Dad developed his vision and presence internationally as the “father of microneurosurgery” by believing in and training hundreds of fellows from around the world in his neuro-microanatomy lab. He taught us to think creatively, as he developed miniature precision tools to perform intricate brain surgeries under the microscope. When I was in the fourth grade, Dad visited my class and described how he could sew 100 stitches around an “O” the size of the one in “IN GOD WE TRUST” on the penny. He made a significant contribution to anatomical understanding through the many rich, finely detailed drawings of the brain he developed with his medical artists and fellows. And in the early 1990s, he worked closely with the late Bill Luttge, then-chair of the neuroscience department, and others to develop and launch what would become the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida.
The dream and vision Dad had for neurosurgery at UF grew and prospered under his caring and steady eye. He built this with friendship, patience and compassion for all. What an incredible, inspiring role model for us!
If you knew him, you probably won’t be surprised to learn he was working in his lab until a week before his death, though he’d retired 10 years ago. He died of metastatic prostate cancer at age 83 on Feb. 21. But what you may not have known is he came from the humblest of beginnings. Born in an Appalachian log cabin without plumbing or electricity, he attended a two-room schoolhouse until fifth grade, when his family moved to Akron, Ohio. He struggled his first year in a big-city school and had to repeat fifth grade. But he had a deep faith and an inner toughness, and he went on to succeed academically and get into The Ohio State University. There his grades again suffered as he tried to keep up with both working and attending classes. But the forces of the universe intervened, and with $1,000 in quarters borrowed from a friend, he was able to quit working and focus on school. Dad believed life for him had been a series of fortunate coincidences and chance meetings that led him to where he finally ended up.
Always motivated to help others, he had considered becoming a missionary or a social worker until a course in physiological psychology during his senior year in college lit a fire in him: He was fascinated by the brain.
Dad graduated at the top of his class from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, paving the way for the Mayo Clinic, where he worked for six years before coming to UF. He believed the hand of God was behind his work. He believed in the goodness of people. He knew everyone had strengths and weaknesses, but he tried to capitalize on their strengths.
There were periods of time when he would be traveling for work. But when he was home, we had dinner together every night at 6:30. Dad never complained about the stresses of work or life as a physician caring for sick people in an imperfect world. Dad loved what he did and he talked about the great honor and privilege of taking care of people, not just his patients. He gave that gift of enthusiasm to us, and we all went into the medical profession: My brother Eric is a neurosurgeon and my brother Albert is a gastroenterologist (both in North Carolina); my sister Laurel and I both work at UF Health, she as a nurse and I as an obstetrician-gynecologist. Even when we were little, I don’t think any of us thought about doing anything but following in that footstep Dad and Mom had made for us.
When we were in high school, my sister and I would help as our mom, Joyce, cooked dinner at our house for groups of neurosurgeons who came from around the world to train in Dad’s lab. There was a course twice a year when 30 neurosurgeons would come, and Mom would prepare dinner for all those people; Dad wanted to keep the cost down. Bringing in all these people to his lab — a total of more than 1,000 trainees over the years — put UF on the map; they went back home and taught what they’d learned. The surgery Dad taught was all about precision, but you were just as likely to hear him use the words “compassion,” “care” and “love.” At his funeral, which we called “a celebration of his great life,” there were people from Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, China, Korea, Turkey and Africa. All of them gathered to mourn and celebrate their teacher, friend and mentor, but also to carry on as his disciples wherever they may be practicing.