Dr. Aaron Lazare, 79; former chancellor and dean of UMass Medical School
Dr. Aaron Lazare, who served as chancellor and dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester for more than 16 years, and whose research and leadership expanded understanding in the fields of apology and adoption, died Tuesday in Good Shepherd Community Care hospice in Newton from complications of renal cell carcinoma.
A longtime resident of Newton, where he and his wife Louise raised eight adopted children, Dr. Lazare was 79.
Although ill health prompted him to retire from his leadership posts at the medical school in 2007, he remained a professor of psychiatry and chancellor and dean emeritus, and continued his research.
“Dr. Lazare helped to transform the Commonwealth’s public medical school into a leading hub for medical education, biomedical research, and patient care,” Dr. Michael F. Collins, the medical school’s chancellor, said in a statement. “His legacy is rich and profound and extends far beyond our campus and the region. Indeed, his scholarly work focused on elevating and ensuring respect in the doctor-patient relationship remains the standard for clinical and training programs.”
A pioneering scholar, Dr. Lazare developed an expertise in apologies that ranged from the private to the exceedingly public, including those offered by politicians such as President Nixon. In 2004, Dr. Lazare published the book “On Apology.”
“Generally people don’t apologize, and they don’t at great cost,” Dr. Lazare, who broke down successful apologies into four components, told the Globe in 1994. “An apology is a social healing process, and if you fail to heal, you’ll have grudges and endless vengeance.”
On professional and personal levels, Dr. Lazare was also a leader in the area of adoption. His eight children included Caucasians, African- Americans, and Vietnamese-Americans whose biological fathers were US servicemen during the war. Though experts a half-century ago worried about the risks of adopting children who had passed infancy, “we decided to take the risk, and maybe we were lucky, but we didn’t want anyone to tell us to be cautious. We made an ethical and moral decision, not a scientific one,” Dr. Lazare told the Globe in 2000. As for his children, he added: “They were all resilient.”
In 1995, Governor William F. Weld appointed Dr. Lazare to chair the Citizens Task Force on Adoption. Among its recommendations was that UMass establish the Center for Adoption Research and Policy, which Dr. Lazare founded. “Everyone talks about how wonderful adoption is, but no one studies it to figure out how to make it work right,” Dr. Lazare told the Globe in 1998, explaining that launching the center “became like a moral obligation.”
Richard J. Stanton, associate vice chancellor for administration and finance at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and formerly a UMass Medical School deputy chancellor, said in a statement that Dr. Lazare was “able to be quick and clever, but more importantly, he was thoughtful and resolute. Not controlling and domineering but empowering and supporting. Aaron involved and solicited from many, challenging them to work with him to find the answers.”
Thoru Pederson, a professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at UMass Medical School, praised how Dr. Lazare “very handsomely balanced” the school’s obligations for teaching and training, research, and clinical care.
“I always thought of him not only as a scholar of medicine, but a humanitarian of the profession,” Pederson said. “He brought that perspective into the medical school curriculum in important ways.”
The second of three children, Dr. Lazare was born in Newark and grew up in Bayonne, N.J. He graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, and received a medical degree in 1961 from the then-Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
While in medical school, he met Louise Cannon, a Somerville native who was in Ohio studying to be a nurse. They married in 1962.
Dr. Lazare spent his residency at Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, where he was a ward administrator in metabolic research in depression and chief resident in psychiatry. For two years in the mid-1960s, he served as an Army medical officer and was a captain at Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania.
He taught at Yale School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts General Hospital before moving to UMass Medical School in 1982 to chair the psychiatry department. He was named interim dean in 1989, interim chancellor the following year, and assumed both posts on a permanent basis in 1991.
Dr. Lazare received the university’s Distinguished Professional Public Service Award in 1988. The Worcester Children’s Friend Society honored his commitment to adoption with its Children’s Friend Award, and in 2001, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute presented Dr. Lazare and his wife with an Angel in Adoption award. The medical school named the Aaron Lazare Medical Research Building in his honor when it opened in 2002.
He was 71 in 2007 when, having developed a cardiac arrhythmia, he retired from being dean and chancellor. Calling it a “bittersweet moment,” Dr. Lazare wrote to his staff that he began to think the stress of holding the two jobs for so many years meant “it might be time to step down from these very heavy responsibilities.”
Unable to have biological children, Dr. Lazare and his wife began adopting in 1966, not anticipating that their family would become large and multiracial. Just 3 weeks old when she arrived, Jacqueline was their first child. Jacqueline Lazare-Dunne was 29 when she died of breast cancer in 1995.
The Lazares adopted seven more children through 1977, persevering despite efforts by a social worker and extended family to persuade them not to welcome children of other races. Dr. Lazare noted in the 2000 Globe interview that his wife bore much of the child-care responsibilities, and he called her a “saint.” In turn, she said he was the one who read to the children because he “thought reading was very important, and encouraged any kind of education. He was very in tune with the kids.”
Dr. Lazare told the Globe their children offered lessons he “never could have learned from any psychiatry textbook,” and added the experience left him with “a calling to enhance the idea that every child who needs to be should be successfully adopted.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Lazare leaves seven children, Robert of Belfast, Maine, David of Millis, Samuel of Newton, Sarah of Springfield, Hien Lazare Rivers of Newton, Thomas of Englewood, Calif., and Naomi of Newton; a sister, Sally Mason of Bayonne; a brother, Sanford of East Brunswick, N.J.; and 11 grandchildren.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Episcopal Parish of the Good Shepherd in Newton’s Waban section.
Louise Lazare said her husband “was a kind and compassionate person” who often fell into a parental role with those he supervised, particularly medical students.
“He felt fatherly toward people,” she said. “He felt responsibility for their happiness and their well-being.”
Dr. Lazare also “had an extremely good nose for sincerity, and he had a very keen nose for insincerity,” said Pederson, who added: “I mean that in an admiring way.”
Such sensitivity was an asset for an administrator, and also contributed to Dr. Lazare’s work in the field of apology and the broader realm of respect.
“An apology validates people’s feelings — it says they were right in feeling hurt, and it puts them back on an equal footing with you,” Dr. Lazare told the Globe in 1994, adding: “Once I offend you, the relationship is never quite right until there’s an apology. An apology can restore and even strengthen relationships. It is a special opportunity not to be missed.”