Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Former U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is returning to Xavier University in New Orleans as the holder of a chair in public health sciences endowed by The Times-Picayune and

“I look forward to positioning Xavier as an international center for public health, with a strong emphasis on community,” Benjamin said Friday during a news conference at Xavier.

In addition to teaching, Benjamin said, she plans to organize conferences on public health issues, emphasizing issues of preventable disease _ a passion of hers because she lost her mother to lung cancer caused by smoking, her father to complications from a stroke and a brother to the virus that causes AIDS. “All preventable diseases,” she said.

A native of Daphne, Ala., Benjamin, 56, is widely respected for founding a rural health clinic in the Gulf Coast town of Bayou La Batre, Ala., which she kept going although it was wiped out three times by fire and hurricanes.

She said she received assurances from Xavier President Norman Francis that she will have time to return regularly to the Bayou La Batre Clinic.

“I can’t leave my patients,” she said.

Benjamin holds an M.D. from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and an MBA from Tulane University. She attended Morehouse School of Medicine and completed her family medicine residency in Macon, Ga.

She received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Xavier, the Catholic-run private university with a largely African-American student body. And she spoke fondly of her undergraduate days during Friday’s news conference.

She recalled arriving at the university as a first-year student, unsure of what she wanted to study.

“I had never seen a black physician, an African-American physician,” she said.

Benjamin, a self-described “joiner,” said she was drawn to the pre-med club, describing it as the most popular club on campus. And the academic path that would lead her to medicine, and to a stint as the nation’s doctor, was launched.

When Benjamin stepped down as surgeon general in July, she told her staff she planned to remain involved in public health. But she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next.

While thinking about it, she received a call from Francis. “He said, `You know, Regina, you can come home,”’ Benjamin recalled.

The Times-Picayune Endowed Chair in Public Health Sciences was established with $600,000 from the media company and $400,000 from the state.