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Centenarian’s wisdom remains a lesson today

'Life is tough, but you have to be tougher'
Reynolds class photo
University of Oregon Medical School graduating class of 1949, where Dr. Walter Reynolds, turning 100 this month, was the first African American to receive an M.D. degree from what is now the OHSU School of Medicine. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

When OHSU named one of the aerial trams “Walt,” honoring Walter Reynolds, M.D., as the first African American to receive his degree from the then-University of Oregon Medical School, activist physician and OHSU Center for Ethics in Healthcare senior scholar Ralph Crawshaw, M.D., interviewed Reynolds for the OHSU Historical Collections and Archives.

On March 24, Reynolds celebrates his 100th birthday, yet the insight he offered Crawshaw in that 2007 interview reads like a contemporary training on how to address implicit bias in medicine.

Walter Reynolds
Dr. Walter J. Reynolds records an oral history interview as part of the history of medicine in Oregon project. "He talked about the value of service work… that gets young people out into communities to see how other people behave,” says interviewer Ralph Crawshaw. (OHSU)

“He talked about cultural competency,” Crawshaw wrote. “For Reynolds, cultural competency begins with knowing oneself -- your own background, your own prejudices, your own strengths and weaknesses. It is extended through interaction with communities: your own community, broader ethnic, racial, and religious communities, and communities across the world. He talked about the value of service work… that gets young people out into communities to see how other people behave.” 

Reynolds spoke from experience.

His father, who came to Portland from Decatur, Georgia on the railroad and lacked access to schooling after the fifth grade, was committed to education and encouraged his children to achieve their dreams. Reynolds’ older brother, who earned a master’s degree in physics at the University of Washington, pushed him to focus on school not just on sports. So, when his guidance counselor at Jefferson High School discouraged him from pursuing medicine, Reynolds was undeterred.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force (then a part of the U.S. Army), Reynolds was admitted to medical school at what is now the OHSU School of Medicine, was a stand-out basketball player for the Medics team and, in 1949, became the first African American to graduate from the M.D. program.

Reynolds joined his mentor Dr. DeNorval Unthank as one of only two African-American physicians in the city, according to the OHSU archival records. In 1953, he opened his own practice. Over 30 years later, Reynolds built his own medical clinic on North Williams Avenue, “The Phil Reynolds Clinic,” named after his father. The clinic had an innovative architectural design for the time, and an on-site pharmacy owned and operated by his good friend Dr. Patel. Reynolds turned no one away and was especially known for caring for members of Portland’s large, Romany-speaking community, shunned by most other doctors.

As Crawshaw recounted, “Reynolds stressed that this cultural competency is critical for physicians because a good physician looks at the whole community, not just his small group of patients. Asked whether he thought that his acts of resistance could be called bravery, Reynolds demurred, and said only that he felt badly for those who lacked cultural competence.”

old photo of a young bride and groom about to cut a cake
Reynolds and Mildred Eleanor Squires at their wedding, shown in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy Reynolds family)

Reynolds married Mildred Eleanor Squires of Seattle and they had six children. During the 1960s, as part of an effort to integrate, the family moved to a white Southeast Portland neighborhood near Reed College. His children remember neighborhood kids staring at them for weeks when they first moved in. Once the novelty wore off, the Reynolds’ house and backyard with its basketball hoop was the go-to place for games and good food.

The Reynolds children were among the only students of color in elementary, middle and high school. Reynolds’ oldest daughter, Liz Reynolds Thomas, recalls road trips to the Oregon Caves, Crater Lake in Southern Oregon and Mt. Shasta in Northern California.

“We would drive without stopping at hotels,” she remembers. “As a little girl, I couldn’t understand why we would always drive straight through. I now understand that Dad was protecting us from prejudice.”

Recounts Crawshaw, “He talked about his anger at being denied service, at the injustices suffered by his mentor Dr. Unthank, and at the kind of prejudice that still marks our world.”

Reynolds turned his anger into action. He was active in the Portland NAACP, as was his father before him. Mildred Reynolds joined Jack and Jill of America, a national organization of mothers dedicated to raising African American children to be leaders. She also served at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, was a local charter member of Portland Chapter of The Links, Inc. and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

Reynolds served as president of the Urban League of Portland in 1959; president of the medical staff at Emanuel Hospital and president of what became the OHSU School of Medicine Alumni Association. He worked with the dean to recruit more students of color. In support of education for youth of color, the Reynolds Family started the “Phil Reynolds Scholarship Fund.” In 1997, Jefferson High School named him a distinguished alumnus.

Walter Reynolds
Reynolds, shown in this undated photo, is described by his family as intellectually curious, youthful, energetic, capable of showing genuine and unconditional love, and most importantly fun. (Photo courtesy Reynolds family)

Reynolds’ family describes him as intellectually curious, youthful, energetic, capable of showing genuine and unconditional love, and most importantly fun. Though his children’s plans to celebrate his centennial at the Northeast Portland Hazelwood Retirement Community where he lives were derailed by public health precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the era of social distancing has not dampened their pride in their father. They remember his guidance, which will endure as his legacy:

“Life is tough, but you have to be tougher.”

“Keep a positive attitude even though things get hard.”

“There will always be opportunities for you to excel."

OHSU School of Medicine communications team members Mariana Phipps and Erin Hoover Barnett, Assistant Chief Diversity Officer Leslie Garcia and the Historical Collections and Archives contributed to this report.

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