Chapter 01: A Strong Family and Early Experiences with Leadership

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Chapter 01: A Strong Family and Early Experiences with Leadership

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In this chapter, Dr. Buchholz talks about his years growing up in family: because of his father's frequent moves for work, he experienced different socioeconomic communities. Dr. Buchholz also talks about the impact of the years the family spent in Brazil for his sense of courage to try new things and mix with people of many different backgrounds.Dr. Buchholz discusses his involvement in athletics in school, noting that he was first selected for leadership roles in this area. His leadership, he explains, grew organically. He did not specifically plan or seek out leadership roles. They were suggested to him, he believes, because of his ability to connect with people and create trust.He also talks about the values his parents instilled in him, noting that he learned about leadership from conversations he had with his mother after school.

Identifier

BuchholzT_01_20180110_C01

Publication Date

1-8-2018

Publisher

The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Personal Background; Personal Background; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Influences from People and Life Experiences

Transcript

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

All right, and we are recording. So it is 20 minutes after 9:00 on January 10th, 2018, and today I am in the Department of Radiation Oncology, in the office of Dr. Thomas Buchholz, and he has very kindly agreed to participate in our interview project. And for the record, I wanted to say I’m Tacey Ann Rosolowski, and I’m conducting this interview for the Making Cancer History Voices Oral History Project, run by the Research Medical Library at MD Anderson. And I just wanted to put a few details about your background, though we’ll get to a lot more details, obviously, later on. You came to MD Anderson in 1997?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Correct.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Is that correct? Okay, and you joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology. And the division system was already set up at that point, so it was in the Division of Radiation Oncology.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

That is correct.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Okay. And you also at that time assumed the role of Director of the Medical School Radiation Oncology Program. Is that...?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

That is correct, yes.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

All right. And since that time, Dr. Buchholz has served as Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, and as Division Head, that from 2011 to 2014, and then from 2014 to 2017 he served as Executive Vice President and Physician In Chief.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Correct, and then I was Provost for a little while in between, too.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, okay, all right, all right. I had neglected to write that down. Well, we’ll talk about all those—

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Okay.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

All those roles.  

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, we agreed we’d start kind of in the traditional place, so I wanted to ask you if you could tell me where you were born, and when, and tell me a little bit about your family background.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Sure. So I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, although I didn’t last very long in—as a Kentucky native. I think within six months I was moving on. I was born the second of three children to my parents, wonderful Midwesterners. Both my parents were from a small town in Wisconsin, and both went to the University of Wisconsin for their graduate and undergraduate degrees. My dad studied engineering. He went into the Army for a little while, then came back and completed a business degree, in addition to his undergraduate engineering degree.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And your dad’s name?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

William Joseph Buchholz. And he and my mom went to high school together. She went to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and studied education, became a public school teacher.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And her name?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Mary Ellen Buchholz.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And your siblings?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

I have Daniel Joseph Buchholz, who is my older brother, and John William Buchholz, who is my younger brother. So after my dad got out of the military and they got married, my dad started working in the food industry, as kind of an operational engineer type of person. Initially he was working for Pillsbury, and subsequently started working for General Foods, where he spent the majority of his career, in both operations and management, I would say.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So did you move around the country a lot, or...?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

We did, quite a bit. So from Louisville, Kentucky I moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where my younger brother was born. We knew—moved from there to Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, I think my dad still worked for Pillsbury. And then—I always respect this from two small-town Wisconsin people who had never really seen the world, except for my father was in Europe for the military for a little while: my dad took a job with General Foods in Brazil. So my mom and three little boys moved to Brazil when I was probably about five, four or five. So we moved to Sao Paolo, Brazil. We were in Brazil for three years. My father worked for General Foods, which had an affiliation with Kibon, K-I-B-O-N. Kibon’s still an ice cream manufacturer today in South America. It was an interesting experience, living in Brazil.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So tell me about that. I mean, often living overseas has a huge impact on people’s later lives.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

It did. It was great, in many respects. Growing up in a foreign country, we went—we became part of an American community there in Brazil. Sao Paolo, as you know, is one of the largest cities in the world, and so, not surprisingly, the American community kind of stuck together and socialized, and... But nonetheless, we really were engrained in the Brazilian culture. I got to enjoy the 1970 World Cup win with Pele, and the greatest football team of all time. And it—we learned Portuguese, and we learned the culture, and it was fantastic. In those days, in corporate America, there was something called “home leave” that places like General Foods would give international people, and that would be—they’d fly your family first class on very—on Pan Am back to the United States, to spend six to eight weeks during the summer months. Anyway, and so we’d sometimes come back to Wisconsin, but sometimes my parents would cash in these first-class tickets and by third-class tickets to tour around South America. So it was really interesting. We saw Iguazu Falls. We went to Machu Picchu, to Lake Titicaca, to Ecuador. We really—we went up the Amazon in a rickety old Peace Corps boat, and wandered through the Amazon jungle, and really kind of a fantastic... And this was right when my memories were first formed. My memories of Minneapolis are less well certain than in Brazil. So it was a—it was a fun experience, and we did that for three years, which was a meaningful time. I started, I guess, kindergarten, first grade, second grade in Brazil.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Now, did you go to an American school, or an international school? How did that all work?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

I guess it was called Escuala de la Americana, so I think it was an American school, yeah.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Now, looking back, how do you feel that experience had an influence on you? I mean, that’s a time—around seven is also when kids are—their brains are really kind of taking in the complexity of the world, and...

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Yeah. I think it gave me appreciation for the world, and diversity, and different cultures. I mean, it was natural for me at that time to be exposed to something so different than America. We did have these blocks of time when we’d come back to America and there were some niceties. I remember I still kept a Hershey’s chocolate wrapper under my pillow, and I could smell it before bed. And we missed, like, turning on the tap and drinking water, and other things. But, of course, Brazil was still kind of a chaotic third-world country, and so we had some niceties. Like, we had a maid, and we had a chauffeur, and we... It was just a fun... I think I also learned from my parents—I really to this day admire their courage for just going for something like this. Nowadays, when my kids were small and you’re thinking about, oh, do we want to worry about a hotel room and all this and this. Boy, to just hop on and tour around what sometimes was—of course, memories sometimes get overdramatized, but just even some unsafe situations (laughs) where you’re like, wow, that was kind of courageous to go for it.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Absolutely.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

And so I also grew to respect, from my parents, kind of this—“you’ve got to go out there and live your life and have the courage to go for things,” and...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. I mean, I was thinking as you were saying—because, I mean, I did live overseas for a time, myself, and seeing parents who didn’t really embrace the situation—I mean, they were quite fearful, and they communicated that in some ways to their kids, and limited the possibilities. So you had kind of the best of everything with that.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

We did, yeah. And we had a really close family, obviously. My brothers and I have been really close throughout our life, in part because of our travels. And our travels didn’t end with Brazil. We moved to Wilton, Connecticut, where—which was close to White Plains, New York, which is kind of a hub for General Foods. We only lasted there for third grade, before we sat down with Dad again and moved to Walla Walla, Washington, on the other end of the country. And I went to Walla Walla just for fourth grade, and then moved from Walla Walla to—back to the East Coast, to upstate New York.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, where were you?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

There’s a small town called Fulton, New York, which is north of Syracuse, between Syracuse and Oswego. It’s geographically located in the absolute worst place for lake effect snow, (laughter) so the amount of snowfall that Fulton receives is just unbelievable.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I spent a good deal of time in Buffalo, New York, so... (laughter)

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Yeah. So we even got twice as much snow as Syracuse.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

That’s amazing.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

And it was... And it was an interesting town. My father eventually became plant manager of a Birds Eye there, and Fulton was a blue collar plant town. There were four plants. There—Miller Brewery came in, which was a big windfall for the city. There was kind of Armstrong Flooring, Birds Eye, and an ice cream plant. Oh, and a Nestle plant. So most of my peers—the industry of town was everybody worked in one of those plants. And so it was a pretty blue collar town. It was a town of 15-18,000 people. And I really grew up there. I feel like that’s my home. I was there from fifth grade through eleventh grade, so I did a lot of those exciting times of being a kid, from playing in the neighborhood to getting your driver’s license to going out on your first date, playing high school athletics, etc. And it was a fun time to grow up, and I really enjoyed it. We had a good quality of life, too. I got a good education in the public school system, but at the same time I think only about 15-20% of the graduates from our high school went to college.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Now, tell me a little bit about your educational development at this point. What were you—what did you find you enjoyed? What were you gravitating toward? What thrilled you? If “thrill” is the word.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Intellectually? (laughs)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, yeah. Or not. (laughter) Sort of the—

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Well, I think I grew up kind of as a normal kid. I was... I did well in school. Again, it wasn’t similar to going to, like, St. John’s, this... But I had more of an affinity to math and science, not surprisingly. I guess that’s kind of the doctor thing. My dad was an engineer, so he was a very pragmatic, Midwestern math/science guy, and my brother was good in math/science. And then I was consumed with athletics, too. I was very interested in football, basketball, and baseball, kind of the all-American small town sports. And I played in those from fifth grade on, really, in various phases, and up into the public high school arena, and up to the varsity level at that time. So sports was really important. Ironically, leadership kind of always was a component of that. I moved, again, midway through my fifth grade year, and in sixth grade I was the class president of my sixth grade class. And then I became various leaders of various sports teams I was on. Became leader of Honor Society in high school.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So tell me about deciding to do that. Because you have to make the choice to step forward and run, and...

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Yeah. Oftentimes, it hasn’t been such a conscious thing, or it hasn’t been something that I really have been driven towards, but rather encouraged to do. Like, “Why don’t you do this?” “Oh, okay.” “Oh, you’d be great as our leader. Why don’t you go ahead and do this?” And, “Oh, okay.”

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What do you think people saw at that point in you?

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Because the path just continued. The path continued in college, and in medical school, and after medical school, and then certainly here at MD Anderson the same. And this career path that I’ve had has given you time to stop and ponder and say, “How did I get these opportunities?” Because leadership—sometimes you could plan. You could have a five-year plan. And mine wasn’t that story. It was just, like, life unfolding in front of you, and deciding to pursue opportunities.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

When did you start becoming aware of your particular style, or the abilities that you had as a leader? Because every leader’s different.

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

Yeah. Well, as I reflected, why did I have these opportunities, I think it comes down to innate ability to connect with people and form relationships in an authentic and trusted fashion. And that wasn’t anything that I’d necessarily learned from leadership training, per se. It was just part of who I was. And I think, again, I have to give credit to my parents, who instilled in all of us basic core values that really resonated during my youth, and I carry with me today, and that’s my mom really stressed the importance of caring for people. As a public school educator in often underprivileged areas, she really wanted all of us to give back to the world in some meaningful fashion. And my dad always, again, had the courage to, whenever given an opportunity, to say yes to. And I think I had that courage, too. I’d see my dad as a role model. And sometimes saying yes is hard, right? Because it puts different strains on your family. My dad, at the end of our tenure there in Upstate New York, kind of lost his job, so to speak, as plant manager. It was kind of going away. But he didn’t lose his job with General Foods, but he said yes to some international work that displaced him from his family, and he worked in Colombia and Venezuela and Puerto Rico and Mexico. And that’s a long way from Fulton, New York, and it wasn’t clear that these were permanent jobs, so that we weren’t moving to Colombia. And so it ended up being a two- or three-year thing, but it gave him new opportunities, and that. So I think both my parents gave me kind of a skillset to connect with people in a caring and thoughtful, empathetic type of way. And then my dad’s courage to just go for it and feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations, or being comfortable trying something new, and not necessarily being obsessed with failure. Those are good traits, and so I’ve often kind of... Some of these things you think are self-evident to—like, that everybody in the world would see the world this way, because most of what I learned about leadership training came from after school sitting down with Mom, and talking about life, and the way you’re supposed to live life, rather than get an MBA degree on leadership or so. So... But yeah, I think leadership, like I said, had been kind of a consistent part of my life, dating back to elementary school. And then in high school, too, and in college. Seems like I always was first appointed social chairman, and then from social chairman moved to president or whatever. And it kind of followed, because that social connectivity of forming relationships with people, and then having the people themselves saying, “Hey, we want you to be the leader, because we trust you. You’re efficient. You’re...” I had enough native intelligence to handle situations. I was able to see the world through their eyes, and incorporate those thoughts into various decisions. I was president of my medical school class, for instance. That gets kind of caught up in minutial details of who gets to rotate in which service then, and how does that fit into getting married, or having a child, or other things, and still maintaining some objectivity and fairness to probably what are inconsequential decisions, (laughs) quite honestly, but...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, not inconsequential to the people who are making them, by any means. (laughter)

Thomas Buchholz, MD:

That’s right. That’s right.

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Chapter 01: A Strong Family and Early Experiences with Leadership

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