The Doctor’s Last Call
Already well-known in his Fair Oaks neighborhood when the Sacramento Bee newspaper celebrated 90-year old Dr. William Black as being the oldest practicing physician in the capital area – and possibly the entire state of California – with the first of two long profiles on his colorful life, Black said he had no plans to retire, that he felt too good, and would probably “work until I get old – whenever that is.”
Beside his private practice and duties at Sutter Hospital, Dr. Black also provided services to the California State Athletic Commission, which is how I met him, when he, then a mere 78, performed a physical exam so I could compete in the Golden Gloves.
Dr. Black was very kind, telling me I had the same pulse as did Sugar Ray Robinson when the doctor once performed a pre-fight physical for the middleweight champion of the world.
Born June 22, 1900, in Dayton, Washington, the son of an itinerant Methodist minister, Black grew up in small California valley farm towns – where he picked fruit, harvested grain, and milked cows – while also proving to be a superior student.
Graduating from Berkeley in 1924 with degrees in physics and zoology, Black fenced, boxed and tap-danced while in college. He attended medical school at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis but withdrew after two years when he could no longer afford tuition.
Black became a teacher, continuing his dance training, expanding beyond tap to include ballroom. He served in the California Conservation Corps, before applying his dance skills to a short career in Vaudeville, which led him to Hollywood.
He was cast in the minor role of a physician in a movie starring Loretta Young, auditioned but did not get another part in a Douglas Fairbanks film, and choreographed the fencing scenes in “The Golden Horde,” filmed in Death Valley, starring Ann Blyth and Richard Egan.
By 1940, Black was financially sound enough to return to medical school, graduating during WWII, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, earning a pilot’s license and serving as an aviator-physician. Out of the military, Black was enticed by the money and sense of adventure that came with being an industrial doctor, practicing medicine at oil fields and construction sites around the world – Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India, and Alaska.
Being told of his responsibilities on the first day of a job for a company building dams and roads in Afghanistan, his foreman had a heart attack and died right in front of him. “Turned out that my first duty with the new company was to embalm my boss,” Dr. Black said.
Dating a woman who told Black she thought he and her sister – also a doctor – would make a great match, Black returned to California to meet her. Dr. Black and the woman made plans to open a clinic together, and a real estate agent who was also the woman’s uncle sold Black a large house in Fair Oaks, 7970 California Avenue.
“…things didn’t work out,” Black said of the relationship, so he rented the house and took over a private practice in Marysville, about 40 miles north of Sacramento. He would later become the medical director for Campbell’s Soup in Sacramento, until mandatory retirement at 67 led him to opening a new practice in his Fair Oaks home.
Originally a farmhouse – Fair Oaks had once been all orchard groves – Dr. Black’s home had also been an art gallery before becoming a distinctly informal medical establishment.
The house was painted pink, pink-on-pink, if I remember correctly. Entry was through the back door, reached by walking across a courtyard of trees and hens and roosters.
Stacks of magazines and health-related brochures, either providing information or advertising some product, filled the waiting room. The exam room where I met Dr. Black did not have much extra space, either – the two of us surrounded by exercise equipment and dated medical journals. Dr. Black exercised every day, a program that included a stationary bike, a rowing machine, weights, calisthenics, a trampoline, and swimming.
He took no medication and his blood pressure was 130/70. He did not need eye glasses or a hearing aid. “I sleep fine,” Dr. Black said, especially, he emphasized, when attending a medical conference or church.
“I don’t know everything in medicine,” Black said, explaining his medical philosophy, “but I can size people up. I don’t like to be just a clerk for the pharmacy or the specialist.” His practice had dwindled over the years as he found himself outliving his patients, but was not troubled by this. “I don’t want it too big,” he said. “I’m trying to take it easy.”
Black described himself in his nineties as being content living alone, but did admit to three wishes. He wanted to reach 100 years of age, he wanted to be George Burns’ opening act when Burns was to play the London Palladium six years in the future, and he wanted to get married and have a family.
A lifelong bachelor, Black said, “I wasn’t a hermit, by any means. I had lots of lady friends – and still do.”
What he was currently upset about, though, was the DMV refusing to renew his driver’s license. “That’s illegal,” he claimed. “I passed the written test 100 percent and read the chart perfectly without glasses. But they were determined not to pass me because of my age, and so they flunked me on the driving test twice, and they were wrong.
“I have a very fast reaction reflex,” Black continued. “I have no problem, day or night, rain or fog. People depend on me. I serve people. If a patient calls me and is very sick I don’t say, ‘Meet me at the office.'”
When the Bee reporter asked if he understood correctly that Dr. Black made house calls, Black said, “Of course I do.” When further asked how he accomplished this without a license, the doctor smiled and pleaded the Fifth.
One house call Dr. Black made was to the Woodlake Inn, where former world welterweight champion Wilfred Benitez was staying as he prepared to fight local hero Pete Ranzany in 1980. The Benitez camp wanted to cancel the November 21 date when Benitez became ill, and Dr. Black diagnosed Benitez, who had a temperature of 102 degrees, as having the flu. The fight was postponed three weeks.
Black was similarly annoyed with the Federal Aviation Administration. He had celebrated each birthday with a flight until the FAA suspended his license.
The doctor was not granted his wishes, dying at age 93, his medical practice open to the end. He had admitted in 1992 that he did think about death but it didn’t worry him – “I think I’ll just wear out.”
Dr. Black’s only surviving family was a sister in Piedmont, set in the Oakland hills.
For many years, Dr. Black had provided his time and medical skills to impoverished areas, and his medical equipment was donated to a clinic in South America.
“My greatest pleasure has been living in Fair Oaks,” the doctor said. “The quality of the people, the fine climate, rolling countryside – of all the places in the world I have lived and worked, I like Fair Oaks the best.”
Read more Sharp; his book “Punching From The Shadows” is available at all fine booksellers