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Dr. Robert Bernstein

A two-star Army general who headed Walter Reed Army Medical Center and then led the Texas Department of Health for more than 11 years died in Austin on Monday, a day before he was to be honored for his dedication to health care. Dr. Robert Bernstein was 87.

Bernstein, who headed what is now called the Texas Department of State Health Services, had been in fragile health, with leukemia, heart trouble and ultimately organ failure, said Dr. Robert Ellzey of Austin, a friend.

"He was an incredible character," Ellzey said. "If you could see a picture of him taken in China — they dressed him in one of these Chinese outfits . . . from the 15th century . . . and he had a very mean look on his face."

Although Bernstein was kidding in the photo, his exterior was often gruff. Beneath it was a man with a big heart, his friends said.

"It was all bravado," said Dr. Charles Bell, deputy executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. "He was one of the sweetest people."

The trips Bernstein led to China, Australia, New Zealand and Russia were efforts to help Texas doctors learn how their counterparts overseas practiced, Ellzey said.

Bernstein was made acting Texas health commissioner in late 1979 and commissioner in January 1980, a position he held until retiring in 1991.

Bernstein, who was not married, was a strong leader who initially balked at having a health board chairman who was about half his age. But "after a rough start, we became dear friends," said Dr. Ron Anderson, now president and CEO of Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas.

After he left the health department, Bernstein worked with a variety of organizations, including People's Community Clinic in Austin, which cares for the poor and uninsured.

He was scheduled to be honored at a dinner/fundraiser tonight at the Headliner's Club in Austin in conjunction with the Texas Health Institute. The gathering is expected to go on, a spokeswoman said.

At the hospital last week "he admonished me not to be mushy or to dote on him, but to 'see that public health gets taken care of in this state,' " Camille Miller, president and CEO of the health institute, said in an e-mail. "That was Bob, always putting himself behind the best interest of the people."

He came to Austin after being commander general of Walter Reed from 1972 to 1978. He was upset by news this year of poor treatment of soldiers at Walter Reed, said Dr. James Cullington, an Austin plastic surgeon who was a resident at Walter Reed when Bernstein was its chief.

Although many residents might have feared Bernstein, Cullington remembers him as fatherly and can still see him walking his big dogs on the hospital grounds.

"If he treated you like one of his dogs, he treated you well," Cullington said.

Bernstein was born Feb. 20, 1920, in New York.

He graduated from Vanderbilt University and the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

He joined the Army Reserve's medical corps and in 1947 went to what he called "occupation duty" in Japan, where he volunteered for airborne training. He was a battalion surgeon in Korea in 1950 and was shot "right in the butt" after a parachute jump, he said. He received a purple heart.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Published in Austin American-Statesman on July 23, 2007
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