Wilmouth takes reins at Rocky as interim president

2013-01-17T00:15:00Z 2013-04-12T17:03:32Z Wilmouth takes reins at Rocky as interim presidentBy MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Bob Wilmouth’s daughters tease him about adjusting to his new job as interim president of Rocky Mountain College.

Now that he is a public figure, “You constantly will be ‘on,’" they told him, warning him he no longer can go to the grocery store in a hoodie sweatshirt.

Wilmouth, 56, enjoys the ribbing he’s getting from his daughters, and he’s enjoying his first days in charge of the private Billings college.

The longtime cardiovascular surgeon headed Rocky’s master’s of physician assistant program before becoming interim president Jan. 1.

Wilmouth replaces Michael Mace, who is taking a medical leave and a sabbatical until he formally retires June 30.

Wilmouth always wanted to be a physician as he was growing up in Evanston, Ill., the son of a registered nurse and a Chicago banker.

While at the University of Notre Dame, he applied to medical school but didn’t get in.

Disappointed, but undeterred, he regrouped and did what it took to get in on his second try, packing the two years after his college graduation to the brim.

While at Notre Dame, Wilmouth joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and later spent three months at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, taking a medical-officer course before going into the U.S. Army Reserves.

When his father told him he needed to get a job if he wasn’t going to be in medical school, Wilmouth became an IBM marketing representative for two years.

Although he still planned to be a doctor, his years at IBM weren’t wasted.

“I learned about communication, how to answer questions and think on my feet,” he said.

To pump up his second application to medical school, he also took night classes in microbiology.

His strategy worked, and he was accepted by the University of Illinois School of Medicine.

During medical school, he discovered a passion for surgery, so he went on to a five-year surgical residency at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

Deciding to specialize in heart-lung surgery, he was accepted for a fellowship in cardio-thoracic surgery at New York University Medical Center for another four years.

He was a clinical instructor during his time in Denver and New York.

Looking for a place to practice his specialty in 1991, he found Billings Clinic a perfect fit professionally and Billings a good place to raise a family.

He and his wife, Liz, have two daughters — Maggie, 21, a student at Notre Dame; and Katie, 20, who goes to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

Wilmouth became chief of cardiac services at the clinic and then medical director.

Despite his successful career in a demanding specialty, Wilmouth says nothing has come easily to him.

Hard work and being lucky to have been surrounded by good people were the keys to his success, he said.

About 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with a metastasized cancer.

He got through his treatment with his family’s help, he said.

A single word — “hope” — also was crucial to his healing.

Wilmouth left the clinic and took a year off to recover and figure out what to do next.

He decided to increase his teaching in Rocky’s PA program, and he became a board member of the physician-sponsored Mountain Pacific Quality Health, which works on quality improvement at hospitals and health care in Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming.

Wilmouth became head of the PA program in 2008.

The former assistant director, Heather Heggem, took charge of the program when Wilmouth moved to Rocky’s president’s office.

Rocky has hired Washington, D.C.-based AGB Search to find candidates for a permanent replacement for Mace. So far, 18 people have applied for the job, plus another 50 people have been nominated by others, said Carl Hansen, chairman of the Rocky board of trustees. The application process is still open.

After narrowing the field of candidates, checking qualifications and interviews with finalists, the board expects to name a permanent president sometime in May, depending on the candidates.

Wilmouth is one of the applicants for the job where he has enthusiastically jumped in.

“It’s wonderful to do something you really believe in,” he said.

Although Rocky no longer is strictly a liberal-arts college, it is rooted in the liberal-arts tradition that educates the whole person, including their soul, Wilmouth said.

Students also learn how to read deeply, write, communicate and make good decisions in life.

With an enrollment of about 1,000 students and an endowment of $25 million, Rocky is in good shape, but “we want to get better,” Wilmouth said.

Among future projects that need attention is the renovation and expansion of Rocky’s Bair Family Center for the Sciences, built in 1981.

More classrooms and up-to-date labs are needed.

Wilmouth knows that the main job of any college president is “fundraising, fundraising, fundraising,” he said. He’s not daunted by the short time he has — at this point — to get things done.

Having faced tough challenges before, he’s upbeat about the job ahead.

“I think we can accomplish a lot in six months,” he said. 

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