As a child spending summers at his grandpa's pharmacy in Pawnee City, Neb., Joe Williams thought he'd someday like to run a drugstore.
Instead, he ran drug companies.
“My grandfather created my interest in pharmacy,” he said. “I was very intrigued by all the apothecary jars.”
Joseph D. Williams, who became a submariner on the USS Picuda during World War II, has surfaced as the donor of $2.5 million toward a new College of Pharmacy building at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
The proposed $35 million building is still in the planning stages, but Omaha philanthropists Ruth and Bill Scott have agreed to be “lead donors,” with an undisclosed larger donation. UNMC leaders hope to seek approval for the project in 2013 from the NU Board of Regents.
Courtney Fletcher, pharmacy dean, said 60 percent of the money had been raised for the privately funded structure, which would be built east of 42nd Street and behind the Michael F. Sorrell Center for Health Science Education.
The College of Pharmacy, which Fletcher said had outgrown its outdated 1976 building, ranks in the top 10 nationally — out of 120 pharmacy schools — in research dollars per faculty member. He called Williams “not just a pharmacy distinguished alumnus but one of the University of Nebraska's most distinguished alums.”
Williams, 86, who grew up in Springfield, Mo., and graduated from the University of Nebraska, previously has supported his alma mater. His recent donation for the pharmacy school, he said, is motivated simply by a desire “to give something back.”
As a boy in the 1930s, he enjoyed working summers for his grandfather, Arch Huston, who mixed a lot of preparations himself. Joe was fascinated.
In the 1940s, after serving on a sub that sank Japanese ships in the Pacific, he enrolled at Nebraska on the GI Bill. He graduated in 1950 with a pharmacy degree.
At his grandpa's suggestion, Joe got a job with a pharmaceutical company, selling drugs. He lived for six years in Beatrice, Neb., typically calling on 120 physicians and 50 drugstores in southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas.
“Once I got going, I really liked it,” he said. “I developed some good friends, and the postwar era was kind of a fun period. There was just a lot to do. The '50s and all through the '60s has been called a golden age of pharmaceuticals.”
The notion of running his own drugstore fell by the wayside, and he was called to Parke-Davis headquarters in Detroit, where he rose through the ranks to president. The company merged with Warner-Lambert, and he became chairman and CEO.
He retired in 1991, and Warner-Lambert merged in 2000 with Pfizer.
Williams has served on the boards of AT&T, the Exxon Corp., J.C. Penney, Columbia University and several other entities. He led a $250 million campaign for the United Negro College Fund and served as chairman of the Commission on Higher Education for the State of New Jersey, where he lives.
Williams recently visited the UNMC campus and toured the city.
“Omaha has really changed, and it's very nice,” he said. “I spent three days at the university, and that whole medical community is first-class.”
Fletcher said pharmacy schools are important partly because academic research differs from corporate research, which requires making a profit.
For example, UNMC researcher Jonathan Vennerstrom and other scientists at the College of Pharmacy developed an anti-malaria drug that will help Third World countries but would produce virtually no profit for drug companies in the U.S., where malaria is rare. The rights to the anti-malaria drug were handed to an international organization that fights the disease in India.
The training of future pharmacists has changed, too. In America last year, 20 percent of adults received flu shots at a retail pharmacy, up from 12 percent the year before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fletcher said, wants that percentage to go higher because the practice is efficient.
“We teach our students how to give flu shots,” the dean said. “That was just never conceived as part of pharmacy practice in 1976.”
And certainly not in 1936, when a small-town Nebraska drugstore fascinated a kid named Joe — who grew up to become a corporate leader in pharmaceuticals.
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