By Wendy Sarubbi | January 5, 2009 12:00 am

Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 4, 2009 — The first time David Odahowski saw Dr. Deborah German, the University of Central Florida’s diminutive medical school dean was speaking to a gathering of community leaders at Winter Park’s Interlachen Country Club, barely able to see above the podium. He had heard about German and her audacious plan to give UCF’s first class of 40medical students a free financial ride, an idea that prompted one top administrator to tell German she was “crazy.”

The Risk-taking Dynamo Driving UCF’s Med School

“I was a doubting Thomas, too,” admitted Odahowski, who as president and CEO of the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation knows a thing or two about fundraising.

By the time German was through, Odahowski was a convert. So were members of Winter Park’s Chamber of Commerce, even though many of them possess a stronger sense of loyalty to their hometown Rollins College than to UCF. Yet the chamber went onto raise $40,000 for German’s scholarship program, enough to pay a full year’s tuition and expenses for one of UCF’s first medical-school students.

German’s extraordinary initiative, announced in June 2007, meant raising $6.4 million — $160,000 per student — during a time when the economy was starting to nose-dive and the competition for philanthropic dollars was intensifying.

Less than a year later, UCF announced the fundraising goal had been met. The university’s inaugural class of med students would get a free education, something no other medical school in the country had ever done.

“She won over the hearts and wallets of Central Florida,” Odahowski said. “I’ll tell you, she’s put this medical school on the map.”

German is hesitant to talk about her raising money. The one job she ever hated was as a telephone solicitor, which lasted one day.

German sees her Central Florida barnstorming as a way to forge “partnerships” with the region’s people, businesses and institutions.

Call it what you will, German’s successful scholarship drive put a spotlight on her remarkable effort to build a medical school from scratch, and it’s why she has been named the 2008 Central Floridian of the Year by the Orlando Sentinel’s Editorial Board.

Now in its 26th year, the designation recognizes the contributions of an individual or a group. German insists the medical school’s progress has been a group effort, but her leadership is inarguable.

“When the history is written on this medical school, I think you’ll see Deb German’s fingerprints all over it,” said UCF Provost Terry Hickey, who hired German to head UCF’s fledgling College of Medicine.

Failure as Opportunity

As much as she has enjoyed success, failure has been Deb German’s best teacher. Back in ninth grade, when she was Debbie Campano, German tried out for the junior varsity cheerleading squad at Cumberland High School in Rhode Island. She didn’t make the cut.

“I was crushed,” she recalled. “My little heart was devastated. I realized I wasn’t as good as the other girls. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself.”

So she tried out for the cheerleading squad at her Catholic church. She made it, became the captain in her second year and then made varsity in her junior year at Cumberland High.

“I think if I had made it on the JV team and just gone through high school as a cheerleader, I would have missed something very important,” said German, 58. “So when I look back, I’m really glad I failed.”

It happened again when German applied to Brown University’s Pembroke College for women. Brown was the top school in Rhode Island, but she was rejected. German was accepted at Boston University, finished at the top of her class and got accepted to every medical school where she applied, including Yale, Penn and Harvard, which is where she ultimately landed.

“Not getting in [at Brown] made me want to work… even harder to see what I could accomplish. When I look back on my life — this is going to sound weird — but the best things that ever happened to me were my failures.”

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