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James D. Felsen: 'Chick' Koop was a true leader

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Feb. 25, the nation lost a neighbor it needs now more than ever. C. Everett "Chick" Koop, M.D., a man of extraordinary knowledge, wisdom and compassion, was an individual who could earn the trust of virtually every citizen. His command of trust is what made him my last mentor.

I first met Chick more than 30 years ago when he came to Washington as the surgeon general designee. Few in the nation even knew there was a surgeon general and even fewer knew Koop. He was immediately demeaned and vilified by the elite within government, the press and the health establishment. They were confident he would never be confirmed.

He left Washington a decade later to the cheers and accolades of friends and sycophants but, more importantly, as a trusted hero and friend of nearly all Americans. In the current atmosphere of divisiveness and rancor, never has there been a time we could more benefit from such leadership and command.

I mention Chick often in my book, "De-Spamming Health, Reforming the Health System from the Bottom Up." He wrote the foreword for the book, that discusses the essence of earning trust to assist individuals and communities improve their health and condition.

To appreciate how much Chick accomplished in a few years, I often recollect a trip from the San Francisco airport into the city early in Koop's tenure. The cab driver asked why we were visiting and what we did. When I answered that Chick was the surgeon general and we were attending a medical meeting, the driver responded, "I did not know there was a real surgeon general. I always thought it was like the Pillsbury Doughboy."

As with all my mentors, and all of us, Chick had his ideological beliefs, vanities and foibles. However, in pursuit of his professional mission, none of these were of importance or influence. Scientific knowledge, wisdom and compassion guided policy and programs, regardless of an individual's or group's ideological or cultural beliefs, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, politics and so forth. As Chick use to say, "I am surgeon general of all the people."

I am bemused by press accounts that assert that Chick changed when he arrived in Washington, abandoning his ideological and political convictions. These never were -- and never can be -- at play within a true professional commanding a mission. Earning trust does not permit it.

As much as the dear friend, I will greatly miss the message that his extraordinary journey conveyed: True leadership is possible even within the most divisive, distrustful and cynical times.

Felsen, of Great Cacapon, is a retired public health physician.


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