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‘He is constantly saying
"Look at this. Fix it"’

 Staff photo by R. David Duncan III

Dr. Peter Houck is the medical director for Centra Health’s Johnson Center just off Federal Street. He is always busy, but he says the only way he gets anything done is through organization.

By Cynthia T. Pegram
The News & Advance
The question many people ask about Peter Houck is, how does he get all that done?
He’s the medical director of an inner city practice, amateur historian, author, publisher, speaker, family man.
Organization helps. “I can tell you, a month from now, what I’m going to be doing at a certain time of day,” said Houck.
It is, he admits, an acquired characteristic, something he learned in medical school at the University of Virginia. He’s sure he didn’t have the inborn trait, he says from the vantage point of age 60.
“I think I was probably hyperactive, ADHD, and probably still am,” said Houck.
“I have to disperse that energy somehow without becoming neurotic as a cat,” he said. “So I’ve become obsessive compulsive and learned how to do that.”
He laughs as he says it, but that doesn’t make it less true.
A slender man of medium height with dark eyes behind glasses, he speaks with the softened enunciation of a lifelong Central Virginia resident.
Houck grew up in Lynchburg, and met his wife Betsy while they were at E.C. Glass High School. He went to VMI, and it wasn’t until both were at the University of Virginia -— he in medical school, she in nursing — that they got together again.
Then, as now, she has a major role in his life.
“I was floundering in medical school. I almost flunked out. We got married. My grades just went north.”
“She’s my harshest critic, and my best friend,’’ he said.

Dr. Peter Houck.

Profession: Medical director the Johnson Heath Center
Wife Betsy and five children.
E.C. Glass High School, Virginia Military Institute, M.D. from University of Virginia.
Place of Birth:

Who influenced you?

ä My wife, Betsy.
ä My mother, Kitty Houck.
What national event had a lasting impact on your life?
ä The H-bomb and the danger to planet Earth.
What local event had a lasting impact on your life?
ä The city’s Bicentennial. The appreciation of our heritage.
What do you want to be remembered for?
ä A proud father of five incredible offspring.
What are the elements necessary to accomplish successful projects?
ä Planning, organizing, execution, controlling.
The last book you read?
ä “A Patchwork Planet,” by Anne Tyler.
Your favorite book?
ä “A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold

Today, after 36 years of marriage, and five children, when he’s making a major decision, “I have to bounce it off her. I know it’s not going to fly until Betsy gets to review it.”
Betsy Houck seemed amused by that. Where Houck is impulsive, she says, she isslower in her decision-making.
Houck is not a procrastinator and he’s not timid, she said. “If he has a task at hand, he wants to get it out of his way immediately.”
“That’s why he moves through life at a fairly fast pace.”
Houck entered the Army Medical Corps during the Vietnam era, and was stationed in Ft. Polk, La., which had a “a fairly good sized pediatric hospital,’’ he said. “Neonatology was just catching on as a specialty.”
After providing care for newborn twins, “I said I think I would like to learn more about this. So, after I finished my two years, I went to Dallas -Parkland Hospital. And worked for a year there with a neonatalogist and a government fellowship.”
Houck came back to Lynchburg in the 1970s, one of three neonatalogists in the state, to establish a neonatal unit at Virginia Baptist Hospital, an effort that produced the first specialized ambulance transport system in Virginia.
He worked with the Jaycees locally, which captured the interest of the state organization, which then took the concept on as a statewide project.
Along the way, he helped lay the groundwork for what is now a regional system that provides a safe way to transport ill newborn babies to the nearest treatment area no matter where they are in Virginia.
Mary Highton, a neonatal nurse practitioner at Virginia Baptist remembers the early days.
“I think he’s a man of vision, and he saw a need here in the Lynchburg area,” Highton said. Although Houck is low-key, she said, “he is dynamic in his ability to get people to see what needs to be done, and gets it done. But he doesn’t have to do it all himself.
“He’s there when he needs to be there,’’ she said.
Houck practiced pediatrics for about 30 years in Lynchburg.
Some of his patients were from Amherst County, and had about them the look of American Indians. But when he talked to them about it, many were embarrassed, although some weren’t. Most didn’t seem to know much about their past.
“That made me wonder, ‘Why don’t they know more about their background?’ As a professor told me in medical school, if you get different answers on everything it means nobody knows the answer.”
Houck doesn’t like an unanswered question.
“I started rooting around,” he said. He went to Amherst county, talked to farmers as well as people at the Episcopal mission on Bear Mountain. He started researching. “Nobody really knows where these people came from, and where they’re connected to people out here now. Those two questions hadn’t been answered, so I did my best to dig and go into historical notes, scratch around and find out as much as I could.”
The result was the slim volume, “Indian Island.”
Chief Kenneth Branham of the Monacan Tribe said the book has been a major factor in getting recognition for the tribe from the state, a life-changing event for the people. The tribe had started the effort, he said, but the book, with its detailed facts, came at a very good time.
“The information in the book would have been hard for our people to come by,’’ he said. But for Houck, “people would bend over to help him because of his education and his status of being a doctor. He could open doors none of our people could.”
“We will always be thankful for Dr. Houck, for writing the book.”
Houck admires what the Monacans are doing. “They’re a model for what could be done in the inner city. They dug into their history and their genealogy, so they had a connection to their past and could feel pride.
“Those are the roots for developing a culture,’’ he said. “To me, they’re a model for any culture. They put the pieces together.”
Houck’s interest in writing led to the founding of Warwick House Publishing. The company often — but not always — publishes local authors writing about local history.
Houck has authored articles in medical magazines, as well as writing several books, including a volume on Lynchburg as a Civil War hospital center. He is oft-cited for his expertise in Civil War medicine. He is active in the history-buff network, and a familiar face in research libraries.
But he hedges at the title, historian.
“I can’t claim to be an academic historian,’’ Houck said. “I’m an amateur historian, and happy enough to be an amateur.”
But he thrives on research.
“History helps me stay oriented. I’m the type of person, when I go on a trip, I always want to know exactly where I am, north, east, south, west. The first thing I’ll do when Betsy and I go somewhere, is go get a map and get all oriented.”
Houck’s career included a time as president of the Centra Health medical staff.
“He did a good job,’’ said Dr. Paul Fitzgerald, a Lynchburg orthopedic surgeon. “He had the respect of the medical community.”
Now, at what Fitzgerald said could be the twilight of Houck’s medical career and a time for easing up, he has taken on a major new project, working to help establish a system of medical care for the inner city.
Houck would like to see the same cooperation and creativity that produced low-cost health care for Lynchburg’s insured population, produce a solution for the under-served inner city.
“I’d like to be a catalyst for that,’’ said Houck. “I don’t see myself as a leader.’’
As Centra Health began planning an inner city clinic three years ago, something the medical staff had long felt was needed, Houck contacted Thomas Jividen, Centra Health senior vice president. Houck said he’d like to be medical director.
Jividen said he felt like he’d found the perfect person for a tough job. “He’s the kind of person who will not be deterred. If he sees a problem that has to be resolved, he will find a way to resolve it. He won’t let up.”
Big organizations like Centra can be hard to get moving, said Jividen, “Peter doesn’t give in to that. He is constantly saying ‘Look at this. Fix it.’ ”
At the Johnson Center on Federal Street, named for the late R. Walter Johnson, an African American physician, Houck works closely with a large staff, and a family practice physician, and sees adult patients as well as children. He’s an employee now, after 30 years in private practice
Cathy McGehee, a nurse practitioner, volunteered to work in the center after Houck spoke at a church about the project.
She said that Houck seemed to know what it would take to work with a population quite different from the pediatric specialty he’d known. He truly had a sense of commitment.”

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