Happy Birthday, RGM Foundation!

The 30th Anniversary of the Ronald G. Michels Fellowship Foundation

Ron Michels died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 47 on January 15, 1991, leaving behind a major legacy to the vitreoretinal community including in particular his important contributions s to the literature and his passion for and success in training vitreoretinal fellows; all of these were accomplished as he was providing exceptional cutting-edge care for his patients.

Following his death, the Ronald G. Michels Fellowship Foundation was formally established and incorporated, and specific historical details regarding the Foundations are included below. During the 2015 annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the Fellowship Foundation celebrated its 25th anniversary, and since then this annual reception has continued to grow substantially in size and prestige, as it continues to provide opportunities for group reflections regarding Ron’s legacy, presentations by the prior year’s awardees, and announcements of the new award winners. The viral pandemic of 2020 required both the Academy and the RGM Foundation to be conducted remotely, but at the recent 30th anniversary meeting, the traditions were maintained, as three additional Award winners were introduced, resulting in the total number of recipients reaching 100! Happy 30th birthday, Michels Fellowship Foundation! As times go by, it remains important to appreciate the details of the Foundation’s history. As noted above, the organization was established soon after Ron’s death and following discussions among his friends, including Sandy Brucker, Bert Glaser, Alice Michels, Mylan Van Newkirk, and the author. There was agreement that Ron would have wanted to be remembered as a skilled caregiver, author, and teacher. Thus, the organization was established in Ron’s honor with a goal to provide funds for additional young scholars-in-training with the hopes that they would follow in his proverbial footsteps. These cash awards were intended solely for outstanding vitreoretinal fellows in the U.S. and not for their sponsoring institutions. The Foundation was granted tax-exempt nonprofit status as a 501(c) (3) organization a few months later, and Bert Glaser, Alice Michels, and Barry Caldwell were named as members of the first Board of Directors. Funding for the organization subsequently came from donations of former colleagues, patients, and industries associated with vitreoretinal surgery.

The first meeting of the Foundation was held in the autumn of 1991 during the annual meeting of the Academy, and the first two award winners were Robert “Bob” Avery and Baruch “Barry” Kuppermann. Since that time, similar awards have been announced at the annual reception held during the Academy meeting, and the names of all recipients are presented in the table below. Administration of the Foundation came under the purview of Karen Baranick in 1996, and in 1998 Karen established Medical Conference Planners, Inc. (MCPI). Karen and the MCPI staff remain intimately involved in the Foundation’s activities.

In 1998, the number of Directors was formally increased to five, including Sandy Brucker, Bert Glaser, Alice Michels Wilkinson, Barry Caldwell, and the author, and Sandy and Alice have served continuously since then. In 2014, five younger vigorous individuals were added to the Board. Three of these, all former Michels Foundation award winners, assumed specific roles within the Foundation, including R.V. Paul Chan, Chair, Website Communications; Jonathan Prenner, Annual Meeting Master of Ceremonies; and Amy Schefler, Chair, Fundraising Committee. Although young at the time of their father’s death, Ron’s children Dr. Allison Michels Pettinelli; and Randy Michels, Esq. have become additional members of the Board. In 2016, Richard Kaiser, a former Michels Foundation award winner, joined the Board as Corporate Liaison. The contributions from the infusion of these younger Board members have quickly born proverbial fruit, as the qualities of the website, annual meeting, and fund-raising efforts have reached new heights.

Applications to the Michels Foundation are competitive, now limited to second-year vitreoretinal fellows in the U.S., and they are accepted early in their second year of the candidates’ fellowship training. These comprehensive applications include academic histories, professional and personal accomplishments, and five letters of recommendation by respective mentors. All documents are then reviewed by an anonymous committee, some of whose members rotate annually. Rankings of each committee member are tabulated, and winners are determined; the number of winners has varied from one to six, however since 1996 there has always been a minimum of two winners annually.

Ron Michels would be quite delighted to learn of the success of the organization dedicated to his name. Ron's passion for all aspects of vitreoretinal surgery has been perpetuated by the many academic contributions of the Michels Foundation award winners. The accomplishments of current and future Michels Foundation award winning fellows will undoubtedly bring continued distinction and prestige to the Fellowship Foundation as well as important advances in our terrific subspecialty.

Happy birthday, Michels Fellowship Foundation.

C. P. Wilkinson, MD
October 28, 2020