A farewell to 'Papa Doc'

W. Gamewell "Curly" Watson influenced generations of family, friends and colleagues in his 102 years, and many of those whose lives he influenced began to feel that his tenure on earth would last forever; but Dr. Watson's earthly life came to an end last week on Oct. 24.

On Saturday, those generations gathered in a celebration of Dr. Watson's life. They came as family members, as those who ranked among the 15,000 babies he brought into the world, as former athletes cared for by him, as friends who knew him and shared in his faith at his beloved Grace United Methodist Church, as one of the thousands who were the recipients of "Papa Doc's" creed - "Always do your best. Never give up. There's room at the top. Be a lady. Be a gentleman."

That creed is a testament to Dr. Watson's life. He was the only son, born into a family with two sisters. His father was a farmer and postmaster while his mother was a school teacher.

He spent his youth on a farm his family purchased in Trenton, doing what farm children do: milking cows and plowing the fields. While he was in high school, he studied agriculture under Strom Thurmond, a teacher who later became South Carolina's governor and senior U.S. senator.

Watson played football for The Citadel and then, at the young age of 22, after another year of farming (because he couldn't find other work during the Depression years) became the principal and football coach at Edgefield High School. He worked for the school system for seven years, while he saved money to attend medical school. He then attended the Medical College of Georgia, graduating in 1943, and did his internship and residency at University Hospital.

His career was interrupted when he was drafted and served as a U.S. Army physician from 1945 to 1947.

He came home to join the medical practice established by the late Dr. J.W. Thurmond.

The tribute Saturday to the life of Curly Watson focused more on the way he lived his life than on his professional accomplishments.

During the gathering at Grace UMC, Dr. John Newell called Dr. Watson a "faithful witness, educator, coach, physician, mentor, father, friend." He pointed out that Dr. Watson, once identified as the oldest practicing physician in the United States, would deliver a newspaper to church members and would try to be sure they got a room that faced North Augusta at University Hospital.

Dr. Randy Cooper shared some thoughts on his father-in-law and University Hospital colleague. He pointed out that last week, staff members at the hospital questioned whether Dr. Watson would rather go home to die. "I told them, he's at University Hospital. He is home," said Cooper.

Cooper turned to Dr. Watson's wife, Audrey, and shared the sentiments of many by saying, "Mama Doc, you loved Papa Doc unconditionally. You allowed him to serve us."

Cooper pointed to Watson as a "man of humility who loved God and put that love ahead of his own needs." He said Dr. Watson's daughters wrote his obituary and focused on what was important in his life, not on the awards and accolades he had received.

Among the honors bestowed on Watson in his 60-plus years of service as a doctor are being the namesake of University Hospital's women's center, being identified as the oldest practicing physician in the United States and being named to the North Augusta Sports Hall of Fame for his years of service as team physician. Watson was still the chief of obstetrics at University Hospital when he celebrated his 100th birthday.

But Cooper's focus was on Dr. Watson's humility and influence. He said he and Watson's daughter Wendy were at work last week after Dr. Watson's death. Folks commented they were surprised the two family members were at work. "Wendy said, 'Papa Doc would be disappointed if we weren't.'"

Cooper reminded the gathering that Dr. Watson had outlived his own generation by 25 years - " his high school class, his Citadel class (where he had the highest GPA in his class), his medical school class." He quipped, "The only reason he didn't outlive his wife was because he was smart enough to marry a young woman."

Cooper pointed out Dr. Watson was "here for World War I, here for the Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, the war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq ..."

"He milked cows, plowed behind a mule, ... was principal of Edgefield High School ... made house calls, operated until he was 93 years old ..."

"And he followed Jesus Christ," said Cooper, who pointed out that Dr. Watson taught others about character by his example. "He taught about integrity," Cooper said. "He never said it; he lived it." The admiring son-in-law noted in 1983 when Grace Church burned (and Dr. Watson was 72), "he was out there pushing a wheelbarrow."

Cooper concluded, "This is not a day of sadness. Curly Watson believed in Jesus Christ." He said he was sure that when Watson was greeted in heaven, it was with Jesus' welcome, "Well done, thy good and faithful servant ... Great is your reward in heaven."

Dr. John Younginer, former pastor of Grace and longtime friend of Watson, compared the man to a tree, unwavering. He mentioned one of Dr. Watson's colleagues who, on his 100th birthday, said, "He showed us how to be doctors."

Younginer said, "If you seek a monument to the man, just look around." He listed building projects at the church, W.G. Watson Women's Center, 60 years of patients, four generations of Watsons, 37,497 days on Earth, ... "a life some may equal but not ever excel."

Younginer described thousands of trips down the church aisle as an usher (which he did faithfully every Sunday until recent months), for baptisms and marriages, ending with his last trip down that aisle on Saturday accompanied by the "admiration of his peers, the respect and affection" of all. He concluded with Papa Doc's creed.

Closing out the service to honor the life of Dr. Watson was current Grace UMC pastor, the Rev. Jim Dennis who called him a "patriarch" of the community. "The world did not change him," said Dennis, who added that Dr. Watson "lived large" with a stable, consistent, grounded life. He pointed out while Watson's calling was medicine, in his service as a pillar in the congregation Dr. Watson "grew toward God's light."

Dennis concluded with a reference to a sign he had seen in the Savannah River - "Watch your wake." He said, "The waves you make affect others."

The ripples of Dr. Watson's wake are likely to be felt for generations.

Watson leaves behind five children, 16 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and a sister.