Scientists labor to make discoveries, and others labor to make them known. Media Specialist Hank Black has been one of those significant others at UAB for 32 years.

UAB Media Specialist Hank Black has been telling UAB’s story one discovery at a time for the past 32 years. Black, March’s employee of the month, is retiring from UAB to join its sister health system UAHSF as an editor for Medical Publications.

If you heard or read something about UAB’s research or therapies for cancer, diabetes, transplantation, kidney or liver disease, trauma, burn care, emergency medicine or minority health, for example, chances are Black was behind the scenes ensuring that the reporters had the information and the access they needed to produce the story.

“Stories in the local and national press about heart transplants, medical breakthroughs and new surgical techniques come directly from Hank to the news reporters and hence to the world,” said Bob Shepard, a media specialist and Black’s co-worker for 12 years. In his opinion, “Hank should be considered Employee for the Ages.”

UAB doesn’t offer that award, so Black instead was selected as Employee of the Month for March, his last month of duty at the institution that has grown in stature along with him.

Black had a degree in journalism but no background or interest in science when he accepted a newly created position as the media relations specialist for the hospital in 1977. He says of his first days and many that followed that it was something to “walk down the hallway and see a genius in every doorway.”

“I’ve seen the same buildings rise and fall, be filled and emptied,” Black said of the physical transformation on campus in his years here. But one thing has been consistent, he said: “The efforts to link two ends of campus and draw on the strength of each has been a hallmark of UAB. People come here for the synergies between the disciplines and between the schools — to cross the turf.”

Black is true to that tradition. He is crossing the turf, or at least the street, retiring from UAB to join its health system UAHSF as an editor for Medical Publications, specifically Synopsis.

Casting a long shadow
It hasn’t been easy for Black to walk away. People won’t let go. Three days into his last week of work, reporters and researchers are still paging and calling; everyone wants his help one last time before he is gone.

“He is an institution here,” said Dale Turnbough, associate vice president for Public Relations and Marketing. “Hank has handled, with deftness, just about every sort of public relations issue and opportunity that you can imagine in and around our medical center — from natural disasters to the politically sensitive handling of patient information and milestones surrounding the growth of our medical enterprise.”

Black is the “unsung champion of UAB,” according to Ed Partridge, M.D., interim director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center, who says it has been a privilege to work with him for the past 17 years.

“Through his tireless work with the press, he’s brought stories of our research to life through newspapers and television,” said Partridge. “He is able to work with everyone — from the shyest researcher learning to speak to the camera to working with world-renowned scientists preparing groundbreaking news.”

As is typical of him, Black deflects praise for himself to others. “There’s an enormous number of people I’ve taken advantage of to do my job,” he said. “Almost all of them were willing to help – and to help me learn the science I needed to know to get the message to the public. People are invariably gentle with me, and I appreciate it.”

Stories of the storyteller
Pam Powell, executive editor for UAB Publications, recalls when her father had brain surgery years ago.

“Hank came to the hospital waiting room to sit with me and my family,” Powell said. “It was such a supportive thing to do and I’ve never forgotten how comforting his presence was. I’m sure his thoughtfulness has touched the lives of many in similar ways.”

In fact, letters of nomination for Black were numerous. They came from inside and outside the university and all points in between. They touted his hard-working, professional attitude, his talents with people and words and the impressions he has made on others during his three decades here. But most telling is that no one missed the opportunity to point out that Hank Black is just a thoroughly decent human being.

Andrea Reiber worked the overnight shift at Birmingham’s Fox 6 in the 1990s before joining UAB Media Relations 11 years ago. “Most of my conversations with Hank occurred during the ‘sleeping hours,’ and he never once yelled at me for waking him up,” she said.

During Reiber’s first days with UAB, Hank took the six-months-pregnant new-hire “under his wing” – and on one of his famous Daytona-speed tours of the hospital. “Every other person we passed spoke. They didn’t just say hello, they said ‘Hello, Hank.’ They knew his name and that made quite an impression on me.”

Don’t let Black’s unassuming manner trick you into underestimating his grit, says Mona Fouad, M.D., director of the Minority Health and Research Center, who met Black more than 15 years ago. “He is very skillful in the art of media and public relations. He tells you forthright what is likely to get a media response and what will not. No smoke and mirrors from this PR guy.”  Fouad said she has continued to request that Black handle her media work because it is apparent he cares about his work. “This has not just been a job to him; this has been his life work,” Fouad said. “He has a passion for it.”

Hank’s passion for telling stories literally has transformed journalism in Birmingham, said Erin Shaw, communications director for the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Shaw first met Black in 1998 while she was still a newspaper reporter. “He showed me that inside these buildings were physicians and researchers with fascinating stories, and he helped bring these stories to life by taking time to explain the science behind the headlines,” she said.

“One thing is sure — by helping Alabama and the national media, he has told the story of the university, one discovery at a time.”

If you ask Black about his job, his years here, you’ll hear some historical reference and medical milestones, but in the end he does what he does best – shares the story of UAB.

“What stands out is the continuing parade of patients and their families who are delivered to this great health-care community, often in the middle of the night, in shock, sorrow and bewilderment, seeking help in Alabama’s beacon of hope,” Black said.?“We accept them, care and comfort them and in so many cases give them back their hope and future.

“This whole community is predicated on giving people hope – the education enterprise across campus, the science and research components, the clinical people and all of us who try to support those efforts,” he said. “It should give us all a good feeling that we are involved in this.

“Like the Blues Brothers, we’re on a mission. To me that mission is to give hope.”