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A mentor saw potential, then watched it blossom

A scholarship rooted in the brilliance a doctor detected in the young man he nurtured.

Dr. Eric Dickson is the CEO of Worcester's UMass Memorial Health, the third-largest health care system in Massachusetts and employs more than 16,500 employees.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

WORCESTER — There are small-but-critical moments in our daily discourse — a friendly word or an especially kind gesture — that can, without exaggeration, reshape the trajectory of lives.

A smile. Or a handshake. A thoughtful suggestion offered at precisely the right time.

And then a decision is made. A choice is altered. Two roads converge. One path is abandoned, and another carefully followed.

Eric Dickson remembers a moment exactly like that. He’ll never forget the man who helped him then. And how, all these years later, it helped shaped who he became.

“He planted a seed that had never been planted before,’’ said Dickson, who is now chief executive officer at UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester. “And it started to grow.”


Dr. Dan Coleman, now a retired pulmonologist, remembers that moment, too.

“He was almost a kid in 1987,” Coleman said of Dickson. “And I took him aside and I said, ‘Listen, I think there are bigger things in store for you.’ He was sharp. He stood out. He was studying to be a respiratory therapist — something you didn’t even need a bachelor’s degree for at that time.

“And then I said to him: ‘You should shoot a little bit higher.’ ”

And so that’s just what Eric Dickson did. It was a circuitous course.

Dickson, 55, grew up in Burlington and, instead of college, went directly into the Army where he trained as a combat medic.

“They needed respiratory therapists to run ventilators,” Dickson told me the other day when I visited him here.

So that’s what Dickson was doing, running ventilators, when, one day while reading an X-ray, he spotted something that others had missed.

He showed it to Dr. Dan Coleman, then a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.

“And he said, ‘You know, Dickson, you’ve got to go to medical school,’” Eric Dickson recalled. “And it was like a direct order from a superior officer.


“And I thought: I could never go to med school. I didn’t even go to college out of high school. Medical school?”

That moment is frozen now, preserved in his memory.

“He just sat there and convinced me,” Dickson said. “And he said to me, ‘Look, I’ve worked with you. I see that you’re smart enough to do it.’

“And, you know, I was not even 21 at the time. Probably 20-ish. Sometimes you just need a little bit of encouragement and that can make all the difference in the trajectory of your life. And so, here’s somebody I looked up to completely.

“He was a colonel. I was a private. And it didn’t take a lot of his time. It didn’t take a lot of effort. But it was right at the right time for me.”

The seed that Dan Coleman planted that day bore fruit.

“And it started to grow,” Dickson said. “So, when I decided to do my pre-med I did it at Merrimack College. I worked at Lawrence General and he was a doctor in the intensive care unit at Lawrence General. And, over the years, we continued to interact. He continued to encourage me. And then he wrote me a letter of recommendation for medical school.”

The two men remembered those days last month at a beloved luncheon place between Haverhill and Lawrence.


“It was just terrific,” Dickson told me.

That’s just what Dr. Coleman thought, too.

“He and I had lunch,” Coleman said. “It was very nice. It was great to see him again. He’s the CEO now for heaven’s sake. He’s done damn well.”

His old student had a little surprise for his old mentor, too.

Dickson has pledged $10,000 to Northern Essex Community College and challenged the community to match his donation, which it promptly did. The permanently endowed scholarship fund now exceeds $70,000.

Coleman is retired from private practice, but continues to serve as the medical adviser for Northern Essex — a position he’s had now for 35 years.

“Eric came up with the scholarship in my name and I was very moved by that,” Coleman told me.

“In fact, I was at a restaurant up in North Andover and a young lady came up and thanked me. She said, ‘Your scholarship is what allowed me to go into the program.’ I was moved. It had taken root. Thank you, Eric.”

In an earlier incarnation, the scholarship was funded by Dixon alone and then he worked with the college and other former students of Coleman’s to create a permanently endowed fund.

For Eric Dickson it’s a dividend for the life’s gift bestowed on him by Coleman.

“I can’t tell you how many med school recommendations I’ve written and how many students I’ve helped get rotations in hospitals,” Dickson said. “And especially for those people who didn’t go to Harvard for their undergraduate work.


“Something went right early on in their life. They had mentorship and support. You know the person who doesn’t go to college after high school is the perfect person for me. The purpose is always to be looking. Is there some young person I can help, or encourage and help change the trajectory of their life for the better?

“Doctor Coleman certainly did that for me.”

It’s a connection forged a long time ago when a doctor saw potential in a young man.

And then watched him blossom into a medical leader who has never forgotten those who helped him along the way.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.