Monday, November 25, 2013

Step Giant

In my family, there are no evil stepmothers or stepfathers—there’s just the people that made and make my Mom and Dad happy. While the Walt Disney Company could be criticized on many fronts, perhaps the greatest injustice they’ve done is to perpetuate the cliché of the evil stepmother. After all, mine’s not so bad—in fact, I think of her warmly every time I pass by the books-for-sale table outside of the HGSE library and see that copy of Cane River. But while Lita has made several cameos on this blog, this post will be the first time that I’ve written about my stepfather, Dr. Mitchell Wright Spellman.

Almost thirteen years ago in late February, I got a letter in the mail. It was a card from my mother, informing me that she had eloped on Valentine’s Day at the age of 56, and gotten married to Mitchell. If I remember correctly, I think a laughed out loud a little bit, my thoughts being something along the lines of “You go girl!” At that point, I didn’t know Mitchell very well, but I knew enough to know that he was the truth, and that they would make each other very happy.

Sadly, their time together was cut short. My mother passed away from cancer later that year, at home, with Mitchell by her side. Our families mourned together, but it was too easy for us too lose touch with each other, and unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. 

Last month, as I sat down for lunch with my Aunt Jean, we somehow ended up talking about my mom and the Spellman family. I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t talked to Mitchell or any of his six living children (my stepbrothers and stepsisters) in over ten years. If you know me, then you know I make it a point to stay in touch. In fact, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this then we’ve been in some kind of contact somewhat recently. The fact that I’d lost touch with an entire family bothered me enough  to decide that I was going to fix that. I wish I hadn’t let a few more weeks pass by.

Last week I got an email from Aunt Jean informing me that Mitchell had passed away after a leading a long and amazing life. I bought my roundtrip bus ticket and headed down to Washington D.C. for the memorial last weekend. It was an unfortunate, but long overdue reconnection for our families.

A few months ago I wrote about the passing of Jon, who was my friend’s stepfather and a friend to me. My young friend, like many others, didn’t feel like the term “stepfather” did justice to the man, or to their relationship. Instead, he decided to called Jon his “Faux Pa.” As I sat in the chapel, I was blown away by the life of a uniquely accomplished man, and I realized what Mitchell really was to me... he was my Step Giant. I want to share a portion of the obituary from the service so that you can appreciate what I meant when I said “a long and amazing life.”


Mitchell Wright Spellman, MD, PhD, at the age of 93, died peacefully at home with his loving wife, Olivia, on November 11, 2013. He battled for several years with a rare neurodegenerative disease. He was a pioneer among African-Americans in Academic Medicine and a loving family man.

Mitchell Wright Spellman was born on December 1, 1919 to Frank J. Spellman, MD and Altonette B. Spellman in Alexandria, LA. His parents, unhappy with segregated local schools, sent him at the age of 12 to the Gilbert Academy in New Orleans where he graduated valedictorian in 1936. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and valedictorian from Dillard University in New Orleans in 1940. He was a Charter Member of the Beta Phi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., founded at Dillard University in 1938. He graduated from Howard University College of Medicine (AOA) in 1944 and was ranked 2nd in his class. Influenced by hi mentor, Charles R. Drew, MD, he then began 11 years of post-medical school surgical training at Cleveland General Hospital, Freedman’s Hospital and finished at the University of Minnesota where he served from 1951-1954 as Commonwealth Fund Fellow in Surgery and Resident in Thoracic Surgery. He received his PhD in Surgery from the University of Minnesota in 1955.

From 1954-1968, in Washington, DC, he was a member of the surgical faculty at Howard University College of Medicine, ultimately becoming Professor of Surgery and Chief Medical Officer, Howard University Division of Surgery at DC General Hospital. From 1969-78, in Los Angeles, CA, he served as Founding Dean, Executive Dean and Professor of Surgery at Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School, Assistant Dean and Professor of Surgery at UCLA School of Medicine, and Clinical Professor of Surgery at USC School of Medicine. From 1978-2004, he worked at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, MA. From 1978-1990 his titles were Dean for Medical Services Programs, and Executive Vice President of the Harvard Medical Center. In 1990, he retired the Medical Services portfolio, but continued as Dean emeritus and Harvard Medical School International’s ambassador through 2004. He traveled extensively in this capacity around the world, including trips to China, Europe, South Korea, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

He was awarded Honorary Doctor of Sciences degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Florida, and a Doctor of Laws degree from Dillard University. From 1975-1976, he was the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation Fellow at The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, CA. He was the recipient of numerous academic awards throughout his career.

He was active on many Boards and Committees during his long career including: Member, Board of Trustees Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA; Member, Board of Directors of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals; Chairman, Program Committee, Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences; Member, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corporation; Member, Board of Directors, Medical Education for South African Blacks, Inc., New Brunswick, NJ; and Member Board of Directors, Georgetown University.

He was an avid fan of football, basketball and baseball. He particularly enjoyed the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Dodgers. He frequently attended sporting events at UCLA and Harvard University.**


Yeah, it was a lot for me to take in also.  Then a family member read a personal letter of condolences from President Obama. As we walked out the chapel, I turned to my cousin and said something along the lines of, “Well, Scott, we’ve got a whole lot of work to do.” We both plan to do big things, but it is humbling and awesome to know that we could live a few lifetimes and never grow as tall as Mitchell. Rest in peace, Step Giant.

Pura Vida,


* Of all the impressive landmarks in Mitchell's career, one stood out the most to me. Towards the end of the service, a South African doctor expressed his gratitude to Mitchell for his role in launching Medical Education for South African Blacks during the Apartheid era, leading to over 11,000 trained Black medical professionals in that country.

** For privacy reasons, I left out the section of the obituary that lists the members of the Spellman family. But, these are precisely the folks that I'm looking forward to staying reconnected with. My thoughts and prayers are with them all.


  1. Drew, Always great to hear from you. I see you are letting your hair grow out as a means of self survial / those New England winters are tuff.

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    1. dearest harold,
      well done. well said. much love. always.

  3. Thanks for introducing us to your Step Giant, Drew. It feels like a kind of witnessing to a life well lived AND a pledging to make the most of your own.

  4. Drew, your words were remakable! My father was my greatest hero and mentor.I 1st met your Mom at your Grandfather's funeral where she delivered a moving eulogy. I knew your maternal grandparents very well as friends and patients. Ironically, my mother and your grandmother were dear friends in Minnesota before either married. Your grandfather, Luther, proposed marriage via a letter. Your grandmother, who was most committed to her education at the University of Minnesota, asked my mom for advice. My Mom told her "You can get an education anywhere, however a man like Luther may never come around again." The rest is history. Several years after my Mom died of cancer, your Mom and My Dad fell in love. In an unusual turn of events, my Dad called for my impressions of your Mother. I responded "Dad, I have only met her on one occassion. As I recall, she was very beautiful, very intelligent, very well educated, and an outstanding public speaker. I give her my highest recommendation, because I know her parents, and the apple could not have fallen far from the tree." Mitchell and Adrian loved each other deeply. I regret that their union did not last, due to your Mom's illness. Frank Spellman, MD