Last of the first

DAYTON, March 12, 2018 -One by one, Southwestern Medical College students – 59 men and two women – walked across the Alex W. Spence Middle School auditorium stage in Dallas to receive their degrees and congratulations from College President Dr. Edward H. Cary and Dean Dr. Donald Slaughter. The last person to climb the raised platform on March 20, 1944, was Claxton Reginald Wilson, a Liberty, Texas, native and son of a county judge.

History had been made. Dr. Wilson and the other students celebrated as the first graduating class of the new medical school, which had been established 11 months earlier, in May 1943, after Baylor College of Medicine moved from Dallas to Houston.

Over the next 75 years, another 11,249 students have graduated from what eventually became UT Southwestern Medical School. Through the decades, Dr. Wilson – who turned 98 years old on Feb. 14 – has enjoyed an adventurous life and a satisfying general practice in southeast Texas. And he’s slowly watched his graduating class of 61 dwindle. In 2017, Dr. Wilson learned that Dr. Howell Robert Gaddy Jr., a friend and fellow March 1944 graduate, had died in Tyler, Texas, after practicing medicine for many years in Georgetown, Texas. With that sad news, the final graduate to cross that middle school stage 74 years ago became the last living member of UT Southwestern’s first medical school class.

“The last Southwestern reunion I attended was in 1999, and Erwin Addy and I were the only two there from our class,” said Dr. Wilson, who practiced in Dayton, Texas, until 1982 and still lives there. “Erwin, the very first graduate, died in the early 2000s when there were about 20 of us still living.”

An early military bent

In his teens, Reginald Wilson left Liberty and enrolled at Schreiner Military Institute, a boys’ school in Kerrville, Texas, opened in 1923 that included both secondary school and junior college curricula.

The young “Reg” became serious about his studies during his time on the Kerrville campus and was accepted by UT Austin for the 1941-42 school year under “extraordinary” circumstances. “At that time, all grades from Texas junior colleges that transferred to UT were changed to ‘C’ except for classes from Schreiner,” Dr. Wilson recalled. “It may have been the military discipline or demanding instruction there, but I was able to keep my ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades. I happened to be in the honor society and that also may have helped.”

About four months after Dr. Wilson’s arrival at UT Austin, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, leading to the United States’ involvement in World War II. He was swept up into the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) by the end of his junior year and headed for Baylor College of Medicine in Dallas. The ASTP, conducted at more than 222 American universities, was instituted to meet wartime demands for junior officers and for soldiers with technical skills. It offered training in fields such as medicine, engineering, and foreign languages.

Preparing for war

Twice a week, Dr. Wilson and other Southwestern Medical College students in the ASTP endured sweaty drills wearing starched military uniforms. This meant standing for inspections and formations in front of Parkland Memorial Hospital prior to their classes, which were held in converted plywood barracks. Their instruction included clinical rounds in the original hospital on Maple Avenue.

The United States had been at war for more than two years, and thousands of citizens from all types of professions answered the call. At Southwestern, most medical degrees came with military transfer orders.

“Almost all of us were in the ASTP,” said Dr. Wilson. “Twelve students eventually signed up for the Navy, and testing revealed two in the class had heart murmurs and had to drop. But we realized the situation – I knew darn good and well I was going to the South Pacific.”

Before entering medical school, those in the Dallas program had been sworn into the Army and completed basic training at Camp Hood. Except for the heat, Dr. Wilson didn’t mind. “It didn’t interfere too much. Mainly, I liked getting $90 a month,” Dr. Wilson said. “We had officers teaching classes, but other than that, we could wear regular clothes. You were just restricted in certain ways.”

The war presented challenges – but also unique opportunities. At Parkland, the permanent staff was at minimal staffing levels since most experienced physicians and nurses had left for military service.

“As Southwestern seniors, we were switched over to Parkland, where half the doctors were already gone,” Dr. Wilson remembered. “The senior students didn’t know what to do or where anything was. The nurses helped us a lot, because the seniors had to staff the clinics. That senior year, medical students handled all of the normal deliveries of babies at Parkland. The permanent staff stayed busy with harder and more complicated cases. That was fun.”

War-era romance

In 1944, Elizabeth Olson, who later married Dr. Wilson, worked with an operating room team at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The North Dakota native had somewhat gotten used to the 90-day cycle of new sets of eyes above surgical masks glancing her way. “It was a different time and a different place,” said Mrs. Wilson, now 94. “Where I was stationed, there were a lot of people coming and going, taking special courses, and getting trained. They were with us a few weeks and then off to war.”

One day, an Army lieutenant walked in, fresh out of his accelerated internship. “I was at Mayo for anesthesiology training and on the very first day, my very first time in the OR there, she was a nurse in the room,” said Dr. Wilson, that lieutenant.

He took little time in asking her out, not knowing that “Betty” had a well-kept secret. As a nursing student, she and a friend had playfully consulted a Ouija board, asking whom they would eventually marry. Betty’s inquiry had resulted in R-E-G-I-N-A-L-D. “It was strange, because I had never known anyone named that before,” she said. “We had gone to a movie and as he was walking me home, I admitted to him that I only knew him as ‘Lt. Wilson.’ I almost passed out in the snow when he told me his first name.”

The couple, married in 1945, were relieved when Dr. Wilson was promoted to Captain and selected as a trainer to remain stateside just before he was scheduled to go overseas. “I was in the Army two years, stationed at Fort Sheridan outside of Chicago,” Dr. Wilson said. “We saw each other every other weekend.”

After the war, Dr. and Mrs. Wilson and their 2-month-old daughter at the time, Patty, moved to Dayton, Texas, a small town outside of Houston. They raised two more children, Randy and Larry, and today have seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

“There was a shortage of doctors in a lot of towns at the time,” Dr. Wilson said. “Dayton had recently lost a physician, and the growing town was left with only one doctor who asked me to settle in this cattle-and-rice community. As a general practitioner, I did everything, including house calls until the 1960s, and completed more than 2,000 deliveries right here in Dayton.”

Dr. Wilson maintained his practice until 1982. He retired after he underwent four operations in six months because of a spontaneous detached retina that resulted in distorted vision and macular degeneration.

“I guess my being a general medicine doctor has all worked out,” Dr. Wilson said. “When we got together at medical school reunions through the years, we used to say that the ‘A’ students made professor, the ‘B’ students made the best specialists, and the ‘C’ students made the money. The ‘A’ and ‘B’ students eventually took specialties, and the ‘C’ students went into general practices and stayed busy.”

‘I remember the bodies’

On April 16, 1947, barely two months after opening his Dayton practice, Dr. Wilson got a call from the other physician in town, Dr. E.R. Richter.

“Dr. Richter said there’d been an explosion in Texas City and they needed all area doctors and firemen,” said Dr. Wilson, who was seeing patients in his Main Street office at the time. “I said I’d drive, and for him to meet me at the fire station.” The two doctors followed a Dayton fire truck to the disaster.

Trained to provide wartime medical care, Dr. Wilsonnever had to face that harrowing challenge – but he was about to experience the closest thing to it. He and the other volunteers from Dayton raced 50 miles to the port of Texas City and into the hellish site of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever registered.

The freighter SS Grandcamp, loaded with approximately 2,200 tons of ammonium nitrate, detonated shortly after 9 a.m. while local first responders battled an onboard blaze. The initial explosion set off a chain reaction of fires and explosions in other ships and nearby oil-storage facilities. At least 581 people died, including all but one member of the Texas City Fire Department, and more than 5,000 were injured, including 1,784 who received care at 21 area hospitals.

“We went right on into what was left. The first explosion did most of the damage,” said Dr. Wilson, who helped as many injured people as he could. “Mostly I remember the bodies. There were so many.”

As in battlefield triage, first priority was given to those who could be saved. Doctors providing those critical on-site assessments came from neighboring towns. “The doctors who worked in Texas City stayed in their offices and clinics and we got the injured to them,” Dr. Wilson remembered.

Dr. Wilson broke away from on-site assistance after a boat headed to Galveston was filled to overflowing with the injured. He said they were able to successfully transport 25 to 30 onboard survivors before heading back to Texas City to help more victims.

“It’s strange what you remember,” he said. “I recall a great big steel barge that was blown clear out of the water sitting on land, and bits of twine being everywhere. Another freighter must have been getting loaded with twine, because it covered everything – cars, buildings, the dead, and the injured. It was a strange sight.”

A life in ruins, Indiana Jones style

By the 1960s Dr. Wilson had made connections with colleagues and friends in Mexico and in Central America through his enthusiastic ham radio interests. In 1962, he made his first trip south – a Methodist Church-sponsored medical mission trip to Bolivia – that led to many subsequent vacations and medical trips to Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize, many of them with Mrs. Wilson.

“You cannot imagine the odd diseases that I handled over the years, including some cases that I lost to the local witch doctor,” Dr. Wilson said. “In southern Mexico, the Methodist Church helped sponsor a hospital as well as clinics in the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and in Campeche. Best of all, the pilots flying us to the jungle clinics always took the scenic route to show me from the air the various archaeological ruins. I was in hog heaven.”

The aerial view of the jungle soon turned into ground-level investigations. In their spare time, Dr. Wilson and Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot Jack Walker started to go over an overgrown site that was known by locals but had never been explored nor officially reported.

“Over time, we located eight pyramids, temples, plazas, ball courts, glyphs, Mayan roads, and several underground and secret rooms,” Dr. Wilson wrote to Southwestern classmates in 2003. “In 1972, we made our final measurements, drawings, and charts.”

The discovery was published by the INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), the official archaeological society of Mexico, and professional archaeologists over the years have subsequently discovered even more structures, making the ruins of Okop the second-largest complex found south of Chichen Itza.

When age eventually limited his travels, Dr. Wilson found a new passion. Well into his 90s, he became an active researcher and member of the Galveston chapter of the Laffite Society, which researches and helps preserve the sites and history of privateers Jean and Pierre Lafitte and their contemporaries.

Upon reflection, Dr. Wilson treasures the long and winding road he’s taken and the lives he’s touched as a UT Southwestern-educated physician.

“It’s been a good life. I never would have dreamed I would live so long and see all of the world that I have seen.” 

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