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Emory mourns former Sen. Johnny Isakson, recognizes exemplary service

Sen. Johnny Isakson leaves a legacy of achievement as a bridge-building legislator. His support aided key Emory priorities, including underscoring the value of research and supporting seniors and veterans.

Former Sen. Johnny Isakson passed away Dec. 19, leaving a legacy as a bridge-building lawmaker. He served as U.S. senator for Georgia from 2005 to 2019 and represented the state’s 6th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1998 to 2005. Isakson was the only Georgian ever to have been elected to the state House, state Senate, and both chambers of Congress. Until stepping down from his Senate post in 2019, citing health concerns, Isakson maintained close ties to Emory. 

“After decades of legislative service, Sen. Johnny Isakson established the Isakson Initiative to raise funds for research and awareness of neurocognitive diseases. I was fortunate to attend the September kickoff of the initiative and could see firsthand Sen. Isakson’s commitment to helping those in need and the admiration shown by his many allies and supporters from across Georgia,” says President Gregory L. Fenves. 

“With his passing, I want to recognize the leadership he showed our state and nation and the focus he brought to representing his constituents. For two decades, Emory was fortunate to share priorities and many achievements with Sen. Isakson — among them, the value of federal funding for research, supporting our veterans and battling disease threats,” Fenves noted. “The senator was known for balanced reflection, and he kept his eye on benefiting the people of Georgia and the United States. He will be dearly missed by his friends at Emory.”

In his 2019 farewell speech to Congress, Isakson spoke of how difficult it was to be “leaving a job I love.” At the time managing multiple health challenges, including continuing progression of Parkinson’s, Isakson explained, “It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.”

Finding his passion 

Born in Fulton County, Isakson for a time followed his father’s path as a real estate executive. While in his early thirties, he was elected as a Republican to the Georgia Legislature in 1976, serving seven terms, including four as minority leader. Failed bids for governor in 1990 and senator in 1996 might have sidelined another politician, but Isakson proved that he had much more to give.

From a position heading the Georgia Board of Education, Isakson went on to win the 1999 special election for Georgia’s 6th District seat in the U.S. Congress, effectively starting a second act in politics, this time on the national stage.   

“I consider Sen. Isakson a true statesman, the epitome of a public servant,” says Cameron Taylor, Emory’s vice president of government and community affairs and interim vice president of communications and marketing, who worked extensively with him during his career as a legislator. “He never hesitated to roll up his sleeves — to listen and learn to solve complicated policy issues. And one could always count on his characteristic grace and diplomacy in every situation.”

Advocacy for Emory

For 20 years, the lines of communication between Emory and Isakson were open, and the liaison benefitted the public good. In matters big and small, Isakson always had time to hear from Emory and, when convinced of the value of a project or program, took action.

Isakson was a vocal champion for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wrote numerous support letters on behalf of Emory’s research mission, especially related to global health and infectious disease.

When Emory University Hospital (EUH) admitted four Ebola patients in 2014, successfully treating them in its Serious Communicable Diseases Unit, there was undeniably an element of risk for the university in agreeing to welcome patients whose disease was deeply feared. 

“Sen. Isakson was a champion for EUH when it took a stand, announcing that treating those patients was the right and humane thing to do given Emory’s expertise in infectious diseases,” Taylor recalls. “His reassuring voice helped convince others.” 

Isakson also assisted with federal reimbursement for those patients’ complex care and with the establishment of the National Ebola Training and Education Center, now known as the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center

Partnering with Emory, Isakson also championed funding for the initial feasibility study for the Clifton Corridor Transit Initiative (CCTI). As MARTA explores the appropriate timing to enter the CCTI into the federal funding process, Emory acutely feels the loss of the senator who has supported this vital infrastructure project from the beginning.

In one of his last significant legislative achievements, Isakson — having worked with Emory experts on this topic — joined a bipartisan group of legislators to improve care coordination for seniors on Medicare. Known as the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act (2018), it produced benefits such as adult daycare and support for family caregivers. 

As he introduced the bill in April 2017, Isakson said, “Medicare shouldn’t just be a program that pays the bills when you get sick. It should also encourage your doctors to work with you to keep you healthy and out of the hospital by providing high-quality, patient-centered care.”

Interests dovetailed around veterans as well, with Emory and Isakson acting in support of veterans’ education and health care. Two years after the conclusion of his time in the Senate, Isakson proved himself still a force, with the passage of the Johnny Isakson and David P. Roe Veterans Health Care and Veterans Improvement Act of 2020. The law features 32 provisions that positively impact the administration and oversight of GI Bill benefits. 

Taylor acknowledges thinking often in the past two years about what is different in government without Isakson. The short answer: a great deal.

“He was always there to help resolve a situation, address a problem, help us come together, listen and make us better. He was never too busy to meet with our students or advocate for an Emory priority. The senator’s motto — one that he lived by — is that ‘there are two types of people in this world: friends and future friends.’ We were privileged to see his gift for friendship up close,” says Taylor.