I’ve been thinking…
Today is my Dad’s birthday, April 17th, 1915. He would have been 103 years old were he alive. He died when I was a freshman at VMI in 1970 and it broke my heart. Had it not been for my Brother Rats who rallied around me in my sadness, I would have left VMI that year and taken another path.
My Dad was a brilliant man. He entered the University of Richmond at the tender age of 15 and graduated when he was 19. He entered the Medical College of Virginia and was a practicing doctor three years later. He was so youthful in appearance that, when interning at Johnston-Willis Hospital in Richmond he had to grow a mustache because patients refused to believe he was a doctor. He once told me he was often mistaken for an orderly.
After his internship, he became a general practitioner—a country doctor—in what was then a very rural Henrico County. After almost a decade of practice, he decided to specialize in dermatology. So from 1951 until his death, he practiced that trade in Richmond, first at the Lee Medical Building on Monument Avenue and then at 1825 Monument just down the street in a stately home converted for office space. He was beloved by the people he treated as a testament to his kind and thoughtful manner.
My Dad was not political. Nor did he pontificate about much. But he was a great organizer. He founded the Richmond Dermatological Society and the infamous “Five O’clock Club” at Chioccas Park Avenue Inn. And in 1958 after our family moved to 2112 Hanover Avenue, Dad and some other close neighbors founded the “Fan District Association”. I know. I was present at the founding and watched with some interest as they formulated the concept over a keg of fresh beer.
My Dad taught me a lot about life, not through his words, but his actions. Were he alive today, I am sure he would be very unhappy with the state of the nation, particularly race relations. He was a man of compassion, yet not a crusader for this or that social cause. But he would not have been impressed with the term “social justice”. He would have seen the treatment of others, legally, professionally, and personally as simply requiring just behavior.
I recall one day when we were headed to the Northern Neck, where we spent a great deal of time relaxing. Along the way we made a brief stop at the medical office of one of my Dad’s doctor friends. I couldn’t have been much older than 13 at the time but I recall vividly that the doctor’s office had segregated waiting rooms, one for “coloreds” and one for “whites”. When our brief visit was over, we got back in the car and I asked him, aware that his dermatology office was not segregated, “Daddy, why don’t you have rooms like that?” As I looked at him, he turned to me and said in his normally pithy manner “Son, an itch is an itch.” Skin color was simply not a consideration.
In those few words, my Dad taught me more about how you treat people with dignity than all the lectures I have heard on the subject in my 67 years of life on this earth. You see, when my Dad was a country doctor in the 1940’s, he treated whites, blacks, men, women, and children without any regard to their race, creed, or economic status. Frequently, he would receive payment for his service with a bushel of tomatoes, eggs, milk, or some other fresh product, from a farmer who couldn’t afford the medical help. He routinely refused to send a bill to a man who didn’t have the money to pay. I asked him once, while helping to post monthly bills around our dining room table, why he had a stack of bills in his “no pay” pile. He said “Son, I treat many fine people who take pride in being responsible. If I send them a bill I know they can’t pay, when they’re really sick, they won’t come see me as a matter of simple pride. That would not be good.” Again, my Dad taught me in short order about how you should treat people.
In today’s world, we are confronted with coarseness, ill manners, and indignity in just about everything. It’s a reflection of the erosion of virtue by our society and the lack of proper instruction within families, our schools, and society in general. My Dad would have found all of this very disheartening. But on this day, I am nonetheless hopeful. And blessed too to have had a man in my life—just 18 years—who taught me a lot about what it is to be a real man.