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Inspiring ethical leadership
John A. Feagin Jr. M.D. '61
Doing the right thing: left to right, Major General
Doing the right thing:
left to right, Major General Robert Brown, Feagin, and Duke orthopaedic surgeon Dean Taylor at leadership forum.
Courtesy Duke Sports Medicine

John A. Feagin Jr. might well be the only person who can bring together an Olympic gold medal-winning basketball coach, a U.S. Army major general, leading orthopaedic surgeons, and a world-class mountaineer in one place. This past October, leaders from business, sports medicine, athletics, and the military signed on for the second annual John A. Feagin International Leadership Forum.

Cosponsored by Duke Sports Medicine, the Duke Athletic Association, and the Fuqua School of Business, the invitation-only event focuses on moral and ethical leadership across disciplines. But it is also a testament to the influence Feagin has had as a mentor and colleague in his personal and professional endeavors—as a West Point graduate, an Army veteran, and an orthopaedic surgeon.

“One of the first, best lessons I learned about leadership was as a freshman medical student at Duke,” says Feagin. “I’d been in the Army, so I knew I could lead soldiers, but when I was asked to be pro tem president of my class by Dean Wilburt Davison, I realized I didn’t know what it meant to lead my fellow medical students. Dean Davison, who had served in World War I, told me, ‘Our only purpose is to make people better because they came to Duke medical school.’

“To this day, that has stayed with me. Leadership doesn’t have to be grandiose. It is as simple as doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason.”

Feagin, who grew up in San Antonio, aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father, an Air Force pilot. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but his plans for being a pilot were dashed in his senior year when he flunked an eye exam. Instead, he joined the 82nd Airborne Division as an artillery member and applied to medical schools. He was accepted at Duke and persuaded the Army to let him enroll, with the promise he would return upon graduation. In doing so, Feagin became the first active-duty officer to attend medical school.

In 1966, he volunteered to go to Vietnam, where he worked as a combat surgeon. When his stint was over, he became team doctor for the football and basketball squads at West Point, where he met a young basketball point guard named Mike Krzyzewski. Their lives have continued to intersect, and their friendship has deepened over the more than forty years since. Krzyzewski’s presentation at the 2010 Feagin forum mirrored the event’s theme, “Failure Is Not Our Destination: Leading When Times Are Tough.”

Feagin’s pioneering techniques in repairing the anterior cruciate ligament are still the gold standard in reconstructive knee surgery. His other professional accomplishments include serving as commander of West Point’s Keller Army Hospital, founding—and serving as president of—the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, and managing a thriving private practice in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

He returned to Duke in 1989 and worked in the orthopaedic department for a decade. He also volunteered his services for the 1992 U.S. Ski Team and has done medical mission trips to Kazakhstan, Panama, Kenya, and Cuba.

All three of Feagin’s children attended Duke: J. Randle Feagin ’83, Nancy Feagin B.S.E.E. ’87, and Robert Feagin ’96. Feagin says the most important lesson he has learned about being an effective leader, whether as a father to his children or as a role model to a generation of orthopaedic surgeons, is being accountable for one’s actions. “In our everyday life, we should strive to make things easier for those around us,” he says.

“We need to assume responsibility for our community. West Point’s motto of ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ goes a long way.”