Paving the Path
Bill “Willie” Sanders was a critical part of how the medical school became an internationally known institution.
This was the reality experienced only a few decades ago by Bill “Willie” Sanders, who began his career at the UF College of Medicine in 1957 as an anatomy laboratory technician and retired in 1989 as a tenured associate professor. When a door of opportunity cracked open, Sanders busted it off its frame to pursue his love of science and math. He left that doorway open behind him, welcoming in future generations of medical students whom he treated as if they were his own flesh and blood. This is Sanders’ legacy — the path he paved by breaking down barriers to a more inclusive environment at the UF College of Medicine — and it continues to leave an imprint on the campus culture.
Sanders was born in 1929, the youngest of 11 children, in Fort Motte, South Carolina. He served in both World War II and the Korean War before attending the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), a historically black university in Virginia. Sanders attended mortuary school in Chicago to become an embalmer, a career that brought him to Gainesville, where he worked in funeral homes. In 1957, 13 years before the first black physicians would graduate from the UF College of Medicine, he was hired as an anatomy lab technician, preparing cadavers for medical instruction.
Sanders’ daughter, Paula Pringle, remembers her father as a man consumed by his passion for anatomy. As a child, Pringle would spend days running around the UF Health Science Center, a favorite doll or two in tow. Her father would be working in the anatomy lab, teaching himself all he could about the human body in his spare time. Her mother, Pauletta Sanders, worked nearby as a histology technician, making slides of human tissue.
When Pringle was in college and enrolled in an anatomy course at UF, she recalls noticing a familiar scent when she was near her professor.
“My professor smelled like my dad,” Pringle recalls. “I said, ‘Sir, what cologne are you wearing?’ He said, ‘That’s formaldehyde.’”
After working for two years as an anatomy lab technician, Sanders applied to UF as an undergraduate student. His application was denied. Without a court order, he was told, there would be no black students at UF. Three years later, in 1962, Sanders was one of the first six black students accepted as undergraduates. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1970.
While enrolled as an undergraduate student, Sanders continued his work in the anatomy lab. He was promoted from his initial role of preparing materials to an associate professor of gross anatomy. In 1968, Sanders became the first black faculty member at the UF Collegeof Medicine.
Maude Lofton, MD ’79, a retired pediatrician and child development specialist, remembers Sanders as a devoted instructor who treated his students as equals.
“He would meet anybody in the lab after hours, day or night, if we were having difficulties. He wanted to see everybody succeed,” Lofton says. “You could talk to him about anything. He didn’t put on any airs or pretenses. He was just plain Willie Sanders, even though he was highly regarded at the university.”
As the director of the UF College of Medicine Office of Minority Relations for Health Sciences, (now the Office for Diversity and Health Equity), Sanders worked to recruit minority students and served as a mentor to many more. Lofton, who attended Atlanta’s Spelman College for her undergraduate studies, remembers visiting the Office of Minority Relations between classes and feeling she had found a family in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. Sanders would take the male students fishing, and his wife, Pauletta, would help plan and host bridal or baby showers for the female students.
“In my class of 120, there were 14 African-American students, and only four of us were female. During that time, the majority of the African-American students came from small, historically black colleges and universities. Coming to UF, with the size of its campus, was very different for many of us. Finding that camaraderie and that family through the Office of Minority Relations gave us what we were used to,” Lofton says.
Pringle calls her father a champion for his students, both professionally and personally.
“My dad would advocate for minority students so that they had the opportunity to succeed alongside students who didn’t look like them,” Pringle says. “He knew there had to be a foundation to deal not only with the academic pressures of medical training, but also with the social pressures of being a minority in that environment.”
More than a father figure, Lofton says Sanders was a trailblazer who challenged his institution to share his values of inclusivity and diversity.
“Willie established a legacy not just with us students, but with the faculty and administration. He established a commitment to diversity that continues today,” Lofton says.
After a career spanning three decades, Sanders retired from UF in 1989 as a tenured associate professor of anatomy and cell biology. In 2010, following treatment for bladder cancer, Sanders was told he only had a few weeks left to live. His family organized a celebration of his life, held on the UF College of Medicine campus. More than 400 family members, friends, colleagues and former students attended the ceremony.
James Patrick O’Leary, MD ’67, executive assistant dean of clinical affairs at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, spoke at the celebration about his relationship with Sanders, both as a student in the mid-’60s and as a fellow faculty member years later.
“Will Sanders was a critical part of how the medical school became an internationally known institution,” O’Leary says. “He was an incredible resource, and he should be honored.”
One month to the day after the celebration of his life in 2010, Sanders passed away at age 81. Today, Sanders’ legacy continues at the UF College of Medicine in part through the Willie J. Sanders Scholarship Fund. Established in 2012, with early contributions from alumnae like Donna Baytop, MD ’76, and Renee Blanding, MD ’88, the Sanders scholarship supports students committed to making a contribution to a pluralistic community and a diverse student body. The fund has accrued more than 100 donors who have given more than $250,000 to students.
“I know my dad’s legacy lives on. His students continue to give back to UF because of what my dad meant to them,” Pringle says. “My dad advocated for his students, and he was relentless in the work he did for others. I want future generations to know what my dad meant to his students of all races and backgrounds.”
1929Born in Fort Motte, South Carolina.
1957Hired as an anatomy lab tech at UF College of Medicine, preparing cadavers for medical instruction.
1962One of the first six black students accepted to the UF undergraduate program.
1968Promoted to associate professor of gross anatomy, becoming the first black faculty member at the UF College of Medicine.
1970Received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UF.
1989Retired from UF as a tenured associate professor of anatomy and cell biology.
See more stories in the Embracing Different series
How weaving together diverse perspectives enhances patient care.
FIVE PERSONAL TRUTHS
Faculty members sound off on ‘today’s challenge’.
WE CAN DO BETTER
Adapted from the 2018 UF College of Medicine Commencement Ceremony speech by graduate Dr. Cindy Medina Pabon.
BUILDING A PIPELINE TO MEDICINE
Introducing minority students and those from rural areas with limited access to care to health science careers.