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James Gavin's Bequest Supports Graduate Program at Emory

James GavinJames Gavin's mother was a chef at one of the best restaurants in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1950s, but segregation prevented his family from dining there. He became a civil rights activist and, while studying for a doctorate in biochemistry at Emory, decided to become a leader in higher education.

Now a member of the Emory Board of Trustees and an Emory professor with a distinguished academic career, he has made a bequest to support the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies.

"My graduate education at Emory has been such an important element of my career, and I am enormously proud of the strides being made by the Laney Graduate School with a very talented and diverse group of students," says Gavin 70PhD. "It's important to know there will be resources available to continue building programs of excellence."

His gift honors Emory President Emeritus James Laney, for whom the school is named, and celebrates the leadership of Dean Lisa Tedesco.

"I love the energy and vision she's brought to the graduate school and the very notion of giving the school an identity built on the ethos of Jim Laney. I want to be known as a member of this team," Gavin says.

A clinical professor of medicine at Emory School of Medicine, Gavin is an expert in diabetes and childhood obesity. He chairs the board of directors for the Partnership for a Healthier America, which is instrumental in First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity.

Gavin chaired the Campaign Emory fundraising effort for the Laney Graduate School and has served on the Emory Board of Trustees since 2003. He is former president of Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine and served as a senior scientific officer for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for more than a decade.

Gavin earned his doctorate at Emory on the advice of a professor at Livingstone College, the small liberal arts school in North Carolina where he earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry. A talented scholar, he attracted the first North Carolina Academy of Sciences research grant in Livingstone's history.

"The academic experience at Emory was fantastic," he says. "It was a strong program, an intimate program. We had much contact with our professors."

That intimate environment produced both good and bad experiences, all of which informed his career and ultimately strengthened his relationship with Emory. A self-described "dashiki- and afro-wearing radical," Gavin was one of just two African American students in the basic health sciences doctoral program and the first to complete a PhD As was true of many young students in the 1960s nationwide, he encountered racism on campus.

He lost touch with Emory for many years after graduation, reconnecting through his position with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. As a senior scientific officer of the large grant-making organization, he had administrative oversight of 15 academic institutions around the nation, including Emory. As he renewed his relationship, he discovered that the university had been working diligently in his absence to build a diverse community of top-tier scholars. Emory had grown to understand that true academic excellence comes from a variety of ideas and approaches.

"I've never seen an institution redefine itself so completely in terms of providing all students—no matter what stripe—with the opportunity to succeed. I've watched Emory take this on with a vengeance," he says.

He credits much of that positive change to Jim Laney, whom he first met while in graduate school when Laney was dean of Candler School of Theology. Gavin had a series of theology students as roommates, and they all respected Laney.

"I came to understand why they loved him. It was clear that he was committed to scholarship and had faithfulness to integrity. He believed that you had to be bigger than yourself. You had to stretch beyond your walls," Gavin says. "It's interesting to me that I developed an ethos about scholarship in biochemistry through what I learned from a theology professor."

Laney served as Emory's president from 1977 until 1993, a time of unprecedented growth for the university. With the help of the $105 million Woodruff gift in 1979, he focused on strengthening the faculty, attracting distinguished scholars, and expanding graduate education in distinction and breadth, among other priorities. The graduate school was named in his honor in 2009.

For more information about making a bequest and other gift planning strategies visit or contact one of our gift planning experts by calling Emory's Office of Gift Planning at 404.727.8875 or

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A charitable bequest is one or two sentences in your will or living trust that leave to Emory University a specific item, an amount of money, a gift contingent upon certain events or a percentage of your estate.

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The person receiving the gift annuity payments.

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