'Humbled and honored' is how Wallace Strickland of Meridian described his feelings after being named 2012 "Alumnus of the Year" at East Central Community College in Decatur.

"East Central Community College, or East Central Junior College as it was known when I was a student, has a very special place in my heart," Strickland said. "The coursework and dedicated instructors at ECJC truly prepared me to advance in my education and ultimately my life's work."

That life's work has been a 42-year career with Rush Health Systems, Inc. in Meridian. Strickland currently serves as President and Chief Executive Officer for the health system that is made up of seven hospitals and employs approximately 3500 residents of east Mississippi and west Alabama. In addition, Rush Medical Group, Medical Foundation and Specialty Hospital have more than 175 physicians and mid-level practitioners in nearly 30 locations.

ECCC alumnus Cheryl Comans, who nominated Strickland for the award wrote, "Throughout my association with Mr. Strickland, I have been well aware of his pride in having attended East Central and his dedication to and support of the college. His assistance with various aspects of health-related programs and the provision of a trainer for all sports programs are notable. Many professional, civic and community organizations have also benefited from Mr. Strickland's dedication to the betterment of East Central Mississippi."

In a letter endorsing his nomination, Dr. John Mutziger of the Decatur Family Medical Center, a division of Rush Health Systems, said, "I believe it is due to the foresight and vision of Mr. Strickland that we have been able to establish a modern family practice clinic with three providers here in Decatur. This would not have been done without his help."

Mutziger continued, "I count him as a friend as well as business associate and boss. We are lucky at Rush Health Systems to have him here. I can think of no one else who comes close to fitting the qualifications as East Central Community College Alumnus of the Year."

Strickland began his career in the accounting department and worked his way through the ranks at Rush. It's a career path that he said definitely made an impact on his leadership.

"I believe it has given me greater opportunities to value and respect our employees for the contributions they make. We are very fortunate at Rush to have many dedicated employees who have worked in the organization for decades. When you have worked alongside people for many years, and worked together with them to take care of patients, learn new technology and expand services, you come to value and respect them in a very special way, especially when you see them persevere through difficult times or work through difficult situations together with them. They become your 'work family.'"

Of his leadership style, Strickland said, "I believe in servant leadership, attention to detail and that the buck stops with me."

Healthcare is an ever-changing industry and Strickland said he has been fortunate to witness much change and many advances.

"My career in healthcare has encompassed a very exciting period of time in medicine, during which a great deal of technological advances have been made. During that time, Rush Health Systems has grown and changed tremendously as well."

When Strickland began his tenure with Rush, he said there were no fax machines or computers. Rush Hospital and Rush Medical Group, which then consisted of nine physicians, were the sole basis of the operation. Today, he said computers are used in almost every aspect of the business, including many key aspects of patient care.

"The challenge for us in our industry is to keep the human aspects of all we do in perspective as we make technological advances. While everything surrounding us may change as far as technology is concerned, the people aspect doesn't change. At the heart of every action is a patient who needs our care and behind every piece of technology we operate is a person, our employee, who needs to be focused on the needs of the patient, and appropriately trained to do the job."

For his success in the healthcare industry, Strickland gives much praise to his Rush predecessor.

"I have been and continue to be strongly influenced and greatly blessed by an outstanding gentleman who has served as a mentor and inspiration to me and to many others, Mr. J.C. McElroy, Jr.," Strickland said.

"Mr. McElroy saw promise in me, gave me opportunities to advance and learn, and taught me so many important management techniques and skills that have helped me learn and grow in my career and in my life. He leads by example and takes time to help others develop the best in themselves. As the current Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Rush Health Systems, he is still looked to for guidance and sound advice. Mr. McElroy retired from Rush Health Systems in 1999, but in his role as board chairman, he continues to inspire with innovative ideas and great leadership. I will be forever grateful for his confidence in me and his support and guidance."

Perhaps the his greatest influence was from his parents, the late Larn and Geneva Strickland, who instilled in him a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility.

"They also instilled in me a love of our home where I grew up just outside of Decatur.  My parents felt it was important to get a college education and then to find an employer where you could be loyal and dedicated," he said. "I would also like to mention my late uncle, James Vance, also an ECCC graduate, and the role he played in showing a young man from Decatur that a college education was a possibility."

A member of the Class of 1967, Strickland said it was the accessibility and affordability of East Central that allowed him to begin his college career.

"Had I not been able to begin my college studies close to home, with affordable tuition, I would not have pursued higher education," Strickland said. "East Central prepared me for and allowed me to compete in the business world. Had it not been for my two years at East Central, I would never have accomplished things I have thus far."

 Strickland said he worked two jobs and lived at home while attending East Central and although he was limited on extracurricular activities, it was the people he met while attending East Central that are the highlight of his time as a student.

Of his instructors at East Central, Strickland said, "I have always felt a huge debt of gratitude to those at ECJC who inspired a very shy young man from Decatur, Mississippi, to pursue his education. Those instructors also helped me build my self-confidence. When talking about my educational background, I always say that my instructors at ECJC were some of the best, if not the best I had anywhere, even in graduate school. I am reluctant to mention specific people, however, I would be remiss if I didn't mention these individuals: Ovid Vickers, the best professor period; Frank Leatherwood, one of the most dedicated professors; and Frank Cross, a very inspiring professor."

Strickland continued his education at Mississippi State University, where he received a bachelor's degree, and completed the MBA at the University of Alabama.

He was honored recently by having the Wallace Strickland/Rush Health Systems Endowed Scholarship established at the College in his honor by Newton Community Health Foundation and Rush Health Systems. He was selected Meridian Star Citizen of the Year in 2006 and is a member of the Meridian Community College Hall of Fame.

In addition, he serves as chairman of the Medicaid Hospital Advisory Board; member of the Board of Directors for Great Southern National Bank; board member for the State Games of Mississippi; past chairman of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (2005); and Past President of the Mississippi Medical Group Management Association (1976).

Strickland is married to the former Judy Morland of Meridian. They have two children, Julie and Jason.

"I am proud to say my entire immediate family is or has been a part of the Rush family of caregivers," Strickland said. "My wife, Judy, worked for 23 years, until 1995, when she decided to stay home to be more involved in our children's school and sports activities. As data processing director, Judy played an integral role at Rush during the 1980s and 90s when so many advances were being made in technology, especially in the area of computerization of all our business functions.

"Our daughter, Julie Marie, is a registered pharmacist who works at H.C. Watkins Memorial Hospital in Quitman and our son, Jason, works in Business Services as the Third Party Payor Audit coordinator, having started his career in an entry-level position much like the role I started in. It is very gratifying to have my children choose careers in the healthcare field and have the opportunity to work with them."

In addition, Strickland's sister, Neva Joe Pettigrew, and her daughter, Jennifer Lafferty, both family nurse practitioners, work at Immediate Care Clinic and Marion Primary Care Center, respectively.

Strickland was honored along with additional award recipients during the College's annual Alumni Awards Luncheon, scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29 during the annual Homecoming festivities.