The Clay that Broke the Mold: A Tribute to Suzanne Clay

Suzanne Clay served the Department of Medicine for over 50 years in various administrative capacities and is regarded by most to be one of its most influential leaders. She is beloved and admired by many, including four former Chairs, whose tributes are shown below. First, she shares some memories of her time at UMMC.

First tell us about you and your family.

I am a native of Jackson, attended Jackson Public Schools and graduated from Murrah High School and then Belhaven University in August 1965.  My husband Bill and I were married 54 years at the time of his death and have two sons, Mark and Bryan, two daughters-in-law, Dixie and Jamie, and five wonderful grandchildren ranging in age from 14 to 25: Will (married Emily Graham) and McRae; Reed, Matthew and Kelsey. My faithful companion is Jaxx, my 90-pound German Shepherd.

How would you describe what you did while at UMMC?

Through the years as a member of the Chair’s staff, initially as a secretary and in later years as the Director of Business Services, I saw the department develop from about 30 faculty and housestaff and nine employees to a faculty of over 200, housestaff of 140 and several hundred employees.  It was my privilege to work with all of the Chairs and Interim Chairs except for the first chairman, Dr. Robert Snavely, who passed away before I was employed.  Each Chair taught me so much and gave me incredible opportunities.  I was fully engaged in strategic planning, program development, faculty recruitment and resource management.  I believe my most important role was learning what the chairman’s vision for the department was, then finding the resources (money, personnel, equipment, space, etc.) to make it possible.  At times this was stressful, but the benefit offsetting the stress was working with so many brilliant, talented and wonderful people.

How and when did you start at UMMC?

After college I began to look for a job just to help with finances for a couple of years.   Because I had always loved biological sciences, I thought it would be rewarding to work in a medical environment. I applied for a medical secretary position at UMMC on December 23, 1964.  I had led a fairly sheltered life until I interviewed with Dr. Harper Hellems, who had been recruited as Chair of the Department of Medicine six months prior to this.  It was an intimidating experience. I walked into his office and encountered a grumpy man in a long white coat engulfed in smoke from a cigarette held in one hand and another placed in the ashtray.  He immediately asked me two questions:  1) Did you make good grades?  2) Are you planning on having any more children soon?   (Needless to say, Dr. Hellems would not have survived in today’s work place!)  That was the end of the interview. Based on the brevity of the interview I surmised that I did not impress him and I would not be hired.  I was shocked when I got a call the same afternoon offering me the job with the contingency that I start Monday, December 27, 1964.  This began a long and truly interesting journey. 

Please share some of your memories of your time here at UMMC.

A few memories, not necessarily all job-related, from these years are:

  • Everyone ate in the cafeteria and knew everyone there.  Everyone had a parking place.
  • The day I met Dr. Arthur Guyton!  His office was on the same hallway as ours and he actually introduced himself to me, recognizing I was the new person on the 6th floor.  Of course, I knew who he was!  He was always so kind and congenial.
  • The deep-sea fishing trip with Bill and Joe and Suzanne Files when Dr. Hellems gave strict orders that we were to bring him a whole fish, preserved on ice the same day it was caught.  We did what he asked (he was my new boss); however, he failed to mention his wife was having a formal dinner party the same night we arrived carrying a large dead fish.
  • The Monday I opened the mail for Dr. Hellems from Dr. Patrick Lehan (Cardiology) which contained a dead mouse that had been in the campus post office all weekend (it’s a long story).
  • The day Dr. Hellems’ white coat caught on fire from cigarette sparks. 
  • There are so many “Harper” stories which reflect the fact that he was an unusual person.  He was brilliant, in many prestigious societies, and nationally known for his research.  This enabled him to call another chairman and say “I need a chief of gastroenterology or pulmonary or rheumatology” and they sent someone for that position.  He recruited Dr. Pat Lehan and Dr. Angel Markov who had worked with him at the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry.  He was able to build a well-rounded department by the time he retired in 1990 and it was exciting to be involved in this process.
  • Dr. Jack O’Connell was the next permanent chair. He made progress in many important areas, but one that stands out is communication.  He initiated regular meetings of clinical chiefs and periodic retreats for division directors and departmental leadership, the latter of which encouraged some very spirited discussions.  One I particularly remember was outside my room at a retreat in Natchez which continued loudly until 2:00 AM.  He did everything with gusto.  He had great vision for the department and his enthusiasm was contagious.  We worked hard, but had fun!   
  • Dr. O’Connell was also known for very festive, fun Christmas parties at the Country Club of Jackson.  Being a new chair and a real “people person”, he wanted to lift spirits and build comraderie in the department.  Spirits were definitely lifted, but unfortunately there was a “casualty” every year.  Some of you may remember the “day after the party” stories.
  • My birthday when a black sheet hung from the Clinical Science Building 6th floor windows saying “Suzanne Clay is 40 today”. Could Dr. Terry Jackson have been involved?
  • The day Dr. Lehan was making rounds on 3East and decided to see if the new smoke alarms worked.
  • The day Dr. Tate Thigpen had a pie thrown in his face while rounding.
  • The phone call from the newly recruited Chair who identified himself as “Little Ricky from Mobile”.  My first impression of his greeting was he must moonlight in a rock band.  He may not have played in a band, but he has played a big part in my life since then.  He was passionate about many things, but healthcare for the underserved in Mississippi was a major concern of his.  During his time as Chairman he became the famous “Dr. Rick” on the Missisippi Public Broadcast show Southern Remedies.  
  • The tragic day when Dr. Bill Little died while in a meeting at UMMC.  I worked part-time when he became chairman so my role was different, but I came to like and respect him very much in his time with us. His death left the department and the Medical Center in shock.
  • The Interim Chairs. They are heroes.  All were revered and engaged in their own careers, none sought this position, but all rose to the occasion to give leadership and stability to the department in difficult times.  Drs. Pat Lehan (who refused to be an “acting” chair, but agreed to be an “interim”), Joe Files, Shirley Schlessinger and Dan Jones have my utmost respect for their loyalty to the department and my thanks for letting me continue in my role. They are friends for life.

What have you been up to since retirement?

I retired from my full-time position after 44 years in 2009 and worked part-time on special projects until 2017 when I really retired.  When I finally retired it was bittersweet. I embraced the fact that I would have more time for my personal life, however, leaving UMMC felt like leaving a dear friend or a large family behind.  That initial feeling has been replaced with a sense of fulfillment, fond memories and the freedom to do what I love beyond UMMC. I have such joy being involved in the life journeys of my children and grandchildren, relaxing at my place at the beach, spending time with dear lifelong friends and renewing old friendships.  I even went on a safari in South Africa several years ago with one of my sons and his family, which was the trip of a lifetime!  Of prime importance to me is having more time to be fully engaged with my church and church family.

What is something you have learned in retirement?

In retirement I have learned that the important things are faith, family and friends. This is an old cliché, but it really is what matters.  When you work full time, the margins in your life are small and crowded.  After you retire the margins are blank and waiting to be filled with things you enjoy – things that keep you physically, mentally and spiritually healthy and with people you love.


John O’Connell, MD

UMMC Chair of Medicine, 1991-1996

I am so pleased you have chosen to honor Suzanne for her undying service and commitment to UMMC Department of Medicine. My friendship with her began the day I first met her during the interview process in 1990. Since I had no experience running a department, I knew I had to rely on her institutional memory and guidance. In fact, she arguably had been the chair herself for several years prior to my arrival. She guided me through my maturation and her counsel kept me out of serious trouble. It became readily apparent that the trust she had from the faculty allowed me to be accepted and to pull off some dramatic changes in the department. The number of times she bailed me out and finessed my relationship with a suspicious faculty are too numerous to count.

She had a long, committed career and no one has done more for the Department of Medicine including my distinguished colleagues, the Chairs.

John O’Connell

She taught me how the finances work (she solely kept the Department afloat for years), helped a young enthusiastic Midwesterner learn and ultimately feel at home in the Southern and UMMC cultures. As an example, the first holiday season I was there, I was overwhelmed by the number of party invitations Mary and I received from the administration, other departments, divisions and key faculty. When I asked which I was expected to attend (there may be 3 or 4 in a single night), she said simply all of them which blew me away. She introduced me to key faculty who I entrusted and facilitated my relationship with the students and residents. She made sure I knew when I was about to blunder and helped me smooth over some errors. She believed in what I was trying to accomplish and helped explain the direction we were moving to the faculty leadership. We could not have accomplished what we did as a Department in the almost six years I was there without her.

She became a close friend and we shared many exciting times together. The Department became very sociable with annual resident’s pig roasts, golf tournaments and chief resident’s deep-sea fishing expeditions. However, without a doubt the greatest party was the Holiday Party. There was always a “story” and many times it needed her intervention sometimes in the middle of the night after partying with us. The success we had during my tenure is largely a result of our partnership and the partnership she nurtured with key faculty and administration. Both Mary and I were so excited to attend her “retirement” party years later. She had a long, committed career and no one has done more for the Department of Medicine including my distinguished colleagues, the chairs. I’m so glad she is being honored by the Department.

Joe C. Files, MD, MACP

UMMC Interim Chair of Medicine, 1996-1997

I have known Suzanne McRae Clay for five decades of my life; she was the child prodigy of Dorothy and John McRae. I first met Suzanne as a 3rd year medical student. The DOM as I remember was composed of three people, Dr. Harper Hellems, Chair, a receptionist and Mrs. Clay, his Administrative Assistant. Over the years as we watched the Department function and grow, it became clear that the real boss was Suzanne.

Over the years as we watched the department function and grow, it became clear that the real boss was Suzanne.

Joe Files

The DOM was located in those days on the 6th floor in the old research wing of the hospital across from the Snavely Library. During my internship I spent more time in that area. I was interested in hematology and the heme division office and lab were located next to the DOM. There was a pretty med tech in the heme lab that I had an eye for. As a second year resident she became my wife and together we shared a long and rewarding relationship with Bill and Suzanne Clay.

Suzanne and Bill at that time lived on Sedgwick Drive off Old Canton Road. We bought a small house from Dr. Ben Johnson that was on Kinder Drive about 2 blocks from Bill and Suzanne and on “higher ground”. On several occasions during the spring floods we helped move the Clay’s furniture up on cinder blocks when the house might flood. We partied together on Friday nights, took summer vacations together, and both raised two sons.

Over the years as the DOM evolved, Suzanne’s job and responsibilities changed dramatically. She was always at work early and stayed late. She knew everyone at the medical center and knew how to get things done. All the deans knew who to call in the DOM.

Her loyalty to the medical center and specifically the DOM was steadfast. She was smart beyond smart.

Years later, she and Bill built a house in the Dinsmor subdivision about ½ mile from our house. Bill is gone now but the Suzannes and I still get together almost every Friday for dinner– not so much partying now but good company.

Richard D. deShazo, MD MACP

UMMC Chair of Medicine, 1997-2010

Suzanne Clay was the rock on which the Department of Medicine and  every Chair since our second Chair rested until she completely retired not that long ago. She and I worked together every work day for 13 or so years during which she was our departmental administrator, my mentor and a close friend and confidant.

She not only served as our senior administrator/ department manager, but was an ongoing resource for vice chancellors, deans, faculty, staff, nurses and the cleaning crew, all of whom sought her out for advice and comfort, as did I.

Richard deShazo

Suzanne had positive relationships with  everyone I came to know at UMMC and in the larger Mississippi medical, religious and volunteer communities as well.  The heart of who she is her faith, her personal rock. A faith that is quietly lived and always full of love. Although truthfulness, honesty, competence and the like compose the integrity professionals are expected to have, that faith led her to a higher order of leadership in the Department of Medicine. She not only served as our senior administrator/ department manager, but was an ongoing resource for vice chancellors, deans, faculty, staff, nurses and the cleaning crew, all of whom sought her out for advice and comfort, as did I. That is why the department managers group names their annual top honor as The Suzanne Clay Award. 

While woking full time plus some, she and her late husband Bill raised wonderful and successful children and nurtured a gaggle of grandchildren who are as authentic and talented as Suzanne. To you Suzanne, I continue to send my gratitude,  warm regards and very best wishes. It’s time for us to talk German Shepherds again!

Dan Jones, MD

UMMC Interim Chair of Medicine, 2015-2017

Can a person be a mother, sister, friend, counselor, mediator, and queen all at the same time?  The answer is yes, if she is Suzanne Clay.  Since 1974, she has been all those to me and to scores of others in the Department of Medicine.  Perhaps, her most influential time in our relationship was in the beginning.  I was an M4 who had made a firm career decision that I was not capable of doing a residency in internal medicine.

We simply would not be who we are without her.

Dan Jones

Though, she never served as my attending or graded any of my tests, somehow, she was confident I could do it and found the encouraging words to stimulate me to apply for the residency position.  That was only the beginning.  She nurtured me through residency, counseled me on practice opportunities, and bolstered my confidence.  When I returned years later as a junior faculty member, she repeated the confidence building and advice process. 

In the more than 45 years I have been a part of the Department of Medicine (off and on), she has been the one stable force.  More than anyone else, she was the undergirding source of the healthy culture of the department.  When faculty, fellows, residents, students, or deans were frustrated with the chair (and there were plenty of those opportunities), she has always been there to smooth over ruffled feathers and keep things on track. 

Suzanne is a remarkable administrator/leader, but an even more remarkable human being.  She is appreciated, admired, and loved for good reason.  We simply would not be who we are without her.

7 comments

  1. thank you for this article on Suzanne Clay! It was beautiful and well written. She is truly a wonderful lady. So glad you have done this timely article on her life and contributions at UMMC.

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  2. Suzanne Clay is clearly the matriarch of the department of medicine at UMMC. There is no telling how many times things would’ve failed without her firm guiding hand and offhanded smiles. . Those of us who have been fortunate to have been in the office with her as I was as a chief resident are precious and will always be remembered. You did not need to fear Harper Hellums if she was in your corner. If you did not know what to do regarding anything in the department of medicine or dealing with any of the staff or how staff you asked Suzanne. Her counselor was always spot on. Love you.

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  3. Oh how I love this woman! She is the reason I am at UMMC and I will be forever grateful to her for that and our friendship that I treasure deeply.

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