William Lynn Weaver, M.D.
William Lynn Weaver died May 25, 2019, at age 69, a loss to his many family and friends in Atlanta and in academic surgery across the nation. The apex of his professional career was his tenure as chair of surgery at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta (1996-2009) where he built a multispecialty academic department of surgery and a well-regarded training program in general surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital. A leader in the African American surgical community, he was chair of the Section on Surgery of the National Medical Association (2005-2006) and president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons (2009-2010).
Lynn was a world-class raconteur, a talent well-known among his friends and one that was revealed to the public late in this career as he neared retirement. StoryCorps, the Peabody Award-winning organization devoted to recording oral histories, visited the King Center in Atlanta in 2007 to interview the experiences of African Americans, including Weaver. He told about his father who worked as a chauffeur and janitor while raising his family in Mechanicsville, TN, a working-class neighborhood in Knoxville in the Civil Rights era South. His voice was strong and even, incredibly without choking with sentiment.
My father was everything to me... Up until he died, every decision I made, I'd always call him. And he would never tell me what to do, but he would always listen and say, "Well, what do you want to do?" And he made me feel that I could do anything that I wanted to do.
I can remember when we integrated the schools that there were many times when I was just scared, and I didn’t think that I would survive, and I'd look up and he'd be there. And whenever I saw him, I knew that I was safe...
When I was in high school, I was taking algebra, and I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to do my homework. And, I got frustrated, said I just can’t figure this out... so my father said, "What's the problem?’ And I said, "It's just algebra." And he said, "Well, let me look at it." And I said, "Dad, they didn't even have algebra in your day." And I went to sleep.
Around 4 o’clock that morning he woke me up and he said, ‘C’mon son, get up.’ He sat me at the kitchen table, and he taught me algebra. What he had done is sit up all night and read the algebra book, and then he explained the problems to me, so I could do them, and understand them. And to this day, I live my life trying to be half the man my father was. Just half the man. And I would be a success if my children loved me half as much as I love my father.
In a tribute to Weaver on the occasion of his death StoryCorps wrote of the interview, “It was one of the most memorable and popular StoryCorps stories ever broadcast.” No other StoryCorps subject had been interviewed more than twice. Weaver was featured four times.
After hearing Weaver’s broadcast on National Public Radio, the principal of West High School in Knoxville where he and 14 other African American students first integrated more than 50 years previously, reached out to him to visit the school as an honored alumnus. When he received the message, he simply ignored it. From his first day at West High Weaver had hated his high school experience.
As soon as we got into the school, the principal was calling the roll. He said, "Bill Weaver," and I said, "My name is William." And he said, "Oh, you're a smart n-word." I'd been in school maybe thirty minutes and he suspended me.
I don't remember a day that a teacher did not tell me that I didn't belong.
With aspirations for a professional career, Weaver and his brother were on the football team, nicknamed the "Colonels," and whose emblem was a Confederate flag. Their pregame entry was running through a giant Confederate flag as the marching band played "Dixie." Weaver and his black teammates chose to run around the banner instead. In an away game against an all-white rival, Weaver's brother tackled a home team opponent and broke his collarbone. At the end of the game the crowd, inflamed by the injury, crossed the field to the West High sideline. Warned by his coach told him to keep his helmet on, Weaver and his teammates were backed against a fence and blockaded from the team buses. "I was pretty afraid," Weaver recalled.
"And then a hand reaches through the fence and grabs my shoulder pads. I look around and it's my father. And I turned to my brother, I said, "It's okay; Dad's here."
The state police came and escorted us to the buses. The crowd is still chanting and throwing things at the bus and, as the bus drives off, I look back and I see my father standing there and all these angry white people. And I said to my brother, "How's Daddy going to get out of here? They might kill him."
We get to the high school and the most incredible feeling I think I've ever had was when my father walked through the door of the locker room and said, "Are you ready to go?" As if nothing had happened. And I wanted to tell him, "Dad, don't come to any more games," but selfishly I couldn't. I needed him there for me to feel safe.
Finally, the West High principal convinced him that the high school had changed in the time since he graduated. She had been touched and inspired by his story and his example. The current students and faculty would want to hear his story. For a half-century since his graduation he could not bring himself even to drive by the building, but in March 2018 Weaver, his wife Kay, three of their children, and a number of his old classmates and football teammates returned to the school auditorium. The mayor of Knoxville declared the day "Lynn Weaver Day," and StoryCorps recorded the event as a two-part podcast.
Weaver addressed the student body from the auditorium stage, a place where he had never stood during his years at West High. Jasmyn Morris, the StoryCorps interviewer, said "Lynn took the opportunity to challenge students and faculty to do better."
I would say to you look to your left, look to your right. Somebody next to you, somebody in this auditorium is being harassed, is being excluded because of their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, or their economic status. You can change that.
And I want everybody at least to think about, how can you make a difference in somebody's life? You're never too young to stand up, to walk out, to kneel for those who are not as well off as you are. So make West proud and make yourself proud.
One of his most powerful messages came at the end of his story of nearly getting ambushed by a hostile all-white home crowd at a football game. He concluded:
Normally when you're with a team you feel like everybody's going to stand together; and I never got that feeling that the team would stand with me if things got bad. I think a number of the white students who were there with me would say now, "If I could have did something different, I would've said something." But that's what evil depends on, good people to be quiet.
When he first came to Atlanta his major task was the revitalization of its training program and the academic department of surgery at Morehouse. Key to the endeavor was the establishment of independent Morehouse clinical services in trauma, surgical oncology, and breast surgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, staffed by his largely African-American faculty and residents. Academic chauvinism and institutional inertia threatened to thwart his project. Weaver's sense of equity demanded that Morehouse have equal standing in a public facility used by Atlanta's inner-city black community and whose non-professional staff was nearly exclusively African-American.
He found support from what outwardly might seem an unlikely source: Martin L. Dalton, then professor and chair of the department of surgery at the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, GA. Dalton was the epitome of the Southern gentleman-surgeon, tall, white-haired, his soft drawl revealing his upbringing in Columbus, GA, and education and surgical training steeped in the South: Auburn University, the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and the University of Mississippi. Weaver's squat body had softened from his football-playing days, but he was still the hard-nosed linebacker who had fought prejudice all his life from the opposite end of society: a scholarship at Howard University, another through the military to pay his way through Meharry Medical College, then training and early professional career at military hospitals as part of his service obligation.
The new chief of surgery at the largely African American medical school got a call of welcome from the white elder statesman of Georgia surgery, and they became fast friends. When Weaver needed encouragement in building his department Dalton was there with advice and support. While Weaver was already a core member of the national stage of African American medicine, Dalton knew that the newcomer's success in Atlanta would be facilitated by good relationships with the close-knit Georgia surgical community. The former guided the latter's entry into the proudly independent and previously all-white Georgia Surgical Society. Weaver's acceptance was so complete that he served as its president in 2005. Dalton nominated Weaver for membership to the Southern Surgical Association, where Alice Dalton made sure that Kay Weaver was welcomed to all social events. When another newcomer came to Georgia to succeed Dalton as chair at Mercer when the latter was named dean of the university's school of medicine, Weaver, in today's parlance, "payed it forward," and made sure Dalton's successor, another member of a racial minority, was welcomed into the state's surgical community.
In January 2019 Weaver made his final academic presentation on race and gender equity at a plenary session of the annual meeting of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma. Instead of the compelling stories of his childhood, he decided to commemorate his relationship with Dalton, and how friendship and mentorship transcended race and culture.
Lynn's StoryCorps podcasts are available online. Another was recorded by the American Medical Association about his experience with a dying patient. Please share them with your family and residents.
Lynn Weaver, requiescat in pace.
Weaver took his baccalaureate in pharmacy at Howard University (1974) and received his medical degree from Meharry Medical College (1978). He interned at the Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Denver and trained in surgery at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma. He completed his service in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army (1974-1987) at the rank of Major and chief of general surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital at the Blanchfield Army Medical Center at Fort Campbell, KY. He joined Eddie Hoover, then professor and chair of the department of surgery at Meharry Medical College (1987-1990). When the residency at Meharry closed in 1990 Weaver moved to Brooklyn to practice until he was recruited to rejoin Hoover at the State University of New York Buffalo School of Medicine as professor and chief of surgery at the VA Hospital (1992-1996). After his term as chair of surgery at Morehouse School of Medicine (1996-2009), he was named senior associate dean at the Ross University School of Medicine (2013-2018). He ended his career as chief of the VA Hospital in Fayetteville, NC (2018). In addition to serving as chair of the Section on Surgery of the National Medical Association (2005-2006) and president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons (2009-2010), he was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a member of the American Surgical Association and the Southern Surgical Association.
Don Nakayama, MD