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The School of Dentistry’s first dean also was UAB’s first president.

Black and white image of Dr. Volker, wearing a dark suit and striped bow tie, setting a polished desk signing a paper.In the years following his arrival at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1968, it was not unusual for Jack Lemons, Ph.D., to receive an unexpected visitor to his office within the UAB School of Dentistry. Lemons would hear a knock, look up, and standing before him would be none other than Dr. Joseph F. Volker, UAB’s inaugural president.

“You never knew when to expect him through your door. He would just show up,” Lemons recalled recently. “And he always had a variety of things to talk about. Sometimes it was about something going on at UAB, sometimes it was about a new procedure taking place in Sweden or Iceland. But no matter what it was about, he was always planning for the future.”

Indeed, Volker was focused on the future from the day he became the founding dean of the Alabama School of Dentistry in 1948. Appropriately enough, that arrival was somewhat unexpected as well, since Volker was a New Jersey native and dean of Tufts Dental School in Massachusetts at the time, with no ties to the state of Alabama.

But two events changed the direction of Volker’s career. First, in 1947, the Alabama legislature approved funding for the creation of a dental school as part of the University of Alabama’s new medical center in Birmingham, and the program needed a dean. A few months later, Volker was invited to speak in Birmingham at a meeting of the Alabama Dental Association.

Volker so impressed the gathering that he was approached with the prospect of leaving well-established Tufts College for the equivalent of an educational startup. Much to the surprise of many, he accepted. Even though the footprint of what eventually became UAB barely covered four blocks of Birmingham, Volker already was seeing a vision of the future, according to the book New Lights in the Valley: The Emergence of UAB by Tennant S. McWilliams.

“I want the intellectual challenge of building something from the beginning,” Volker is quoted as saying in the book. “I see a city and a university and their lights. And where there are no lights right now, I know there will be. New lights in the valley.”

Under Volker’s leadership, those lights began popping up at rapid pace. In his first year with the new dental school, Volker hired the faculty (including some of his former colleagues at Tufts), established the curriculum, assigned classroom and clinic space in the old Hillman Hospital, and recruited the initial 52-person class for the school.

Volker’s responsibilities increased steadily over the ensuing years. He was named Director of Research and Graduate Studies in 1955, then became Vice President for Health Affairs in 1962, placing him in charge of the entire medical center. In 1966, Volker was named Vice President for Birmingham Affairs, which merged management of University of Alabama’s Birmingham extension center (arts and sciences, teacher education, engineering, and business) with its medical center programs.

Along the way, Volker became a vocal proponent of forming an independent university in Birmingham. He developed strategic relationships with a wide variety of politicians and organizations, and regularly pitched the idea to members of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce as well as the University of Alabama’s Board of Trustees. He insisted to anybody who would listen – and some who wouldn’t – that a medical university in Birmingham could be a vibrant economic resource for the entire state.

Finally, on June 16, 1969, Volker’s vision became a reality with the announcement that the University of Alabama would become a three-campus system, with the Tuscaloosa campus being joined by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Volker was the logical choice to be the first UAB president.

Lemons says the key to Volker’s success in all this growth was his determination to promote an atmosphere of interdisciplinary research and collaboration, not just within the dental school but throughout the entire university.

“He saw UAB School of Dentistry as a player campus-wide, and encouraged the faculty to be very active on a campus-wide basis,” Lemons says. “He was always working to get these collaborations going. He saw what each person was doing as a vehicle for doing that work across the campus. It was all in the interest of overall academics, and getting and spreading as much education as you could.”

In 1976, Volker was named the first Chancellor of the entire University of Alabama system, a role he held until retiring in 1982. UAB’s Basic Health Science Building is named Volker Hall in honor of all his contributions to the university, particularly his determination that a small dental school on a small medical campus could be much, much more.

This belief was summed up in one of Volker’s best-known quotes: “We would do Birmingham a great disservice if we dreamed too little dreams.”