SPECIAL EDITION: Vanderbilt mourns Levi Watkins Jr.

Remembrance: Andre Churchwell, M.D., senior associate dean for Diversity Affairs

Irving Berlin wrote, "The song is ended, but the melody lingers on, you and the song are gone but the melody lingers on..."

Such is the case of the life of Levi Watkins Jr., M.D. Levi’s life was one committed to transformative change, starting the day he walked through the doors of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM), nearly a half-century ago. His natural curiosity, intelligence and passions spurred him to effect change in many areas of human endeavor. Given his energy, determination and family-imbued values he was able to leave a monumental legacy for the ages:

FIRST, in the sciences, his research with A. Clifford Barger, M.D., of The Harvard Medical School delineated the role of the Renin-Angiotensin System in Systolic Congestive heart Failure (1978). The clinical application of this research is still saving lives, as the use of ACE (-) has become one of the gold standards in the treatment of Congestive Heart Failure. Furthermore, in 1980 his bold implantation of the first automatic defibrillator (AICD), paved the way for many thousand AICD implantations, which have saved patients either from recurrent life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias or prevented sudden cardiac death in patients at risk for this condition.

SECOND, as a Civil Rights advocate and Diversity Officer for Johns Hopkins Medical School (JHMS), his commitment and unswerving drive help to open the door for hundreds of minority students to matriculate and graduate from this notable school. Many of his students have gone on to careers in academic medicine, such as the new president of Meharry Medical School, James Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D.

In VUSM’s early days of building a supportive climate and environment for minority students, Dr. Watkins allowed then dean Steven Gabbe, M.D., and now current dean Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., with the assistance of then associate dean for Diversity, George Hill, Ph.D., to use him as a symbol for diversity. They created a celebratory day of activities and diversity awards, stimulated by his unique and at times painful journey as VUSM’s first URM student. Such was his charity of spirit and commitment to the cause of diversity.

From those early efforts, the Office for Diversity Affairs, led initially by Dr. Hill and now Andre’ L. Churchwell, M.D., working in tandem with the Admissions Committee and the Office of Medical education, has seen more than 200 URM VUSM students matriculate.

In addition, his appointment to the faculty council of the Harold Amos RWJF Minority Faculty Development Program only served to amplify his mentoring effect and placed him on a platform to change the lives of many young budding minority academicians, spurring them on by his boundless energy, love and support. On many occasions, Dr. Watkins would utilize his social capital and wisdom to help mentees overcome challenges of racism, unconscious bias and inadequate resource support at their institutions. His efforts, along with other faculty members of the RWJF-MFD, has led to graduates of the program assuming positions of high leadership at the NHLBI, NIHBME and other major academic posts.

Levi Watkins Jr., whether in his role as researcher, advocate for civil rights or pushing institutions as a soldier for diversity in medical education and admission processes, never forgot his roots or values taught him by his family, of humility, egalitarianism, grace and humor. He used these lessons as part of his tool kit to push for academic excellence and broad diversity.

We who met him on the road of life are all the better from his influence, his faith in us, and his unbridled optimism.

As we teach our students on the value and need to shift your leadership style based on the immediate situation, he was an early example of how to “message shift” from the personage of an austere researcher to a fire and brimstone spouting Baptist preacher to a bon vivant able to charm the most gruff opponents. It is when we reflect on all of his complexities and skills that we understand the true measure of this great leader. We are fortunate that the Lord placed him in our path. Vanderbilt is a better place because Levi Watkins Jr. passed our way.

Dr. Watkins recently stepped down from his official duties at JHMS, but never being one to slow down or rest on his laurels, he remained committed to the journey of promoting diversity, developing minority academic leaders and social justice. As little as two weeks ago, he had arranged his busy schedule to be here at VUSM for the opening of the National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibit on Academic African-American Surgeons, in which he was notably featured. With his passing, the exhibit’s opening reception, to be held on Thursday, April 16, will carry added poignancy and significance. Rather than a presentation by Dr. Watkins we will use the moment to offer a heartfelt tribute to him and his many surgical contributions.

Lastly, Dr. Watkins was a student of Martin Luther King Jr. and, by the way he lived his life, one can see that he believed, like Dr. King, that “Integration is an opportunity to participate in the beauty of Diversity.” He would also agree with King’s admonition that, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I wrote a piece on my late father a few years ago and many of the sentiments I expressed in that piece echo to me today when I reflect on Levi’s life: “A long life and many lessons shared. He was not selective; his wisdom and love were freely dispensed. His legacy is that mercy, love and service must be taught, shared and perpetuated. For him, this was the meaning and purpose of a complete life.”