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35 Years and Counting
Colleagues, friends and family celebrated the leadership of cardiac surgeon Levi Watkins

Levi Watkins

Unified Voices, resplendent in blue robes with yellow piping, sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.” Entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte and poet Maya Angelou spoke eloquent words of love and friendship. Dean/CEO Ed Miller, Hopkins Hospital President Ron Peterson and Surgeon in Chief Julie Freischlag praised the man that Peterson described as “medical pioneer, role model extraordinaire and all around humanitarian.”

“This is not a retirement party,” said Bill Baumgartner, chief of cardiac surgery. But as a standing-room-only crowd in Turner Concourse celebrated 35 years of Levi Watkins’ service to Johns Hopkins, the outpouring of love and respect was, as Watkins himself said, “overwhelming.”

Though Watkins is ending his surgical practice, he will continue to serve as associate dean for postdoctoral affairs and be involved in diversity issues at the School of Medicine. His family—mother, brother and sisters, all of whom attended the reception—recently established The Levi Watkins Jr. Professorship of Cardiac Surgery at Johns Hopkins to honor his contributions.

They, along with friends and colleagues, listened intently as seven speakers lauded Watkins’ accomplishments, which Peterson described as a series of monumental firsts: First African-American medical student admitted to Vanderbilt University (1966). First black surgical resident at Hopkins Hospital (1970). First surgeon to implant an automatic defibrillator (1980). Founder of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration at Johns Hopkins (1982).

But Watkins has been a relentless advocate for fairness and diversity every day of every year. When he began serving on the School’s admissions committee in 1979, he launched a one-man minority recruitment drive, writing qualified candidates letters urging them to apply and holding an annual reception for those who accepted. By 1983, minority representation in the School had surged by 400 percent.

“You have invested your service here with values that have helped us transform our institutional values and conduct,” said Miller.

“I came up when color was everything,” Watkins said, gazing out at the diverse crowd that had gathered to honor him—black, white, Asian, male, female, young, old, gay and straight. “But looking out at all of you today, I don’t see color at all.”

Deborah Rudacille

Lillian Watkins and Maya Angelou Taylor Branch and Harry Belafonte Friends and family

(Photos: Zuhair Kareem)


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