Renaissance Man: UST Alumnus is Doctor of Classics – and Neurology
Look up “Renaissance Man” in the dictionary, and you just might find a picture of Herbert P. Edmundson Jr.
The University of St. Thomas class of 1969 alumnus, now chair of UST’s Board of Directors, is today a board-certified neurologist and father of three, but his past achievements span continents, even centuries.
Unwind the thread of his life and you’ll spool past 31 years in medicine to a professorship at Emory University; a Ph.D. and master’s in Classics from The University of Texas at Austin; an associate directorship of an archeological dig in Southern Italy; and a three-month stint as private attaché and collaborator for the legendary art patron Dominique de Menil.
Follow the thread further, through seven years of preparation for the priesthood, and you’ll return to the foundation that Edmundson says shaped all of his subsequent accomplishments: an undergraduate degree from University of St. Thomas.
“My real formation was at UST,” he said. “The liberal arts education I received at UST is what shaped me.”
THE BEAUTY OF IT ALL
“Formation” is a key concept for Edmundson.
“It shapes one, in a determinative as well as a liberating way, for the rest of your life,” he explained.
Edmundson entered undergraduate studies at UST in 1965 as a scholastic—a Basilian who is in formation prior to ordination to the priesthood. The formation he received encouraged sustained, deliberate cultivation of both the “life of faith and the life of the mind,” he explained.
A French and Classics major, he learned “how to struggle and suffer through developing the life of learning; how to read a text and write clearly and think about important issues, whether analysis of a piece of literature or a painting of Botticelli or a Bach sonata…to learn to use the mind in different ways.”
His faith, first kindled in the family home, grew, too, albeit in more mysterious ways.
“There was—and is—a great spiritual sense,” Edmundson said of his early desire to enter the priesthood. “From my mother’s knee, I had observed and learned … a very palpable, deep sense of the transcendent … and I was very drawn to that.”
He entered the novitiate with crowds of other seminarians against the heady backdrop of Vatican II.
“There was so much happening intellectually and liturgically in the early ’60s, and I was all part of that,” Edmundson said.
“The spiritual, intellectual and culture richness that was and is the Church” had pulled him like a magnet during his boyhood at St. Thomas High School, he explained, compelling him toward the seminary in 1964, despite an attractive girlfriend and his father’s gentle reminders to keep his options open.
“I felt a great sense of the beauty of it all, at multiple levels,” Edmundson said.
RUBBING SHOULDERS WITH MAGRITTE
Exposure to such beauty increased when Edmundson was befriended by Dominique de Menil.
As an early University patron and the founder of UST’s art history department, the French art collector and her husband played a near-legendary role on the fledgling campus and broader Houston art scene.
Their midcentury patronage helped transform the city from a cultural backwater to an artistic and intellectual hotbed, and by the late 1960s, the de Menil phenomenon had begun to permeate the University itself.
Because of their sponsorship, UST students like Edmundson had regular access to an astonishing amount of original artwork, from early Bronze Age idols to Picassos. At University receptions and exhibits, the Basilian scholastic would find himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Magritte, Warhol, Louis Kahn and Buckminster Fuller.
The literati of the day took notice.
“Art permeates the entire campus,” gushed distinguished art critic Katharine Kuh in a 1968 edition of Saturday Review.
“At St. Thomas,” noted a Woman’s World article from the same year, “… academic courses have been combined with professional corollary exhibits, creating for the university a national reputation as a miniature prototype of the ideal teaching museum.”
A Catholic convert, Dominique de Menil had homed in on UST thanks in part to the lifelong influence of French Dominican priest Fr. Marie-Alain Couturier, whom she had met in New York in the 1940s. Couturier, himself an artist, deplored what he saw as the stultified, insipidly pious religious art then in vogue, and urged the Church to commission the great artists of the day when designing sacred spaces.
True art, Couturier believed, is a direct conduit of the sacred (“a great artist is always a great spiritual being,” he insisted) and many of France’s most celebrated Modernist religious structures, including Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence and Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, owe their existence to his influence.
Inspired by Couturier, the de Menils commissioned the American architect Philip Johnson to design several buildings on UST’s Academic Mall, along with a dramatic master plan. At the head of the quad would stand an entirely modern, ecumenical chapel, adorned only by paintings by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
The de Menils wanted UST to be “relevant” and “exciting,” Edmundson said; with their patronage came increasingly stringent demands, including naming rights to many board and faculty positions, largely at the expense of UST’s own founding mission.
Their avant-garde vision for the University began to overwhelm its Basilian founders.
As UST’s then-president, Fr. Patrick O. Braden, told The New York Times years later, ”it began to look more like de Menil University than St. Thomas.”
“The issue was really the kind of institution St. Thomas was to be—would it maintain its Catholic identity or would it become a secular college?”
By 1968, campuswide controversy had erupted, followed by anguished negotiations.
Edmundson was vice president of student government at the time; as both a Basilian scholastic and an acquaintance of the de Menils, he felt as torn as the University itself.
“We were a very close-knit campus of students and professors,” he remembers. “It was a very painful thing.”
Things came to a head one Friday evening during a large campus gathering intended to allow faculty, administration and the de Menils to “hammer out” their respective positions in public.
Edmundson was present—student government had been instrumental in arranging the gathering—but “it was clear by the end of the evening that we weren’t going to be able to resolve [the conflict],” he said.
“The Basilians simply could not surrender the University.”
It’s a position Edmundson still admires.
Although the de Menils were “intergalactic in terms of their importance…the University as we know it would not exist today but for the courage of [UST President] Pat Braden,” he said. “He simply couldn’t acquiesce to the de Menils.”
The split was soon complete, and by 1970, the de Menils had transferred their patronage and art department to Rice University.
Today, their once-pervasive influence at UST can be glimpsed only peripherally: the chapel that dominates the University campus is the gold-domed, crucifix-stamped cube of Philip Johnson’s Chapel of St. Basil, while the nondenominational Rothko Chapel first proposed by the de Menils lies several blocks west—a muted, octagonal structure dedicated to human rights and interfaith dialogue.
Across the lawn from the Rothko Chapel stands the Menil Collection, one of the largest and most eclectic private art collections in the world.
Nearly 20 years after the rupture, however, tensions between the two parties had apparently eased.
“Looking back, I suppose we were too ambitious, and they felt overwhelmed,” Dominique de Menil told The New York Times in 1986.
UST’s sixth president, Fr. Frank H. Bredeweg, C.S.B., was equally gracious. “If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t be here,” he acknowledged in the same article.
But while UST and the de Menils went their separate ways, Edmundson had not yet heard the last of the great art patron. Eight years later, he would find himself jetting across Europe, Canada and the States as Dominique de Menil’s personal aid, co-editor and translator.
The intervening years had brought a rollercoaster of life changes for the UST alumnus. After graduating in 1969 and serving as a Basilian teacher at St. Thomas High School, Edmundson realized he didn’t belong in the seminary.
“I had a wonderful time…my faith didn’t shift, but I wanted to have a family,” he explained of his choice to leave the Basilians.
By 1977, he was finishing a Ph.D. in Classics at The University of Texas Austin, immersed again in languages and the intellectual history of the West.
While weighing a post-doctorate teaching offer from Emory, Edmundson was contacted by Dominique de Menil. Would he be interested in taking a job as director of the Rothko Chapel?
Edmundson wavered; de Menil sweetened the offer. Come travel with me for the summer, she told him, and see if we can work together.
A whirlwind assignment followed.
From New York to Montreal, Paris to Prague, Edmundson was plunged into de Menil’s latest enterprises, including the translation and editing of Fr. Marie-Alain Couturier’s reflections and memoirs, along with an acclaimed multi-volume research project, “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” which is located today at Harvard University.
After a day’s work, Edmundson and de Menil would head for a café or the movies, absorbed in conversation despite their considerable difference in age and experience.
“We had wonderful discussions,” Edmundson remembers.
“This lady had three universities twirling in her head at any one moment.”
By fall, however, Edmundson had decided to pursue the position at Emory rather than accept de Menil’s offer at the Rothko Chapel.
Nonetheless, he never forgot the intellectual thrill of that summer.
“For me, as a young man, it was a wonderful experience,” he said.
A LEGACY OF GIANTS
But Emory proved a disappointment. Though he found his subject matter captivating, Edmundson quickly determined that college teaching itself held far less appeal.
“One day in June of 1978, much to the consternation of my family, I realized what I really wanted to do when I grew up was be a physician,” he quipped.
The move, however, was in earnest: at the age of 32, Edmundson began a third career, moonlighting as a pre-med student while still a professor at Emory.
“From that,” he said, “I have never looked back.”
Edmundson’s decision to become a doctor was less sudden and surprising than it might first appear: his family tree is a veritable “who’s who” of historical giants in medicine.
Ernst William Bertner, Edmundson’s great uncle, was the “founding genius and force” behind the Texas Medical Center, today the world’s largest. A leading Houston physician and cancer researcher, Bertner convinced the M.D. Anderson Center to bankroll his vision, and helped persuade the Center’s first medical schools and hospitals to join ranks on a 134-acre parcel of land near Hermann Park in 1945.
Bertner served as the Center’s first director; today, his eponymous Bertner Avenue runs like an artery through the heart of the TMC, linking many of its vital institutions.
“He is legend that’s larger than life in the family,” Edmundson said.
Edmundson’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Joseph Philip Arnold, meanwhile, was president of the Texas State Dental Society—the oldest state dental school in Texas. Edmundson’s older sister Lacy has been a practicing psychiatrist for more than 40 years. Although Edmundson credits numerous factors for his decision to become a doctor, his family history ensured that a career in medicine “always floated in the back of my mind.”
It’s a legacy Edmundson has handed on in turn: His son, Philip, is completing a third year residency in general surgery at Baylor Hospital in Dallas.
DR. EDMUNDSON: NEUROLOGIST
After finishing his pre-medical studies at Georgia State University, Edmundson earned his medical degree in 1984 from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
The next years were as full as the previous. A rotation in plastic surgery killed his brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a plastic surgeon, and Edmundson soon settled on neurology.
“Why not neurology—it’s about as much fun as you can have!” he said.
“I knew early on that there wouldn’t be anything more interesting than studying the brain and the central and peripheral nervous system, and time has proven that correct.”
Meanwhile, he moved back to Houston, joining Memorial Neurological Association, which he now serves as president and CEO. Edmundson is also the founding board chairman for Houston Physician Services, a post that he has held since 2003.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am each day to get up and take care of patients,” he said.
Edmundson’s patients struggle with maladies such as headaches, memory loss, stroke, attention deficit disorder and Parkinson’s; in recent years, he said, he has been surprised to find himself treating “that grey area between neurology and psychiatry.”
“I’m amazed at the woundedness of people, not just physically but in their soul and their histories,” Edmundson said. “I sometimes think what I’m doing is not all that different than the work of a priest.”
ALL OF A PIECE
And here is where Edmundson’s story comes full circle, back to the deep formation that first took root in his childhood home and flourished in his youth through steady exposure to a profoundly Catholic, liberal arts curriculum.
When acquaintances sometimes remark that his zigzag journey through seminary, Classics, medicine and family life seems “disjointed,” Edmundson demurs.
“For me there has been no disconnect at all,” he said.
“I have known intuitively that there is a continuity that makes sense. Why the Basilians? Why classics? Why medicine? It’s a love affair—that’s the answer.”
And a perfect answer it is. After all, Aristotle taught that love, like wisdom, is capable of unifying all aspects of a person’s life into an integrated whole, and Edmundson’s story is remarkable not merely for its scope, but also for its uncanny cohesion and depth.
It is impossible to construe even one of his various careers as a detour; each has further molded and enriched him, collectively forming a uniquely skilled neurologist who approaches his work with a priest’s heart, a scholar’s erudition, a father’s understanding, and a physician’s piercing acumen.
“It’s all of a piece …Whatever good I am able to do, one on one with individual patients, is the result of all of those formative experiences,” Edmundson said.
“If I see a patient tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock in my exam room who is suffering from whatever pain or malady that brings him there, my ability to hear his story and make sense of it and respond in a way that touches and helps—all that comes out of me—is the sum total of whatever it was that brought me to tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock,” he explained.
“It’s all very mysterious, how God works.”
His formation, moreover, has allowed him to ponder and even appreciate the mystery of suffering that physicians inevitably confront.
Edmundson remembers a class in Greek tragedy and Shakespeare he took from a Basilian instructor at UST his sophomore year. “You must understand,” the priest had told his class, “that learning is only accomplished with great suffering–it takes a great struggle.”
The statement “struck me at the time, and it never left me,” Edmundson recalled; suffering is simply “part and parcel” of human life, he said, and “learning how to bear suffering and pain, and not be broken but to be vivified by it, is the real test and calling of mature adulthood.”
A FOUNDATION OF FORMATION
Such maturity—intellectual, moral and spiritual—is, of course, a chief aim of the liberal arts.
As the field of education continues to trend toward market-oriented, STEM-centered majors, proponents of the liberal arts maintain that their discipline retains crucial importance, forming students who can think critically, communicate effectively, discern ethically, and draw from a broad base of philosophical and historical knowledge as they wrestle both with personal challenges and the timeless questions of life.
“The notion to think about formation is something unfortunately that is not done as it once was, and I think there’s a price to pay for that, frankly,” Edmundson observed.
“Circumstances change, life changes—a liberal arts education endows us with the intellectual power to engage those changing circumstances in a successful and meaningful way.”
As a Catholic university, UST has placed the liberal arts at the core of its mission, which is why Edmundson, in turn, has made supporting the University a personal priority.
Although he graduated in ’69, Edmundson remained connected to UST in part through his friendship with fellow-seminarian J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., who eventually became the University’s seventh President in 1997.
After serving on the Board of Visitors at UST’s Center for Thomistic Studies in 1991, Edmundson was invited to join the University’s Board of Directors in 1999 as a Basilian representative without terms limits.
“I’ve been on the Board since,” he said. “That’s an unbroken line.”
During his tenure he has joined or chaired board committees overseeing executive, strategic planning, investment, financial and academic affairs, as well as presidential and vice-presidential searches.
In 2002, he received UST’s prestigious honor, the Rev. Vincent J. Guinan, CSB, Distinguished Alumni Award, and in 2014, Edmundson was named board chair, the first UST alumnus to be so honored.
As UST President Robert Ivany noted at the time, “Few individuals have the board experience and years of association with our University as Dr. Bert Edmundson.”
Today, 47 years after graduation, Edmundson still draws on the formation he received at UST.
“I don’t sit and look at a patient and think about a passage I’ve read out of Horace or Virgil or Plato—that doesn’t happen—and yet I am certain that the way I hear a person’s problem, how I interact in a collaborative way with colleagues in medicine, or the terrific colleagues I work with at the University—it all comes to bear,” he said.
That’s why as board chair, he strives to ensure the University will always fan the flames of knowledge and faith that first set his mind and heart on fire.
“That’s the whole reason this institution exists…it exists as an institution of formation,” he said.
“That’s how the place does its work, and that’s how people that go through here are shaped.”