This is an opinion column.
“You’ve got McDowell legs.”
I’ve heard that joke countless times from the family about my short legs, the same legs my “Grandaddy” had. I wish I had gotten more from him, though.
Dr. Holt A. McDowell Jr. was as respected a man as they come. The son of longtime Jefferson County Sheriff Holt McDowell, Sr., he grew up in Ensley and always wanted to be a doctor.
“When I was a senior in high school, I had a summer job at the steel mill, which is one of the reasons I became a doctor,” he said during a talk he gave to the Jefferson County Medical Society on January 18, 2005, less than six months before his death. “My father told me I could go to college one time. If I flunked out, that was it. In my section of town, everyone worked in the steel mill. I didn’t ever want to work in that steel mill. I studied.”
Through hard work, Grandaddy became a vascular surgeon at UAB Hospital, training countless doctors for over 30 years. As a kid, I heard from many those doctors, who just so happened to be the fathers of some of my friends. But that’s not the man I knew. To me, he was just “Grandaddy.”
Personally, I’ve always felt lacking. Grandaddy was the opposite. He was accomplished, smart and elegant. He was also a sharp dresser. Stories about him napping on the couch while wearing a three-piece suit were the stuff of legend around my house. Even in retirement, he still dressed well, often wearing nice button-up shirts and loafers.
Even as a kid, I could see how much the grown-ups in the room sought his advice, how they wanted his approval. My Dad often jokes about how when he was dating my mom, Grandaddy would tell her that he was “a solid citizen.” That meant the world to him. To this day, it still does.
I was a teenager by the time I was finally getting to know him. I could crack a few jokes that could make him laugh. I could say something marginally interesting that would bend his ear in my direction.
Then, on July 4, 2005, as Dad picked my brother and I up from the pool, I was told that Grandaddy had died. It had been a rough few years before the end, but he had been getting better. In the end, years of smoking had caught up with him. I was 17.
There were so many things I wanted to talk to Grandaddy about, so many things I wanted to share with him. I felt robbed.
I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor, but I wanted to do something I thought would make him proud, something that I could be good at the same way he was. More than anything, I wanted to do something interesting. In some ways, I thought being a journalist– writing about some of the biggest stories and people in Alabama– would be something he would’ve approved of.
By 2011, I was working my first job at a weekly newspaper in Geneva, Alabama. It was far from where I wanted to be then, but it was a job. One day, as I was procrastinating ahead of another deadline, I started Googling “Holt McDowell.” It had been only a few years since he had been gone, but I wanted to learn more about him.
While scrolling, I happened to come across an article that had just been published in The American Surgeon called “Champ Lyons, Holt McDowell, and the Evolution of Vascular Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham: A Personal Perspective.” Initially, it had all the typical details I had already known: that Grandaddy had studied under Dr. “Champ” Lyons, that he would soon become chair of the vascular surgery department. But nothing prepared me for one passage.
“In 1963 Holt A. McDowell was Chief Resident under Lyons. Civil rights turmoil was at its peak in Alabama with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15 in which four little girls were killed. Lyons and McDowell viewed the carnage in person with Lyons noting that it was worse than anything he had seen in World War II,” author Dr. Michael Trotter wrote.
I couldn’t believe it. Not only had he been at the hospital the day the church was bombed, but he had actually tended to those who were injured in the blast. Maybe he treated Lynn Cross, the 4-year-old daughter of 16th Street Baptist preacher Rev. John Cross who was injured in the blast. Or maybe he tried to save the four girls who were killed in the explosion.
I told my Mom about it. She said Grandaddy didn’t talked about things like that. It just wasn’t his way.
Since he was no longer around to tell me about what happened that day, I decided to find out for myself. Little by little over the years, I began uncovering more about him and his connection to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. At UAB’s archives department, I found a transcription of a talk he gave to the Jefferson County Medical Society in 2005, where he called September 15, 1963 the worst day of his life.
“Dr. Lyons always made rounds on Sunday morning, which wasn’t my favorite time, but I was always there. That was when the church was bombed and the little girls killed. That was a horrible day,” he said. “We went down to the Hillman Emergency Room, of course they were blown to bits. I honestly don’t know if they had been still alive whether I could have done anything for them. It was such a shock that drained and paralyzed you. It was terrible. Out in front of the emergency room there were many policemen with shotguns. I think they were afraid of riots. I was, too.”
In “From Steel Mills Stethoscopes: A History of the Birmingham Medical Profession,” author Lynn Edge wrote about how Grandaddy and other residents tended to 15 patients in the emergency room while Dr. Joseph Donald set up a temporary morgue.
In an interview he gave in 1990 for an oral history of UAB Hospital, Grandaddy said it was “something you really never forget.”
“That was a bad time, a bad time to be around,” he said.
For years, I wondered why Grandaddy never talked about that day with us. Now, I don’t ask that question anymore. Like my mother said, it just wasn’t his way. If anything, I think about all the people who did what they could that day to help people in the wake of the chaos, but whose names will never be known. They’re not in books. They’re not in documentaries. They’re not interviewed on the local news. For them, they were just doing their jobs. So was he.
He might have had “McDowell legs,” but Grandaddy also had broad shoulders. He carried a lot of people with him: his family, his friends, his colleagues, and the many patients he treated throughout his career. On the day 16th Street Baptist Church exploded, he carried many.
Not long after reading Trotter’s article on my grandfather, I sent him a message, thanking him for writing such a lovely piece on the man I grew up admiring. A few hours later, he wrote back.
“Your grandfather was an inspiration to me and had a profound effect on myself and many others whom he trained,” Trotter wrote. “We were all fortunate to have known him and benefitted from the education he gave us.”
We were all fortunate, indeed.