In Memory

September 2, 2022

Dr. Roland Ficken, longtime faculty member and dean of The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences from 1990 to 1996, died Aug. 2, 2022, at his home in Tuscaloosa. He was 86 years old.

A native of Marshall, Okla., Ficken was born in 1936 and raised on a small farm. He received a bachelor’s degree from Phillips University in Enid, Okla., before going to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he earned a master’s degree in sociology and a PhD in medical sociology. While at the university, he met Dr. William R. Willard, whom he came to greatly admire. Willard was the founding dean of CCHS and is considered the father of the specialty of family medicine.

It was Willard who encouraged Ficken to accept a position at CCHS and in 1974, Ficken, his wife and two sons moved to Tuscaloosa. Ficken had agreed to develop the behavioral science department for the College, a significant discipline in Willard’s growing program. “Dr. Ficken was not only a good behavioral scientist but a very sound citizen who fit very well into the College and developed an excellent program,” Willard said.

Ficken quickly took on increased responsibilities for the College, serving as director of the Office of Medical Student Affairs at two different times while he was chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at CCHS, a post he held for 10 years beginning in 1977. In 1987, Ficken was appointed associate dean for Academic Affairs for CCHS, a position he held for nearly four years.

Ficken was instrumental in several significant outreach efforts of the College, including establishment of a health clinic for residents in the western section of Tuscaloosa, later to be called the Maude L. Whatley Health Center. He took a lead role in supporting the effort, which was the idea of CCHS medical students concerned about the lack of health care in this area of the city. Ficken helped prepare a grant application to the then U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare that was approved, providing nearly $500,000 in funding that enabled the clinic to move from a temporary location on Herman Avenue to a larger, permanent facility on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Today, the clinic continues as a designated federal community health center serving thousands of people each year.

He also supported development of the College’s Rural Medical Scholars Program, a five-year track of medical studies, including a year prior to entry into medical school, for students from rural Alabama communities. Participants focus on primary care, community medicine and rural practice, with an eye toward ultimately practicing in the state’s rural communities.

Ficken was a good choice to lead the College as dean. His time with CCHS gave him an excellent understanding of the program and its history, and with a background in behavioral and community medicine, Ficken valued the goals of the College and what they meant for Alabama. In a special message in 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of CCHS, Ficken used words from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities to describe his tenure as dean: “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.”

The worst of times for CCHS were fiscal in nature. The first half of the 1990s brought two periods of proration for the University, and the College suffered the highest percentage budget reduction of any division on campus.

There were also positives. In 1992, Celia Wallace, chief executive officer of Springhill Memorial Hospital in Mobile, Ala., and a firm believer in the importance of primary care, made a gift of $1 million to endow the first chair in family medicine in the College and one of the earliest such endowed chairs in the country. In addition, DCH Regional Medical Center doubled its support to the College, and new UA President Dr. Andrew Sorensen, recognizing the need for new and expanded facilities for CCHS, helped make it possible for the College to move forward with continued development and growth of the College’s clinical and academic facility.

“All of this aside, the most important part of the first half of the decade of the 1990s is that the College never lost sight of its goal to continue the effort to provide and improve health care in the rural communities of Alabama,” Ficken said in his anniversary message.

In July 1996, Ficken retired after nearly 23 years with UA. He was ordained as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church in 2002 and while at Canterbury Chapel Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa, he and his wife started Deacon’s Deli, a ministry that to this day provides groceries to families in need.