Most deserving of a CNS Lifetime Achievement Award, the first ever bestowed on a non-physician, is Roger Larson: historian, editor, literary critic, author and, as of this conference, recently retired Executive Director of the Child Neurology Society. Ultimately embodying the CNS, Roger witnessed and contributed to our Society’s growth and maturation from its early childhood through our 50th anniversary year.
The Midwestern roots of both Roger and the CNS are closely intertwined. The fourth of six children born to quiet, sweet-souled parents raised on neighboring farms in southern Minnesota, Roger grew up in Rochester, MN where his father worked for IBM for over 30 years – he comes by loyalty and longevity naturally. Roger graduated from Mayo High School in 1972, the same year the CNS was founded (and a year after 2018 CNS Sachs Awardee, Bill Dobyns, MD graduated from Mayo).
Roger began his freshman year majoring in American Studies at the University of Minnesota taking a seat in his first class in late September less than ¼ mile away from the academic offices where Ken Swaiman, MD, Larry Lockman, MD, and Mary Currey were busily composing, photocopying and sending out material for the 1st CNS meeting in Ann Arbor, MI. Roger would have graduated with a double-major in History and American Studies in 1976, but for reasons he characterizes as “too complicated, or cock-eyed, to explain,” opted not to, choosing instead to be a perennial student taking grad level courses that interested him, spending hours drinking coffee and discoursing on books, film and culture with friends in the American Studies graduate program, and even more hours writing columns, serial fiction, and book & film reviews for the Minnesota Daily (the University’s award-winning newspaper) and City Pages (Minneapolis/St. Paul’s leading alternative weekly). He wrote for and alongside Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune film critic who succeeded the deceased Gene Siskel (of Siskel & Ebert, “At the Movies” fame; there’s a story there that Roger may share at the Legacy Luncheon).
In 1981 Roger got a part-time job working for Larry Lockman, MD on a multi-clinical drug study for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut, funded by Burroughs Wellcome. Mark Scher, MD was Chief Resident at the time. Close readers will see Roger acknowledged in the 2nd edition of Swaiman & Wright’s Pediatric Neurology: Principles and Practice, the starting point for a four-decade labor of love “dotting i’s, crossing t’s, correcting spelling and inserting commas for child neurologists from morning ‘til night.”
Little by little, Roger started helping Mary Currey out on CNS business, first by processing abstracts (this being the snail mail, pre-fax era) and later membership applications. It is most likely Roger processed both of our membership applications, as we joined the Society in 1985 and 1986. He attended his first CNS Meeting in Halifax in 1988 (Bruce’s 2nd, Phil’s 1st) and recruited the first exhibitor to a CNS Annual Meeting the following year in San Antonio, setting the stage for what would later become a fixture at conferences bringing financial success. That and other parts of what became progressively bigger and better annual meetings is largely owing, he insists, to the quiet, steady excellence of Sue Hussman; Sue first joined the CNS as an independent contractor for the Joint CNS-ICNA Meeting in 1994 before later becoming a full-time staffer and for the past 10 years, Associate Director.
In 1989, when Marvin Fishman, MD was CNS President, Mary and Roger moved the CNS National Office out of the University of Minnesota’s Pediatric Neurology Division and set up an independent office in a charming old brownstone building less than ½ mile from where Roger now lives. The office later moved to Shoreview, a suburb 10 miles north. Roger passed on leaving the CNS for another job twice in the intervening years, both times because of the enormous loyalty and regard he had for the Presidents at the time: Joe Volpe, MD and Ann Tilton, MD. The rest is history.
Roger took the 4-page stapled “newsletter” in the early 90s and turned it into successively larger and more sophisticated iterations of what has become CNS Connections. He oversaw the development of the first CNS website in 1999 and has “survived” four subsequent website redevelopment projects. When Mary Currey retired in early 2012, the then CNS President, E. Steve Roach, MD asked Roger to become the 2nd CNS Executive Director (ED). His first meeting as ED was Huntington Beach, a trial-by-fire (or water) event when nearly 1/3 of the registered member had their flights delayed or cancelled by Hurricane Sandy working its way up the East Coast. It was at this meeting that he met Dr. Yasmin Khakoo’s 8-year-old daughter, Aliya, who he vividly recalls earnestly handing him a $5 bill, thus becoming the youngest contributor to the Philip R. Dodge Young Investigator Award. Ten years later, at this year’s Legacy Luncheon in Cincinnati, Aliya will become the first Dodge YIA contributor to receive the CNS Bhuwan Garg High School Neuroscience Award. Roger’s life with the CNS is filled with many of these full-circle moments.
Roger has known or worked with all but one CNS President and all but six CNS Councillors (some, years after they first served). Many of us first met Roger at the annual meeting, usually somewhere near the registration desk, podium or posters. Developing relationships with young members is Roger’s nature; for him, this is not “work.” Those relationships often developed into fellowship that, over time, became friendships.
Among our most cherished hours each week are those spent Zooming with Roger. After a personal check-in, we would get down to business. There have been about 100 of those meetings by which we have developed a friendship. Roger has been a source of information on “the hows and whys and history of our society.” We seemingly tapped Roger’s memory almost daily searching for a piece of CNS history that is undocumented, yet important. The last question I (BHC) asked Roger a day before his retirement was “why do we spell Councillor (our elected regional board members) in such an odd manner?” It may have been the only time Roger was not sure of the answer. He presumes it may have something to do with Mary Currey’s Canadian upbringing in Alberta.
Roger has never lost sight of the importance of our discipline and the Society’s role in it: the commitment and value of the annual meeting allowing members at all ages and stages to present their “best stuff”, and our collective role in ensuring the sustainability of the Society, our profession, and the children and families we serve. For those fortunate enough to serve on the Board, having the opportunity to get to know Roger better was a career highlight. A consistent highlight of BOD meetings was his always erudite introductory remarks, replete with poems, historical quotations and illustrative examples articulated beautifully.
The day will come when a new CNS President and 6 CNS Councillors will be elected that he has not known or worked with, but that’s likely a decade or more off in the future. In the run-up to last year’s 50th Anniversary meeting in Boston, Roger began sending an acrostic of daily eConnections messages (“Countdown to Boston”), with themes labelled alphabetically ascending from A to Z then back to A again. The collected entries (available on the CNS website) became a veritable history of the Society, with loads of heartwarming and illuminating anecdotes and photographs. It became increasingly obvious as the meeting drew closer – to him, and painfully, to us – that these were actually love letters written in the throes of saying goodbye.
We are so fortunate that Roger has been a part of us and we of him, and that we will have this opportunity to celebrate his legacy at this year’s meeting. He will be joined by his wife, Buffy, a professional musician (trumpet) and music teacher at two bilingual inner city Minneapolis schools. Buffy and Roger first married a few months after he began working at the U of M (and the CNS). He will tell you that they flunked “Empty Nest Syndrome 101”, separating and divorcing 7 years ago when he found himself devoting all of his “extra” non-parenting time to the CNS. Like many parts and stories told about his life, this one comes full circle. We are happy to report that Roger and Buffy found their way back together and remarried this past July, a few months before he retired from the CNS. They have two adult children: Soren, who lives in Minneapolis and travels around the country timing races, will be “stopping by” the Cincinnati meeting in between timing the Chicago Marathon on the 9th and the Columbus Marathon on the 16th; and Mekea, a New York-based graphic designer and photographer well known to CNS members from past annual meetings where she worked alongside CNS photographer, Suzanne Shaff, and coordinated videotaped CNS Conversations/Podcast sessions with the late Theresa Trapilo, a mainstay at CNS meetings going back to Dr. Volpe’s presidency in 1994. Roger plans to return to writing a novel first begun in 1994, work he largely set aside in 2012 when he became Executive Director. Roger is deserving of this distinctive honor. We have been privileged to work, learn and live alongside this magnificent individual. We look forward to reading his novel.