Kern Wildenthal — a longtime Dallas community leader, fundraiser, and medical scholar — is now the name of the Southwestern Medical Foundation’s giving society.
The donations company’s renaming, a decision board members recently approved unanimously, is a way to honor Wildenthal, who they say worked tirelessly for 50 years to support and ultimately transforming the medical center into a place of distinction.
“UT Southwestern has become one of the very largest academic medical centers in the world, certainly in the United States, and Kern Wildenthal has played a major role in laying the foundation for what UT Southwestern has become,” said Bill Solomon, former Chairman of the Foundation Board.
Wildenthal, 81, is hailed for his accomplishments as hospital president and for putting the Dallas medical community on the map. Under his leadership, UT Southwestern grew into the prestigious institution it is today, ranking among the top 25 research universities in the world.
For more than two decades, Wildenthal served as president of the hospital, where he helped it achieve global status through extensive fundraising efforts. After graduating from medical school in school and conducting academic research, he eventually moved on to administering his alma mater, first as dean.
The medical foundation is a public charity dedicated to advancing medical research and raising funds for the hospital, which is the primary beneficiary. It operates independently of UT Southwestern.
“When I was informed, I was very honored for all sorts of reasons,” Wildenthal said. “The Southwestern Medical Foundation and UT Southwestern have literally been my entire career, and being dedicated to trying to help both organizations together be as good as they could be – to be recognized by the Foundation has been a wonderful honor.”
Solomon, who worked closely with Wildenthal when he was president of the foundation, said Wildenthal was responsible for expanding the school’s endowment, research achievements, reputation and recognition in the community.
Wildenthal and his wife, Marnie, were the first contributing members of the foundation’s Heritage Society, which was launched in 1995 to recognize those who donate to the hospital. Today, the society has nearly 300 members, some of whom remain anonymous.
The decision to name the company after Wildenthal was a conversation that had been ongoing for some time, said Jere Thompson Jr., who was recently elected chairman of the charity’s 14-member board. He added that showing his appreciation to the doctor in this way was long overdue.
“There is no one else like Kern. We didn’t even consider anyone else,” Thompson said. “For all of us here in North Texas, we are just happy recipients of his contributions. He attracted the best doctors and attracted the donations which constituted the endowment.
Wildenthal’s decades-long service career culminated in an endowment fund that reached more than $1.3 billion in 2008. He said he knew UT Southwestern could become a world-class institution.
“When you go up and down Harry Hines and see all these buildings and all this land…it just seems like it’s always been there,” Thompson said. “But when you go back to when Dr Wildenthal took over at 38, there wasn’t much here. He acquired hundreds of acres to expand the Dallas campus.
In 1970, when Wildenthal first returned to UTSW, he had just begun to receive increased public funding of over $1 million each year.
“This little school, which had two buildings when I came here in 1960, was just starting to take off,” he said. “The budget started to increase in 1965, so there were a lot of opportunities here and I thought I wanted to ride that wave.”
State financial support for medical centers did not last long, however. In 1986, a recession hit Texas, leading to budget cuts and decreased funding for medical schools, and Wildenthal and his team had to turn to philanthropy.
“We couldn’t rely on the state for our future; we had to look to the community,” he said, echoing a sentiment that led to the formation of the gift society.
In 2012, The Dallas Morning News reported on Wildenthal’s financial history while raising funds for UTSW, which included expenses for overseas travel, opera, and wine. Even though most fundraisers engage in some degree of courting potential donors, a state-ordered investigation found some of his spending to be “inappropriate.”
Shortly after the report was released, Wildenthal resigned as president and paid less than $6,100 in restitution after the university conducted an audit. A final report by UT’s board of trustees found there was no evidence of embezzlement.
Former President Solomon said his colleague’s fundraising campaigns were successful because of his hard work and ambition to sell a product like UT Southwestern.
“He worked hard at it and he worked hard to cultivate people in the community who had the ability to lend financial and other support,” Solomon said.
Kern, who now consults for various medical organizations, said his advice for the next generation of medical leaders is to focus on quality and excellence and build relationships within the community.
“You don’t fundraise; you build relationships,” he said. “Once a good relationship of trust has been established and people understand what their funds could be used for and that they will be well taken care of and used for good purposes, then they are very willing to help.”
Although he can’t say for sure why he earned the society’s naming distinction, Wildenthal said he’s proud of the work he’s done for the charity.
“We have built wonderful relationships with community leaders, philanthropists, politicians and other nonprofit organizations,” he said. “I think we will continue to do that, and that’s the secret to success.”
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