WHITE CITY — Shortly after being named director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in 2003, Max McIntosh adopted an unlikely mascot in the form of a flying pig.

WHITE CITY — Shortly after being named director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in 2003, Max McIntosh adopted an unlikely mascot in the form of a flying pig.

Over the years he awarded small flying pig statues, dubbed "Pigasus" after the flying horse legend, to those who demonstrated outstanding leadership and innovation.

"The reason a pig can fly is because it doesn't know that it's not supposed to," he explained. "If you don't tamp down employee energy and innovation and try to micromanage, you get better results.

"People blossom when they are not only permitted, but encouraged to take on challenges and be innovative," he added. "That's my most important legacy here, a culture of respect and expectation of personal success."

McIntosh, 74, whose tenure has resulted in major changes at the former domiciliary, will retire Friday after 39 years with the VA. A search is under way for an interim director, who is expected to be followed by a permanent replacement within a year, a spokeswoman said.

SORCC, which has a staff of 564, along with some 500 volunteers, now has an annual budget of a little more than $90 million.

When McIntosh arrived in White City in February of 2001 as the chief operating officer, the complex then was known as the VA Domiciliary, or the Dom, which had emerged out of the old Camp White Army base built in 1942. In 2001, there were about 700 beds for full-time patients at the center, which then was serving about 7,000 outpatients.

"It was seen more of a place to rest while they received care," he recalled. "Where we saw our need to go was to become a rehabilitation center with a system of clinics for the veterans. We set our sights on taking it into this century and create a leading-edge facility."

McIntosh, who has a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Kansas and a master's degree in business administration from Pepperdine University, had already worked for the agency for 28 years. He had served as the chief operating officer at the VA's Roseburg hospital for nearly five years, and at its medical facilities in Florida and Southern California.

One of his first actions was to change the name of the Dom to the SORCC to better reflect the type of care veterans could expect to receive.

But shortly afterwards the VA announced it was considering closing the complex, one of 30 under consideration for closure or reduced services to cut expenditures. The agency formed the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services, or CARES, Commission, which held hearings around the nation to gather public comments about local facilities earmarked for closing or reduced care.

The session in Medford that fall drew about 900 people, with local speakers calling for continued inpatient care at the SORCC. The closure proposal drew opposition from local veterans groups and others, including Oregon's U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

"We had enormous support from the community," McIntosh recalled. "We always felt there was none better than us in terms of programs. We took the challenge CARES had given us. We felt if we properly and adequately described our accomplishments and role it played in the recovery of veterans, that was all we needed to do."

Helping their cause was the VA itself, which, in a survey of the more than 400 VA hospitals and community-based clinics across the country late in 2003, rated the SORCC the best in the nation in overall quality care.

McIntosh, who cites the staff for improvements, said SORCC has garnered a national reputation.

"We went from the Dom to a nationally known veterans rehabilitation center and clinics," he said of the SORCC which now has beds for about 450 inpatients while serving about 18,000 outpatients in the region.

It has adopted a program known as home-based primary care in which veterans are cared for in their homes, as well as other programs focusing on issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention. Among the clinics now available is a chronic pain clinic and a diabetes clinic.

"We have different age groups of veterans with different expectations," McIntosh said. "We have had to be adaptable."

McIntosh said he plans to remain in the Rogue Valley.

"I worked longer than I intended to but that happens when you fall in love with what you do," he said. "I'm moving on to other things but I still want to stay connected here."

He has already signed up to do volunteer work at the SORCC.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com