Dr. W. F. Meacham Memoire

Memoire of Dr. William F. Meacham

(1913 - 1999)


Dear Kids,

Some years ago the thought occurred to me that it might interest you to learn something of my background. I determined then to accomplish this if I lived long enough to be 75. I reached this "old age" status two months ago on December 12, 1988.

I never learned much about my father's family -- I never knew his parents, but knew that they were a traditional Kentucky family with long established ties to Hopkinsville in Christian County. His parents died before I was born, but I knew his brother William and his cousin, Arthur -- both were very kind to me and were apparently typical Meachams from "Hoptown". My father's sister, Aunt Nell, was a lovely lady, pretty, attractive, and married to a well-to-do farmer, a man named Acree -- very considerate of me as a visitor to the farm on rare occasions.

My father, Marion Henry Meacham, so I'm told ran away from home when he was a teenager and no one heard from him for three years when they received a post-card from him in Manilla in the marine corps. Apparently, Daddy had a distinguished career there and was promoted and ultimately returned home after discharge where he courted my mother and they were married in 1912. (For the record I should state that I was told that the Meachams came from Ireland to the Carolinas in chains, being deported for being horse thieves!)

My mother was Mamie Boone Henderson, daughter of Dell and Florence Henderson, both from long standing Christian County families. Grandmother Henderson was married in her teens to Dell Henderson and promptly had a succession of offspring, Leslie (who died in my infancy), Louise, Mamie, Wallace, John, and James. The old Henderson home place, 216 Brown Street, was a fine large, rambling house that I remember vividly, but a recent visit was discouraging -- it, and the street, have become a virtual low class tenement area.

My parents returned to Washington, D.C., after marriage -- my father on assignment to the marine corps. I was born in Washington on December 12,1913.Within a year or so my Mother became ill with tuberculosis and we all returned to the house that my father built for open air convalescence for TB therapy. However, in spite of the best care and medical treatment my mother died -- I was three years old and have no recollection of her. She was buried in Riverside, Cemetary in the Meacham plot. My photos of her reveal that she was indeed a beauty -- what a shame that we didn't have streptomycin then!

Because of some misunderstanding between my Father and the Hendersons, for the next year I was "farmed-out" and stayed with a nice old couple, the Hubbards, childless, who ran a small grocery store in the neighborhood. I have never known what the difficulty was but it was not too serious since I often ate with grandma and the family and they were all solicitous and kind to me.

In 1917 (I think) Daddy began courting a girl, Mattie Johnson, daughter of a well to do family, and shortly after, they were married. The onset of World War I made it necessary for Daddy to rejoin and he went overseas with the Rainbow Division and was in a good many of the battles in France -- in fact, was gassed and disabled for a while. During this time I stayed with my step-mother, "Miss Mattie" at the Johnson home on Walnut Street, a fine old mansion (now a ruin and not inhabited).

In 1918 the war ended and Daddy stayed for a while with the army of occupation, but then came home and decided at once to go back to Washington and begin a contracting business with an old friend -- a Mr. Ca1c1azer. This was done and I started to school at Peabody Elementary, later changing to Gage School on 2nd Avenue, N.W. We had moved to a new apartment building on 2nd and Florida Avenue, N.W. in a lovely neighborhood and I can remember being very happy there with good friends and playmates, but I think I learned very little in school due to my own delinquency.

My one unhappy recollection concerns Miss Matties' (and Daddy's) desire for me to play the piano -- I had to take lessons from Mrs. Calc1azer who was good enough to do it without charge -- although it was torture for me. I at least learned to read music -- it came in handy later. The Ca1c1azers had a fine, stout buxom daughter, Alma, who really spoiled me -- I enjoyed it!

The early 1920's are very vivid in my memory because I obtained a half brother, Jim, and because I became aware of Daddy's failing health. I remember that one of my chores was to go across the street each day with 15 cents and get a package of Chesterfield cigarettes for my father and I can remember his "cigarette cough" to this day. It soon became obvious that Daddy's health would not allow him to continue to work and he and Miss Mattie decided to go to Los Angeles where her family had migrated to after the death of her parents. However, by the time all arrangements were made it became obvious that Daddy would not make it and we decided to return to Hopkinsville. Daddy knew he was going home to die.

We all went on the train and I remember sitting in the coach car all day and all night and having our meals out of a shoe box filled with chicken, hard boiled eggs, and sandwiches. I remember a nice man walking by and looking at me, turning back and asking if he could take me to lunch in the diner -- I had never seen such luxury -- I wish I could remember his name.

In Hopkinsville Daddy was too weak and had to stay in bed and he was put in a room at his Uncle Bob Meacham's (and Aunt Ella) small farm just out of town. I went to Grandmas' on Brown Street and Miss Mattie and Jim went to her home.

In a few days Daddy died. I was 10 years old, Jim was 3. Daddy was buried in Riverside beside my mother. Miss Mattie and Jim had decided to go on to Los Angeles and I was the "problem". I remember the meeting at Grandma's one night -- Miss Mattie, Louise, Wallace, John, James, Grandma, and me -- what to do with me? After much discussion it was finally decided to ask me which I preferred -- to stay with Grandma or go to California. I was planning on playing ball the next day with the Chambers kids next door so I said I'd stay in Hopkinsville -- everybody agreed -- and so I had a new home!

I went to school at Belmont, just up the street from home and I soon distinguished myself as the dumbest kid around. I was put in the fifth grade under Miss Ola Foster who finally taught me enough to get me into the sixth grade under Miss Annie Cate King, a brilliant teacher who helped me tremendously. Then into seventh grade under Miss Susie Rutherford, a fine old lady who gave me my last whipping (for talking). I had on long corduroy pants and never felt her feeble thrashings -- bless her heart! Into the eighth grade under Miss Mary Walker, a great teacher and a fine disciplinarian who first made me realize the value of ethics, honesty, and committment. Then on to the Hopkinsville High School where I soon became a problem child again!

I decided I wanted to play the saxaphone and so I caddied at the country club one whole summer -- saved $35.00 and bought a second hand C-melody, sax from the music store and learned to play it without lessons. A few other boys and I formed a dance band and would occasionally play for a social function, gratis. Later, I got for Christmas a new E flat alto and we really organized into a pretty fair band with the help of some older men, notably Joe Day, a drummer who was a good musician. We became known as "Joe Day and His Knights" -- a pretty good ten piece band.

During this time I also was very interested in aviation and my best friend, Hugh Thomasson, and I would spend every free hour hanging around the old airport where Hoptown's only airplane remained -- property of Col. Renshaw, a portly wealthly auto dealer who hired a transient pilot, Charlie Hoffman, to fly the plane around and carry passengers on Sunday for sight-seeing. Hugh and I got carried away with flying and he began doing parachute drops and we both carried out stunts on planes and motorcycle for the fun of it. He dropped out of school formed his own stunt flying group and later became chief navigator for Pan American Airways, dying at home suddenly from a heart attack.

I must say that Hugh was fearless -- he did long free-drop parachute maneuvers and many other courageous stunts. I was just the opposite, I hung on for dear life to the airplane wings (just as safe as the cockpit) and was glad to get back on the ground. I last saw Hugh in New York -- I was giving a paper at the Waldorf and he was at the Pan Am offices and we met, had a cock- tail and dinner and long chats and remininscences. Shortly after, he was dead.

I dropped out of school and went with two of my school mates to Lynchburg, Virginia to be the sax section of Jimmy Blackwell's Orchestra. To our dismay, he took up a collection to purchase arrangements for the band and went to Richmond for the purpose of procuring the music and we have never seen him since! The bass player, George Dunn, from Chicago took over the band and we stayed the rest of the year at the Virginian Hotel playing for luncheon and dinner -- then going out to various clubs and nearby communities for dances -- Washington and Lee, Virginia Military Academy, Randolph-Macon, Sweetbriar, etc.

I had left home with $19.00 and came back with $10.00. I decided that professional music was not my forte and we returned to school, re-organized the Joe Day band and became law abiding students again. That winter (1931) I got the flu and could not get rid of a cough and weakness. My Uncle Wallace (my legal guardian) took me to see a specialist who immediately said I had far advanced TB with cavitation in the right upper lobe! The standard treatment was prolonged bedrest -- so, I took to my bed in the upstairs of our new home on Latham Avenue, and stayed there looking at the ceiling for one year. I could no longer play the sax, and when I finally was allowed up, I taught myself the cords on the guitar and began playing again with the orchestra and soon, because I was apparently "cured" I began playing the sax and clarinet again. Now while I was sick I was treated for a middle ear infection by Dr. J. J. Ezell, a fine doctor and friend who sparked my interest in medicine and was responsible for me to decide to study medicine although my family was opposed to the required years of college and medical school when I had no funds.

Nevertheless, I was determined to go and was fortunate enough to finish high school in good order, now that I was motivated properly, I applied and was accepted at Western Kentucky Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) at Bowling Green. Thus began my pre-med education.

I should digress here to comment about my "family", since I had become orphaned. I lived with Grandma, Aunt Louise, Uncle John and Uncle Jimmy on Brown Street for four to five years when after a rather disastrous fire, even though the house was repaired it was decided by the family to move to a new house on Latham Avenue, near the home of Uncle Wallace and his wife, Mary Neville. Louise married Arthur Bowles, a quiet, religious, wonderful man and lived next door to our new home. That left Grandma, John, Jimmy, and me in the new home.

John and Jimmy both worked and I was in school until I became sick and had to remain in bed. My dear, sweet, grandmother, aging after rearing all those children and caring for her husband, a long term aphasic hemiplegic, took care of me. To this day I shudder when I think of that uncomplaining, devoted lady bringing three meals a day to me -- upstairs and down, day in and day out. I am certain she was the most sacrificial person on earth, she never fussed, she was honest, and virtuous, she never traveled except to Washington when I was born - and if she ever had any recreation or amusement I'm not aware of it. She was a devout Baptist.

Even though I tried to repay her in some way in her terminal illness, it is infinitesimal compared to her service to me. This entire family, all now dead, were more concerned with me than I can describe -my gratitude remains undiminished.

In Bowling Green I was told to contact a man named Leon Spillman who had a part-time dance band and who also ran a men's shop. I did, he needed a sax player, and I got the job. What luck! Right away I was making $15 to $25 each week-end and getting meals at the Helm Hotel where we played for dinner. I made good grades and that summer played with Roy Holmes band at the Palace Hotel in Red Boiling Springs, a popular spa resort.

The next year a group of students formed a band called the "Collegians" and we had a very successful year playing as far away as West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, Nashville, and Paducah. I played alto sax and was the booking agent. We later went under the name of Johnny Endicott (he was the drummer) and his orchestra, playing a lot of the sorority and fraternity dances at Vanderbilt.

We disbanded for the summer and while at home a neighbor friend, Ralph Harned, son of a prominent doctor and I decided to go to St. Louis on an excursion train for the weekend. We rode the train Thursday night and had Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in St. Louis. We arrived Friday morning and Ralph had to call a friend of his mothers to give her a message. We were at the Union Station on Market Street and he came from the phone and said they would pick us up in thirty minutes -- I thought, to see the city. After a short while a uniformed chauffer came to us, asked if we were from Kentucky, took us to a long, slick, Lincoln Limousine and drove us to a beautiful mansion in Webster Groves where we met Mr. H. E. Billman and his wife, Brent Billman, their three daughters, Burnett (Boots), Jo Anne, and Jeanne Yvonne. They fed us, put us up, toured us around, and then Mr. Billman asked if we wanted to stay there and work in his rock quarry. I jumped at the chance, but Ralph had other plans. So instead of going back on the train we went back in the Lincoln with Mrs. Billman. I remember driving up to the front of our house in the Lincoln and my Uncle John was sitting on the porch. When he saw me he jumped up and cried out "take it back" -- he thought I had stolen the car!

I drove back with Mrs. Billman, moved into the house, and began work shoveling sand in the blazing hot quarry, coming "home" each day and dressing for dinner!! After about three weeks of this Mr. Billman saw that I hadn't given up and asked if I wanted to work on his railroad crew. I did and became a time keeper on the Industrial Track Construction Company, laying new heavy rails between Carthage, Illinois and Keocuk, Iowa. We had about sixty black laborors and I really learned about life from them! There were five whites who were the bosses and we were fed wonderful meals and had nice Pullman cars to live in. I could ride the Wabash Rail Lines into St. Louis when I wanted to on weekends without charge. So, it was a nice life.

The next school year went along fine -- we organized a new band and with a new, fine piano player named Billy Whiteman we had a lot of jobs that caused us to travel a lot and made me very sleepy in class. I remember studying for my organic chemistry final exam during intermission at a dance in Danville, Kentucky at Centre College. My favorite professor, Dr. Lancaster, once told me I'd fail his course if I didn't stay awake and take notes. I told him I didn't need to take notes when the lecture was good -- he never mentioned it any more, especially since I was making A's.

That next summer it occurred to me that I could make more money working in the Kansas wheat fields and so along with a neighbor friend, Ralph Rice, later a prominent opthalmologist in Nashville, we hitch-hiked to Kansas City and almost immediately got a job near Wellington, Kansas through the courtesy of the state employment agency. We were to travel to the wheat ranch with a man who was taking six of us there to work the wheat harvest. We all rode in his open touring car to a place near Wellington where we stopped for the night at an outdoor camping spot. Our driver and protector, then collected our donations for gas, oil, and food which he was to bring us shortly, left for these essential errands -- we never saw him again!! I was broke, Ralph was broke and we started walking -- no one would hire us -- they didn't need men, since they had combines which did all the work! One bad day Ralph and I sat on the curb in Wellington and decided we were dying of starvation in the midst of plenty.

I agreed to try first for the first aid from home, so I went into a small Western Union Office, dirty, bedraggled, and obviously a derelict and asked the nice man if he would send a collect telegram -- I think my youth saved us! After a thorough visual examination he agreed and sent a wire to Uncle Wallace. I asked for ten dollars -and got it!! Wallace's telegram said -- "If no job with Mr. Billman suggest you come home". I still have that original telegram -- I'll keep it!

We went across the street and bought a pie of $1.25, a peach meringue, we split it and ate it -- I've never had a better meal.

We hitch-hiked and bus rode back to St. Louis, the Billmans put us up, fed us, and Ralph went back to work on the Missouri state highway and I went to work at the Barnes Hospital -a job Mr. Billman got for me since I was now "in medicine". I was an orderly, I pushed patients around in wheelchairs and stretchers and did whatever head nurses ordered me to do -- promptly!

The school year was good, hard, and difficult -- physical chemistry, higher math, history, and comparative anatomy all tackeled with good grades, but I had applied to Vanderbilt and so had Schell and Towery, the two students who were first in class with Towery and me tied for second place. I was told that Vanderbilt never accepted more than two applicants from Western and that I was low man on the totam pole. Surprise!! Vandy accepted three of us, me, Bob Schell and Beverly Towery. I was finally in medicine, but with stiff competition.

That summer I went back to Barnes Hospital and worked in the O.R. and saw all of the great men of the day at work -- Dr. Ernest Sachs, Leonard Furlow, the Crossens, father and son, Evarts Graham, and Vilray Blair all being a great stimulus to me. At about this time Mr. Billman said that he would be pleased to have me live with them, go to Washington University, and take a degree in engineering. What a temptation, but I had already been smitten with medicine and had to decline. But, he was aware of my financial problem in meeting my tuition each year, particularly this last year. At dinner that evening, it was a rather gala occasion, the three girls were there and an old friend of the Billman's -- the dinner was superb and when dessert was served Mr. Billman arose -- came around to the back of my chair and gently unrolled a mass of bills over my head and down into my plate. They were all 50's and 100's and more than enough to cover my tuition. I cried!!

Well, I had a rather varied medical school career -- I pledged Alpha Kappa Kappa fraternity, lived in the frat house at 2122 West End, worked at the state penitentiary one summer, medical student intern at Eastern State Hospital one summer in Knoxville, then lived and worked at Clover Bottom Institute for the mentally impaired my senior year. My room mate that year was John Thornton from Brownsville, Tennessee -- he and I took out everybody's tonsils at Clover Bottom whether they needed it or not! I apparently made good grades and was taken in the Alpha Omega Alpha honor medical society my senior year. I graduated in 1940 and was awarded a surgical internship at Vanderbilt under Dr. Barney Brooks, a hard taskmaster, brilliant surgeon, and fantastic teacher.

Mrs. Billman came from St. Louis to my graduation and presented me with a check for $500.00 -- later, when Alice and I married she gave us another $500.00. I have often pondered over the mystery of the Billman Family -- a perfect American family, handsome, beautiful, wealthy, kind, and generous. Why would they virtually adopt an unknown country kid -- a complete stranger -- welcome him into their home, supply him with money, a job, and many kindnesses that cannot be enumerated. They are all dead now except Jo Anne and Jeanne Yvonne and I correspond with them occasionally. I've wondered if I personified the son they never had -- maybe! Barbara's middle name, Brent, is in honor of Mrs. Billman.

My year as surgical intern was undoubtedly the most difficult I've ever spent. Constant duty, hard work, little sleep, and what we thought was harrassment from our resident bosses, constituted our daily fare -- plus the ignominy of no salary, just room and board at the hospital. Well, others survived it and so did I to become assistant resident, then finally chief resident in 1944.

One night in 1940 I had spent part of the early morning hours doing an acute appendicitis operation and had just flopped into bed, exhausted, when the phone rang and it was the operating room nurse reprimanding me for not taking the specimen to the pathology lab and insisting that I come back and carry out that duty without further delay. I had no choice but to accede and when I got back to the operating room, there was this shapely nurse all masked and gowned with the specimen in her hands -- I couldn't help but notice that she had good looking legs and ankles, so in my frustration I asked her for a date. This was the beginning of my courtship with Alice -- I'm glad she didn't have a hare-lip! In 1944 we were married since Dr. Brooks would not allow his surgical house officers to marry, but the war made him rescend his rule.

The Vanderbilt Unit was formed as the 300th General Hospital for overseas duty and I was anxious to go, but the army rejected me because of earlier TB and a lesion on my chest x-ray (that is still there) and stipulated that I stay on at Vanderbilt in a teaching capacity. In addition to my duties in general surgery I was very interested in neurosurgery and after covering the neurosurgical service when its chief, Dr. Pilcher, was away -- which during the war, was often. After much soul searching and discussion with Alice I decided to go back into training and became the first William Henry Howe Fellow in neurosurgery. I took the Board Examination in general surgery in 1947 and in neurosurgery in 1948 -- passing both, thank the Lord!!

Dr. Pilcher suggested that I spend some time in Montreal with Dr. Penfield at McGill University and learn the technics for gold and silver stains for nerve tissue. It was a great experience and I made friends there that have been fruitful and lasting. The unpleasant aspect was due to the fact that Alice and Bill, our first born had to return to her home in Humphrey, Arkansas and wait for my return.

We returned to Nashville and lived on Hampton Avenue, later purchasing a nice small home on Cedar Lane where Pat was born, then Barbara, and finally moving to 3513 Woodmont Boulevard were Bob was born.

My professional life has been recorded in my curriculum vitae and can be consulted if needed. Obviously, I have experienced many vicissitudes and triumphs, dissapointments, and happiness as have most other humans, but a few events have been of paramount importance to me. Nothing can equal the good fortune of finding the incomparable companion of my life, Alice, the perfect wife, mother, and grandmother, who has maintained a purity of thought and conduct for the 48 years I have known her.

Secondly, the good fortune and God's blessing to have had four great and beautiful children is a reward that cannot be equalled.

Thirdly, the blessings of having Molly, Alice, Catherine and Andrew as hea1th1y, intelligent, and attractive grandchildren is a dividend we could only pray for.

And finally, we have, by the intelligent decisions of our children have been rewarded with in-laws who are an integral part of our family.

I expect my life to remain calm and happy, but when and if adversity occurs I know we can handle it. If, by chance, my terminus occurs some day without warning, or otherwise, I shall not regret it, for I have had a full and wonderful life!

ADDENDUM:

I should have mentioned that my step-mother, Miss Mattie, died in 1960 -- Alice and I were involved in a national meeting at Lake Machinac, Michigan and could not attend her funeral in Los Angeles where she is buried. About three or four years ago I was informed by Miss Mattie's sister that my half-brother, Jim, died suddenly and that he was to be cremated. His death was under rather mysterious circumstances and no one is certain about the cause.

At any rate, he left his house and savings and all of his belongings to a male friend -- not a relative and disliked by his two Aunts -- Miss Mattie's sisters. I paid for the funeral expenses of Jim and Miss Mattie and for stone markers for their burial sites.

As far as I can tell I have no surviving kin from my father's family. From my mothers side I have a cousin, Wallace Henderson, Jr., son of Uncle Wallace, and Nancy Amis, daughter of Aunt Louise (she has three children), then John Henderson, Jr., son of my Uncle John, and from Uncle Jimmy, there are two children, Jimmy Jr., and Judy.

I think this completes all that I can recount about our family background. Alice and I expect all of you to keep it going.

I also should tell you that my middle name, Feland, was in honor of my father's commanding officer in the Phillipines, General Logan Feland, a distinguished marine officer.


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