someone above the fray who could bring together diverse people in the community.”
Under his presidency, NEOMED grew from a 500,000-square-foot campus to 1 million square feet and its budget doubled to $80 million. The student body increased from 600 to nearly 1,000. He helped establish partnerships with 24 hospitals, dozens of ambulatory care settings and regional universities and colleges.
His leadership also resulted in the creation of a STEM and medicine high school, health and wellness center, conference facilities, space for researchers to commercialize ideas, a primary care practice and research opportunities.
“He changed (NEOMED’s) culture and brought this sleepy medical school in Rootstown to the Cleveland area,” said Bob Littman, Northeast Ohio managing partner of BDO in Akron who had been a friend of Gershen’s. “... Jay immersed himself in the communities, and I know he met a lot of people that way.”
J. David Heller, former NEOMED board chair, cited Gershen as a driving force behind the NEOMED-Cleveland State University Partnership for Urban Health. The partnership aims for CSU and NEOMED students to return to Cleveland communities to practice medicine to improve access to health care in rural and urban areas, as previously reported by the CJN.
Always impressed with his hard work, intelligence, heart and passion, Heller said he quickly grew to see Gershen as a mentor.
“He was a visionary leader; I learned a tremendous amount from him,” said Heller, president and CEO of NRP Enterprises LLC in Cleveland. “One of the great things I took away from just a tremendous friendship was his really unbelievable demeanor. He was just a real connector with people, a good listener and very inquisitive.”
Despite everything he did at NEOMED, Gershen never took sole ownership, Cannon said. The collaborative efforts he pushed for were a key component of his success, and they helped bring inclusion and diversity to the university.
“He always said he liked to work from the back of the room, meaning he would work with others to achieve a common goal, bring people along and enlist them in the vision that he was helping to create,” Cannon said. “When you look at the transformation that’s been achieved at NEOMED in a decade, it’s nothing short of a miracle. I think he looked to other people’s strengths, connected the dots with them and let them lead with their strengths.”
With his passing, Cannon hopes Gershen’s true legacy remains immortalized.
“It’s not about the building footprint that he left behind,” Cannon said. “It’s his humbleness, his genuine care and concern for others, and his going above and beyond to ensure that other people were taken care of.
“One thing that Jay said to me before he passed away was, ‘Make sure you tell everybody how much I love them; I loved working with them.’”
Gershen was born April 9, 1946, in the Bronx, N.Y. He attended the University of Buffalo in New York and then dental school in Baltimore. He earned his Ph.D and specialty degree in pediatric dentistry from the University of California, Los Angeles.
After about seven years as a pediatric dentist in the UCLA Faculty Group Dental Practice, Gershen moved to Washington, D.C. for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health policy fellowship. Afterward, he returned to UCLA, where he became more involved in public health, higher education and leadership positions. He then worked at University of Colorado Denver.
Gershen is survived by Cannon; his two daughters, Valari Gershen (Brandy Allen) and Jenna Gershen; his stepdaughter, Mackenzie Chernushin (Chad O’Connor); his siblings, Bonnie Lagunoff, Robert Gershen and Lauren Gershen; his aunt, Irene Gershen; and numerous cousins.