By Gary Pettus
Fifty years have passed since Dr. Ted Blanton attended a lecture in the School of Medicine, but the sight of his old classroom bounced his memory like a reflex hammer.
Inspecting the vintage lecture hall dating back to the polio vaccine, Blanton grinned and said, “I found that front-row seat where I used to sleep.”
Medical students may not have changed much since Blanton was up to his elbows in gross anatomy, but as he and other members of the class of 1962 confirmed recently, their medical school has.
Twenty-five of those alumni showed up for one or more events on the Golden Anniversary of their graduation during the UMMC 2012 Medical Alumni Class Reunion Weekend staged Aug. 24-25 by the Office of Alumni Affairs.
While the School of Medicine paid special tribute to its “Golden Grads,” members of the classes of ’72, ’82, ’87, ’92 and 2002 were also feted. A total of 91 grads matriculated in at least one weekend gathering, with spouses or other guests.
“Your time here helped make us what we are today,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice dean and associate vice chancellor for health affairs, addressing alumni at a luncheon.
“We want you to be proud of your medical school and go out there and be a cheerleader for us.”
To that end, alumni were hooked up with professors, staff and administrators to discover the latest developments at their medical alma mater and uncover what remained from their past.
Beyond the Medical Center’s relatively recent explosion of buildings, course requirements and students, its face has also changed dramatically since the Jackson site opened in 1955, as a display of class portraits bore out.
Of the 62 members photographed for the class of ’62, none were African-American, and only three were women, including Dr. Rubye (Griffin) Martin of Baldwyn.
“We were treated very, very well then. The male students were very respectful,” said Martin, whose medical degree served her during her missionary work in the Ivory Coast, a stint at the Mississippi State Department of Health, and a 35-year family medicine practice in Baldwyn before she retired.
The only surviving female member of a class that included Drs. Margaret Carpenter Russell (later Patz) and Barbara Goff, Martin said the reunion was worth the four-hour drive from Baldwyn. “Fifty years – it’s a milestone,” she said.
“I also wanted to remain acquainted with and have fellowship with everybody. But I’ve had trouble recognizing some of them.”
Her school has matured as well, as Woodward pointed out: A recent accreditation report recorded no areas of non-compliance, a first for the institution.
As for the student body, it now numbers 135, more than double the total for the class of ’62 – only the fourth group to complete all four years here, in the post-Oxford era.
In contrast to its 50-year-old predecessor, the class of 2012 accepted 55 females and 26 members of minority groups, including 15 African Americans.
Construction has also altered the face of the campus.
Facilities built after most of the six honored alumni classes donned their white coats include Batson Children’s Hospital, the Guyton Research Complex, and the Wiser Hospital for Women and Infants.
At another addition – the University Hospital and Chapel – the Rev. Dr. Ruth Black, director of pastoral services, reminded alumni: “They say there are no atheists in foxholes or surgery or medical school.”
Unfortunately, she said, before the early ‘70s or later it’s unlikely that the campus offered students a chapel or even “a dedicated place to pray.”
Dr. Michael Havens of Batesville, class of ’87, responded: “We prayed in a lot of places.”
As the alumni learned, many of those places have vanished, transformed or, apparently, shriveled.
As he searched about for a familiar nook or cranny, Blanton, now of Shelbyville, Tenn., recalled a yearly ritual students christened “Resurrection Day.”
“We had to go down to the basement and bring up our cadavers,” said Blanton, whose specialty is otolaryngology.
“We always lost a lot of students that day. But I liked it.
“Now I guess they use manikins.”
Actually, they use both, as Blanton’s tour group discovered in the Simulation Center, where students respond to mock medical crises.
Inside a trauma room there, assistant professor of emergency medicine Dr. Jeffrey Orledge was treating a talking dummy named Stan for low blood pressure.
“Is someone going to call my husband?” Stan asked in a woman’s voice.
When Blanton was a medical student, Stan was hardly a gleam in a roboticist’s eye.
Still, the school holds several proud reminders of the Golden Grads’ Golden Age, including a photograph of the late Dr. James Hardy performing the first animal-to-human heart transplant in 1964, when many were in residency here; and the book- and box-crammed office of the late, world-renowned physiologist Dr. Arthur Guyton.
In his autobiography printed in the reunion weekend brochure, Blanton named Guyton one of his favorite professors. “Awesome teacher, good friend, inspired all of us,” he wrote.
During a Friday evening observance honoring the Class of ’62, Woodward linked the alumni’s legacy to those of Hardy and Guyton: “You are also (among) those giants who shaped us and made us what we are today. You are our founding fathers … and mothers.”
The recognition ceremony drew 89 grads and their guests to the House Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum, including the 23 members of the Class of ’62 who were there to receive a gold medallion.
Woodward (Class of ’91) described some of their accomplishments and interests: One is a violin maker (Dr. James House Jr. of Hattiesburg); some have done medical mission work (including Martin and Dr. Allan “Percy” Durfey Jr. of Canton); at least one has biked throughout Europe (Dr. John R. Jackson Jr. of Hattiesburg); one is the husband of a former lawmaker (Blanton, married to Barbara Blanton, who served in the Mississippi Senate, 1988 to 1992, before they moved to Tennessee).
Many have served in the military. And many have passed on: 22 are listed on the reunion brochure’s “In Memoriam” pages.
Among the 40 who survived them is the senior class vice president, Dr. Jimmy Hays of Jackson, who referred to the toll on his colleagues and friends: “Some wonder why I’m up here,” he said, explaining why he decided to address the assemblage.
“I’ll tell you why: I’m the last class officer still standing.”
After a moment of silence honoring the deceased, Hays retook the podium to end the night on a sunnier note: “Thank you very much,” he said. “And we’ll see you again in 50 years.”