It seems only fitting that my latest post for 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks be about my father, whose 94th birthday would have been this week. My father, Thomas Melvin Batchelor was born on February 16, 1920 in Hamtramck, Michigan – a small city next to Detroit.
He was two months premature and had head full of pale blonde hair that would soon turn into the flaming red hair he was known for in his youth – along with a million freckles.
According to my grandmother, the doctor who delivered my dad said, “If he makes it through the night, he’s got a chance”. Fighter that he was, Dad not only made it through that night, but went on to survive a childhood of poverty and illness during the Great Depression.
Even though he grew up without material things, Dad never talked about how bad things were. He always focused on the good from those days. His nickname back then was “Hamtramck Red” and boy did he have some great stories.
I remember how he used to tell us about wearing “welfare” plaid flannel shirts (the exact same shirt every other boy in school had too) and having to eat chicken toes so that no food went to waste. I’ve always wondered if he was just pulling my leg about that.
When Dad was about 12, he injured his leg in a fall on the ice. Not having money for a doctor, my grandmother took my father to a faith healer. Whatever the treatment was, Dad ended up with a serious bone infection.
Luckily for my father, one of their neighbors was a nurse and she intervened to make sure Dad got proper medical treatment. But it was grueling and landed him in a convalescent home for a year.
Remember, back then there were no antibiotics. The ongoing treatment required his doctors to cut his leg open to the bone and pack the wound with chlorine, as I recall. I can’t imagine what this must have been like but Dad recovered although he had to wear a built-up shoe because the infection stunted the growth in his leg.
My father’s disability never kept him from being a straight “A” student and graduating from high school with honors. Many years later, I recall Dad’s extreme interest in every report card I brought home and his annual display of every one of his own report cards from the first through the twelfth grades. All “A”s and one “B”! My father was truly a tough act to follow but we sure did try.
Dad went on to major in art at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan with a full scholarship and according to him – 2 pairs of pants he wore all through college until they were shiny and paper-thin from being ironed so much.
During the time my father was in undergrad, my grandmother was working as the “help” for the dean of the Wayne State medical school. One day the dean asked Grandma what her son was studying in college and she replied that he was an art major.
Then the dean asked how Dad’s grades were. My grandmother said, “Excellent.” And that’s when the dean said –
There’s not much money to be made by a young colored man in art. Do you think he’d be interested in medicine?
In fact, my father was interested. He applied, was accepted and offered a full scholarship – again. But there was just one little problem. At that time, the medical school had a rule. They only accepted two African-American students in a class. And the class was full.
So Dad waited a year for his “Black” slot. He continued his studies, received his masters in pathology and taught at the university. When he was finally admitted to medical school, my dad’s life was full steam ahead. During that time though, racial tensions were heating up in Detroit.
One summer afternoon in 1943 while he was in med school, Dad went out on a date to Belle Isle in Detroit. Belle Isle is a small island and public park in the middle of the river between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. It’s connected to Detroit by a bridge – the only way on and off the island.
That evening the racial tensions in Detroit reached a boiling point when a riot between Blacks and White sailors from the nearby naval armory broke out on the Belle Isle bridge. My father was still on the island when all of the riot started. (Here’s a separate post with more about his experience in the 1943 riots).
The sad news is that my father’s leg was injured again in the violence that night. But Dad got patched up and went back to his medical school studies. In 1944, he met my mother, Alice Vivian Dickinson at a picnic given by friends. These two brilliant and attractive people fell in love and married in 1945.
While my father finished medical school, Mom taught school. They had great plans for the future that were unfortunately derailed by an unexpected roadblock.
Dad was suffering from a persistent bone infection in his leg from his injury in the 1943 riots. Antibiotics still weren’t widely available and he’d have to do another year of treatment in the convalescent home. Here he was in his last year of medical school with a coveted internship waiting, a new wife – and someone was telling him to sit on the sidelines.
Well Dad’s response to this was –
Instead he made the decision to have the doctors amputate. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my father achieving his goals – not even his own leg!
Dad sped through his recovery and graduated with honors in the top 10% of his class – or so he thought. It wasn’t until he retired from the practice of medicine many years later, that my father learned he had actually graduated first in his class – an honor we believe was denied him because of his race.
After medical school, my father and two other Black physicians built their first clinic in Detroit. That was the beginning of my dad’s long career that would span 54 years of practice. Here’s a photo taken at the opening of the Conant Gardens Medical Clinic –
I was the eldest of my parent’s three children and I still claim to be my father’s favorite. I’m sure my sister, Paula and brother, Thomas would argue that point! The truth is that he loved and inspired us all.
The 83 years of my father’s life weren’t easy. But he never let anything get in the way – racism, illness, poverty or the lack of confidence that he could do what he set his mind to. Dad lived a life filled with a unique blend of amazing goals, great achievements, laughter and wisdom that never seems to end, even though he passed away on October 24, 2002.
My father wanted to be cremated and we honored his wishes. Dad’s ashes are interred next to my mother’s at the Historic Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan –
For those of us who knew him – and the generations to follow, my father left a rich legacy of wonderful memories, family history and life lessons; the most important one being that anything is possible. My dad’s faith in “possibilities” was passed down to me and continues to be the beacon that lights my way through life.
I love you, Dad. Always, always.