SPECIAL EDITION: Vanderbilt mourns Levi Watkins Jr.

Remembrance: George Hill, Ph.D., professor of Medical Education and Administration, Emeritus

Dr. Watkins will always have a presence throughout our country and here at VUSM. We will honor his legacy as long as the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine exists with the annual Levi Watkins Jr. Lecture in his honor, where he was the first speaker. He attended every presentation of the Levi Watkins Jr. lecture, from when it was established in October 2002 through last year. What I admired most about Levi during his years here from 1966-1970 was that he was not only the first African-American in our medical school but was the only African-American student for four years.

Levi was a man of courage, character commitment and conviction, the true definition of a leader. And it was never just about him.

Courage — He was our first African-American student and knew that the four-year journey would have difficult challenges. He faced these challenges with dignity, strength and God’s support and grace. He was a man of deep faith.

Character — he was a man of high integrity and never wavered, treating all with respect and kindness.

Commitment — He was a true mentor of all, especially students and also faculty, physicians and friends. He wanted to see all successful. He worked throughout his life to address health disparities and injustice.

Conviction — He stood up for his beliefs and was prepared to say so, whether in the classroom, the surgery suite, on the VU Board of Trust or with his colleagues, and thus he gained their respect.

All students admired his tenacity, mentoring and creativity; faculty were in awe of his persistence and unwavering commitment to justice and to medicine, and administrators respected his wisdom. His final scientific lecture here in 2011, at the 10th Levi Watkins, Jr. lecture, focused on his research to implant the first defibrillator in a patient, accomplished in 1980, only 10 years after he graduated from VUSM in 1970 and matching at Johns Hopkins in cardiac surgery.

I was looking forward to celebrating with him next year in 2016 the 50th anniversary of his admission to VUSM and presenting the book to him I am writing on the ongoing progress of transforming VUSM to a more diverse and inclusive one. His portrait was placed in 2005, at the request of our students and by then-Dean Steve Gabbe, in our major lecture hall and will be a continuing tribute and reminder of his work, wisdom and the unfinished business to achieve health equity in our country.