Remembering Dr. W. Gerald Austen

Dr. W. Gerald Austen, who served on Knight Foundation’s board of trustees for a quarter-century and as its chair for over a decade, died Sunday at Massachusetts General Hospital, surrounded by family.

Jerry, as we all knew him, was 92.

Jerry was Jack and Jim Knight’s doctor. His care of Jack Knight during a medical crisis deepened the relationship and they became close friends. The Knights invited Jerry to join the board of the foundation, and he went on to oversee the transition from leadership by its founders, to professional management as an independent entity —a transition that, thanks to Jerry, happened with minimal stress.

But Jerry was more than the Knight brothers’ doctor; he was one of the most revered surgeons of the last century. After graduating from MIT and Harvard Medical School, he spent two years at the National Institutes of Health and then began a lifelong association with Mass General. He became a full professor of surgery at Harvard when he was only 36, and three years later he was named head of surgery at Mass General, a position he held for 28 years. Even after he retired from practicing medicine, he continued at the hospital in various management and advisory positions through the rest of his life. On his 90th birthday, in recognition of his extraordinary contributions, Mass General named one of its buildings after him. I was honored to attend the ceremony.

In all the years before and since he brought me on as president of the foundation, I have never had a more simultaneously supportive and demanding supervisor. There wasn’t a conversation with him that I didn’t come away from better. He would listen with care and then say, to me and others, “We’re on the same page. I just have a few questions,” and then go on to make much better whatever had just been presented to him. That was Jerry’s wise and collaborative technique: He’d ask questions, and get to a better answer. He brought us all up to his standard.

Like Jack and Jim Knight, Jerry was from Akron, Ohio—and proud of it. He was a champion for the Akron Art Museum, Akron public spaces, downtown development, and the University of Akron, which enjoys an endowed chair in his name. He had planned to speak to our trustees, meeting there this weekend, and he was so devoted to the city that when he was hospitalized and unable to join us, he called to make sure I’d give his regards to everyone in Ohio. It was the last time we spoke.

He cared for all of us he knew and worked with—at Knight, and I’m sure everywhere else—as people, and he cared for all of us as patients. If anyone on the staff of the foundation had a medical issue, Jerry was always available for consultation and sometimes for referral to a specialist. 

He was “a transformational leader with a caring spirit,” Bill Considine, a former Knight trustee and former president of Akron Children’s Hospital, told me. Indeed. 

We have lost a giant of a man and the most wonderful friend.

Alberto Ibargüen

President, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation