Yates remembered for impacting lives of hundreds of pre-med students

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Visitation will take place Sunday, Jan. 27 from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. in the Doris Swang Chapel in the Ezell Center. A private graveside service will be held on Monday, Jan. 28.

For more than half a century Oliver Yates was a fixture in Lipscomb University’s department of biology and its allied sciences programs and was legendary for his cell biology classes.

Today, the Lipscomb community is mourning the loss of Yates, who died Thursday, Jan. 24 at age 79. For 54 years, Yates helped prepare generations of students for medical school and other careers in science.

“Oliver taught thousands of students and made a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of health care professionals,” said Kent Gallaher, professor of biology and chair of the department. “Along with Dr. (Paul) Langford, he laid the foundation for the successful pre-med program we enjoy today. He taught me cell biology, was a mentor for me both as a student and a young faculty member. He wasn't perfect but he was impactful, and I for one cannot imagine what my life would be like if his fingerprints weren't on it. And, I’m sure he's already working on a dichotomous key for all of the trees in heaven.”

In 1952, Yates set foot on the campus as a freshman, and he called it home even until the time of his death. In an interview last spring, Yates said that Lipscomb made a difference in his life and is a place that he says has “always been there for me.” In 2012, Yates and his wife, Betty, established two permanent endowments to support department of biology programs as well as to serve the university’s areas of greatest need to help provide a Lipscomb education for future students.

“A long time ago President (Athens Clay) Pullias asked me to make a lifetime commitment to come to Lipscomb and help build a strong Christian institution. I have honored that commitment and have carried out my life’s profession here,” said Yates. “There has never been a day that I dreaded going into work. It’s difficult to put into words what Lipscomb has really meant to me. Words are sometimes inadequate to express the emotions and feeling that you have toward something.”

Yates joined the Lipscomb faculty in 1957. He served as chairman of the biology department from 1972 through 1993. Yates is known nationally for his research of paraganglioma, a tumor of neurological tissue, which produces tremendous negative effects on the nervous system upon removal. Yates helped in the development of the pharmacology and treatment of patients who have had such tumors removed.

“Though my history with Dr. Yates and his wife, Betty, is comparatively brief, I treasure the relationship that we built. Always engaging and of great interest, Dr. Yates let his desire to continue his support for the College of Arts and Sciences be known early and with enthusiasm,” said Norma Burgess, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which houses the department of biology.

Yates played a key role in building Lipscomb’s science program into one that has a strong reputation nationally for producing quality graduates who are successful in medical school and in their professions. He even had the opportunity to help design McFarland Hall of Science, when the university broke ground on the $1.5 million facility in June 1965.

“Oliver Yates has always been characterized by his high energy level and his interest in creating an excellent learning environment in his classes and labs,” said Professor of Biology Jim Arnett at a dinner honoring Yates in 2007. “Students know that he is serious and they, in turn, are encouraged to become serious learners. For decades of his life he tirelessly taught and directed the department of biology and did both with great effectiveness.  In addition, he was a capable ambassador and occasional fundraiser for the university due to his natural enthusiasm and love for the school and his students.”

In 1994, former Lipscomb board of trustees member and physician Thomas Duncan and his wife, Judith, funded the establishment of the Langford-Yates Distinguished Professorship to honor the service of Yates and his longtime colleague Paul Langford, chemistry professor for more than 40 years and former chair of the department.

“Paul Langford and Oliver Yates have become synonymous with the excellent reputation enjoyed by our science departments and our premedical program. Their dedication to excellence and their cooperative spirit are exemplary,” said President Emeritus Harold Hazelip at the time the professorship was established.

In 2007, Lipscomb established the Langford Yates Summer Research Fellowship Program, which has provided undergraduate biology, chemistry and engineering students the ability to conduct scientific research during summer terms.

For decades, Yates and Langford worked together to prepare students for pre-med studies and became close friends.

“Chemistry and biology are closely related subjects. We both taught every pre-med student during our time at Lipscomb,” said Langford. “We saw each other on a daily basis, and we talked about a lot of things. We were good friends.”

Langford said Yates wanted his students to get as much out of every class as possible. He said Yates taught cell biology, a key course for all pre-med majors, at 8 a.m. every morning.

“He always taught the course early in the morning, and he would lock the door at 8 a.m. He wouldn’t let you in if you arrived a minute after 8. He wanted to make sure the entire hour was filled with learning,” Langford recalled. “I remember one student who got locked out and spent the class looking through the window in the door trying to copy down as many notes from the board as he could see. (Yates) was really a character.”

Yates is credited with assembling a top-notch biology faculty, including current faculty members including Tamera Klingbyll, instructor in biology; and Arnett, Phil Choate, Jon Lowrance, Linda Roberson, professors of biology. He also recruited Gallaher to return to his alma mater to teach.

“Dr. Oliver Yates was a great teacher who inspired thousands of students over his history with Lipscomb. He always required your best making sure you were prepared for the future,” said Lowrance. “Through his enthusiasm of biology he allowed his students to see the true beauty of God’s creation while gaining a deep appreciation for its intricate details. His faith poured out into his lecture allowing us to gain an insight into his motivation for excellence as well as his love for biology. He was my mentor who inspired me to be a biologist, which I will always be extremely grateful to him for this gift.”

Yates was also very involved in the Nashville community. Last year he was honored by the Friends of Radnor Lake (FORL) with a 2012 Environmental Award for his contribution to conserving Tennessee state park Radnor Lake’s resources.

According to the FORL, Yates was involved with Radnor Lake, located just a few miles from the Lipscomb campus, long before it was designated a state natural area when he received permission from the L&N Railroad, which previously owned Radnor Lake, to conduct biological research and educational programs for students at Lipscomb in the early 1950s.

In the mid-1950s, his work initiated a movement to save Radnor Lake from development. About 15 years later, the effort to prove the biological importance of preserving an ecosystem such as Radnor lake led city, state and federal government officials to acquire the property and protect it from development. This ultimately resulted in the park being designated as Tennessee’s first natural area.

Yates was also a longtime elder at Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tenn., and a member of the InnerCity Ministry board among other activities. 

Yates received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lipscomb, a Master of Arts degree from George Peabody College and a doctorate from Vanderbilt University. He is survived by his wife, Betty, and their daughters, Cindy, Jana and Melodie, as well as several grandchildren.

Visitation will take place Sunday, Jan. 27 from 2-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. in the Doris Swang Chapel in the Ezell Center. A private graveside service will be held on Monday, Jan. 28.