The Pro Bene Meritis award is the highest honor bestowed by the College of Liberal Arts. Since 1984, the annual award has been given to alumni, faculty members and friends of the college who are committed to the liberal arts, have made outstanding contributions in professional or philanthropic pursuits or have participated in service related to the college. The following is an interview with one of the 2018 recipients.
Dr. Richard Harper
Education: B.A. Plan II ’67, The University of Texas at Austin; M.D. ’78, Baylor College of Medicine
Hometown: Daingerfield, Texas
Dr. Richard Harper is a neurosurgeon in Houston. He graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from the Plan II Honors Program before attending Baylor College of Medicine and then serving in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant in the Medical Corps. Harper has built a distinguished career as a physician for Ben Taub Hospital, Houston Methodist Hospital, Diagnostic Hospital, St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, performing surgeries on people from 80 countries, training 120 neurosurgeons and even operating on past presidents. In addition to his professional achievements, Harper has served as a member of the UT System’s Chancellor’s Council, Littlefield Society and the Thomas Jefferson Center Advisory Council.
What motivated you to go to medical school after graduating from Plan II?
I knew in high school that I had the capacity to go to medical school, but I didn’t want to be a biology major. So, I went to Plan II based on the recommendation from my counselor who said it would allow me to study anything I wanted. For a guy like me who wants to try stuff, Plan II was perfect. The only thing that diverted me was my love for physics. But in those classes, I felt like a mule in the Kentucky Derby. I realized that there are some really smart people in this world. So, I had a choice: I could be the dumbest guy in the room or a reasonably smart doctor.
What makes a great physician?
Love for the human race. A mentor of mine who was a neurologist from South Africa loved people with neurological disease, some of which are terrible fatal diseases. But he was so fascinated with the manifestations of human life that he would just soak up every detail of their lives — even those who were dying. And for people who are dying, having someone who wants to hear their story is truly invaluable. So, that’s why I would say that the love of the human race is the No. 1 quality of a good physician. If you don’t have that, nothing else matters.
“The love of the human race is the No. 1 quality of a good physician. If you don’t have that, nothing else matters.”Dr. Richard Harper
How has your liberal arts education benefited you in your medical career?
One of the reasons I have an extensive international practice is because I have a love for liberal arts and reading, reading, reading. I can sit with people from anywhere and talk about their country and their culture. When you have a great liberal arts background of reading and studying every conceivable thing, you can easily fit in with people from other cultures, and they are comfortable with you.
How did your time in the military influenced you?
The great thing about active duty military is it teaches you to command and to be commanded. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t have someone over them. So, you need to learn how to deal with whomever is over you, even if that person is your wife!
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Well, I’m a wood carver. Actually, my Plan II thesis was on primitive wood carving. When I was a student at UT, I would carve decorative animals onto the stocks of expensive rifles, which typically have absolutely beautiful, top-level wood. Now, I carve much larger pieces. I’m also a near professional-level juggler. I can juggle anything and in dozens of patterns. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s good for you physically and mentally.
I have led a pretty adventuresome life apart from surgery. If you jump at every opportunity, it’s amazing the things you can do. I’ve climbed in every big mountain range in the entire world, from Antarctica to the Himalayas. I was buried in an avalanche while 20,000 feet high in Alaska and somehow, by pure luck, survived. I have actually run across the country from coast to coast — my children used to call me Forrest Gump. And I rode a bike from Mexico to Canada, across the U.S., as well as the entire Australian continent.
Do you have a favorite memory from UT?
The most amazing memory that I’ve told more than one person — in fact, I told it to (actor) Lee Majors — is standing on the observation deck of the Tower on the side that faces Guadalupe. There was a whole mass of people waiting to cross the street, and on the other side of the street was Farrah Fawcett with her beautiful blond hair. She was so unbelievably drop-dead beautiful. The crowds of people would literally part as she walked through — even the girls would stand and gape at her. She stopped people in their tracks.