Dr. Gary Hankins ’73 can look back at a career in medicine that stretches over more than four decades with no little satisfaction. He served 22 years in the Air Force as a doctor, service that included deployment during Operation Desert Shield on the advance team that established a 1,000-bed surgical hospital. For the past two decades, he has been in academic medicine, training physicians in his specialty of obstetrics and gynecology as well as critical care. He has received many honors, including being named as one of America’s Top Doctors for eight years. He now is the chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.
It is most interesting to note, therefore, that well into his 1st Class year at VMI and when he was the highest standing cadet in the biology department, Hankins had no plans to be a physician.
“That all changed at a meeting with my academic adviser, the legendary Colonel Jack Reeves, in the spring of 1972,” recalled Hankins. “He handed me application forms for various medical schools, including the University of Virginia and the Medical College of Virginia, and told me to fill them out. I protested and told him that I wanted to be a forest ranger. He replied, ‘It’s not your call. Every first-ranking biology major goes to medical school, and you’re not breaking that tradition.’”
Hankins applied to the schools and then took the required Medical College Admission Test. “I had not prepared at all for the MCAT; therefore, my score was not so high,” he said. “In fact, the professor who interviewed me at MCV described it as ‘lower than snake’s belly in the dirt.’”
MCV accepted Hankins, but required him to take a six-week preparatory course. “Considering that I was my class’ top biology major with a 3.84 GPA and stood No. 3 in my class academically that struck me as odd. I guess those test scores put me in ‘The Most Likely to Fail Club.’”
Despite the somewhat unconventional way he entered the profession, medicine became Hankins’ passion, and he counts himself fortunate. “I tell people that if you can make a career out of something you’re passionate about, you’ll have a productive and fulfilling life indeed.”
“I count myself lucky that Colonel Reeves pressed me to go to medical school because I stumbled into a profession that has been fun and rewarding.” The most satisfying aspect of his career has been that he has delivered about 10,000 babies, each of whom he describes as “something of a miracle,” and he relishes the fact that, for each of them, he has been “the first person they ever saw and whoever touched them.”
As passionate as he is about his profession, he just as passionate about VMI. Although, he admits, in the early weeks of his rat year, he questioned his decision to attend. “One of my high school coaches, Donny White ’65, essentially talked me into going to VMI, and I arrived sight unseen. It was the last time I did anything without due diligence. It was a very valuable lesson.”
He credits VMI with giving him the tools he needed to succeed as an officer and as a physician. As a cadet, he received the William Brent Bell ’67 Military Award which is given to a third-class cadet who has shown great potential as a leader. “I was extremely honored to receive that award. What intensified its impact on me was that, when I received it, the Vietnam War was in full swing. There were few days that the flag in front of Barracks was not at half-staff. The award made me resolve to be the best officer I could be, and that set the tone for my military career.”
Asked what else he had learned at VMI that stuck with him, he replied, “First, proper time management and solid organizational skills. I’ll give you an example. When I was a resident, I was expected to put in about 100 hours a week. While it was demanding, my VMI experience taught me how to deal with it.”
He also credits VMI with teaching him a proper command presence. “I never commanded a unit in combat; however, I have led surgical teams in situations in which we can save or lose a life literally within minutes. VMI taught me that in such situations a leader must be calm and maintain his composure.”
Barbara Hankins, Hankins’ wife, believes that VMI gave him “character skills that he took into his work life.” According to her, one of them is loyalty. “Gary is always looking to help people below and above him look good.” Another is integrity. “At VMI, the Honor Code is not just a bunch of words. It means something. It stays with you. Gary has carried that into his work.”
Summing up the value of his VMI experience, Dr. Hankins said, “VMI made all the difference to me. Nothing that I have experienced since barracks has come close to VMI’s challenge. It made all the rest of it look rosy.”
And it wasn’t just Dr. and Mrs. Hankins who understand VMI’s value. His mother did, too. But, it took some time. “She tried to talk me out of going to VMI,” Hankins recalls. But, over time, she too came to love the school. “I gave her a miniature of my class ring after graduation. She rarely took it off. In fact, by the time she died, you could barely make out any of its detail.” With such attitudes about the value of a VMI education, it is hardly surprising then that Dr. and Mrs. Hankins recently made a $1 million commitment to endow a scholarship at the Institute. They had initially planned to make a substantial gift as a bequest. That changed when their financial adviser assured them that their resources were such that they could make an immediate donation. “He told us,” recalls Mrs. Hankins, “’Do it now and enjoy it.’”
As an avid gardener, Hankins immediately took to the idea. “When I plant a fruit tree, I want to see it bear fruit. With an immediate gift, we’d see our philanthropy in action, and that added to our enjoyment of the idea.”
Their personal experiences prompted them to establish a scholarship. “I was fortunate to have parents who helped pay for my education as a civil engineer,” said Mrs. Hankins. Dr. Hankins said, “I certainly have gotten way more than I deserved, and I did so because people invested their time and talent in me. This scholarship is a way to make an investment in cadets just like people did in me.”
With Dr. and Mrs. Hankins ready to help VMI, an unsolicited phone call from VMI’s Call Center proved quite timely. “Gary was at the hospital,” remembered Mrs. Hankins, “and I took the call. The cadet asked if we were interested in donating to VMI. I told him we were, and he politely suggested a gift of $100. I told him we’d be happy to do that, but that we were thinking of something more substantial. When he asked what I meant, I told him, ‘We’re talking about a million dollar endowment.’ The cadet took our information, and we heard from Steve Maconi [VMI Alumni Agencies CEO] the next day.”
In the development of the gift, Dr. and Mrs. Hankins worked with Steve Maconi and J. Addison Hagan IV ’97, one of the VMI Foundation’s major gift officers. “It was an excellent experience,” said Mrs. Hankins. “Working with them was a lot of fun.”
Dr. and Mrs. Hankins are doing a lot with this scholarship. In large part, they are honoring Hankins’ mother. “I can imagine her looking down and being proud of what we’re doing,” he said. They also consider it as helping VMI accomplish its mission of providing the country with the sound leaders it will always need. Most of all, however, they are, according to Hankins, “giving young people the same education and head start in life that VMI gave me.”
In the future, Dr. and Mrs. Hankins want the scholarship to help VMI in another way. “I hope it instills in the recipients,” said Hankins, “the idea that people helped them and that it is up to them to help those who follow them into barracks. I’d love it to act as a multiplier with every scholarship recipient going on to establish a scholarship that helps three other people and so on.”
Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects
The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.