[Story contributed by Frank Pacosa, April 2017]
Memories of Bill Dow and the Vanderbilt SHC Summer Health Fairs
It was all about Bill and the world he opened to me. That gravely voice stilled me. And often in his mouth was a toothpick, or hay stalk pulled from the dirt that grounded him. It seemed as if he was always picking on something, chewing, jawing, even when I followed him on Pediatric rounds or in the intensive care nursery at 1 a.m. Of course it was my imagination but Bill was literally always picking on something, hatching, planning, explaining. Hardly a thought went by that didn’t implicate the powerful pit against the poor. A cold, hardened steel analysis of institutions and how they dominated across all domains academic, business, government. No one escaped.
I went to a Jesuit High School in a North Philadelphia ghetto. A fiery priest preached social action and I bit the bait. He had us working in what Bill would call “po’ folk’s” homes during the early sixties. Belief on its own without social action was sterile, he said. He got kicked out of the dioceses a few years later.
Ghandi said: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. No one ever ignored Bill or laughed at him. That gravely voice rattled anyone on the other side “from the get go,” as he would say.
But for all the cantankerousness there was a deeply loving heart. I remember when he took me to visit (I believe it was) JW Bradley’s father who had severe painful rheumatoid arthritis. Bill’s reverence for the man was stunning. As he pulled the grass stalk out of his mouth before we got in his truck he said, “That man has never once complained of pain.” And Bill shook his head.
Being with Bill was not like being with anyone else.
I was too self centered then, carrying the narrow-sighted blinders of youth, but I could plainly see his analysis and that riveted me to this day.
The abandonment of youth ran strong the three summers I participated in the SHC Health Fairs. Skinny dipping, late night star gazing, sleeping on wooden slats with only a burlap bag for a sheet and pillow in a shack in a back holler’, endless cobbler until I thought I would burst. Caroline Kennedy’s visit, Marie Cirillo leading us on creek bed walk on a Easter Sunday, attending a church service where they handled snakes, shucking corn and cleaning beans with the Bradley’s. And endless music, the people’s music, not Opry music that was just starting to get fancy.
When I first practiced as a physician assistant, I became a registered lobbyist because the state medical board didn’t want us practicing. Later I ran an NLRB union election and filed our first grievance. All the time it was as if Bill was talking over my shoulder. “See what they are doing. Need to get on that …”
Marriage and our daughter took me out of action, but in the last year we demonstrated by sitting in front of an oil train and several were arrested. In April I participated in a flash mob song and dance protesting our public utility’s (PGE) proposed fracked gas power plant to the tune of the Village People’s “YMCA” except our lyrics went “YPGE.” It was during their Spring renewable energy fair. Bill always pointed out how not to be taken in by the “good” publicity to distract you from the “real business”. Luckily the weekend before the flash mob I took a Green Peace sponsored, Kingian (Martin Luther) non-violent de-escalation techniques class with lots of role playing. The goal is to calm everyone down and especially your people so bad publicity isn’t created. The techniques are based on neuroscience, brain plasticity, etc. When they kicked us off their property people on both sides got huffy and I was able to use those techniques to calm people down. I belong to a Buddhist Peace Fellowship book club. We are reading the New Jim Crow, a riveting indictment of the institutional, cultural racism that is codified up to the Supreme Court.
Bill’s legacy is deep, enduring, and ongoing. While I knew it was something special then, now I can only marvel at Bill and all the people affected by the Vanderbilt SHC summer Fairs.