News Release

Watkins Distinguished Chair Established at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis


MIAMI, February 22, 2012 —The Miller School’s Miami Project to Cure Paralysis announced the establishment of The John M. and Jocelyn H.K. Watkins Distinguished Chair in Cell Therapies at a January 29 celebratory dinner at The Miami Project. The holder of the Chair, to be named soon, will be a leading researcher in cell therapies who will advance The Miami Project’s mission of finding solutions to the problem of spinal cord and brain injuries.

The inspirational evening included touching tributes from Miami Project founders Barth Green, M.D., professor and Chair of neurological surgery, and Nick and Marc Buoniconti. University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala, Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., and W. Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., Scientific Director of The Miami Project and professor of neurological surgery, neurology and cell biology and anatomy, also shared some moving words about John and Jocelyn Watkins, who endowed the chair.

“By coincidence or by destiny, this year will mark 25 years of our association with The Miami Project, and it is an honor to bring to fruition something that John and I talked about for quite a long time,” Jocelyn Watkins said. “My wish and my hope is that the establishment of this endowed chair offers another step forward to the day our scientists will succeed in finding that which we have all been looking and praying for, and to be able to announce to the world in the not-too-distant future that they have found a cure for spinal cord injuries.”

Green, who is also chairman of The Miami Project, said the Watkins’ friendship over the decades has been instrumental in The Miami Project’s success. “We are so happy to celebrate the contributions of Jo and her extraordinary husband John in helping us move forward in a continued leadership role in cellular therapies,” he said.

The endowment of the Watkins Distinguished Chair is part of Momentum 2: The Breakthrough Campaign for the University of Miami.

Along with her late husband, Jocelyn Watkins is a generous but unlikely philanthropist. In August 1987, John suffered a severe spinal cord injury and became a quadriplegic when he was hit by a rogue wave while on vacation in St. Lucia. His body was broken but his brilliant mind and his loving heart were not, which led the couple to many generous acts. In 1989, they founded the Fa Bené Foundation to support The Miami Project, and other charities that touched their hearts.

“John was a true gentleman and this gift will allow us to bring in another top-of-the-line investigator,” Marc Buoniconti said. “We hope to remember his spirit with this gift that will allow us to get even closer to our goal of a cure for paralysis.”

An executive at Colgate Palmolive Company, John enjoyed a rapid ascent as a corporate officer and Senior Executive Vice President. He developed the company’s marketing strategy, which according to Ian Cook, the current Colgate Chairman, President and CEO, “casts an enormous shadow at Colgate” even today. Showing great strength after his accident, John shared his business knowhow by lecturing at UM’s School of Business and enjoyed every moment.

“John and Jocelyn Watkins have been good friends to the University of Miami and The Miami Project,” President Shalala said. “They have given generously over the years and have made a difference in countless lives in this community and beyond. Before his passing, John couldn’t move much of his body, but each day he helped move others to help those less fortunate.”

In addition to his sharp mind and warm heart, those close to John recall his keen sense of humor, noting that he often said, “As a quadriplegic, I don’t wear out shoes.” He also was very spiritual, dedicated to his church and family, and passionate about children, particularly those in harm’s way around the world.

On January 3, 2010, The Miami Herald included John in an article about people who made a difference in the community. He was selected from scores of Miami’s leaders and successful people who had died in 2009.

At John’s memorial service on February 6, 2009, Green, who treated John after he was air-lifted from St. Lucia, recalled that “his chances of survival were poor at best.” Yet John lived for another two decades, helping those in need in our community and beyond.


Richard Cote
From left are, seated, Jocelyn Watkins and Marc Buoniconti, and standing, Donna E. Shalala, Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., and The Miami Project's Helen Bramlett, Ph.D., Allan Levi, M.D., Ph.D., Mary Bunge, Ph.D., Damien Pearse, Ph.D., W. Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., and Barth Green, M.D.