Modern Day Pioneers, by Bob Dotson

Modern Day Pioneers, by Bob Dotson
A Grand Retirement Adventure by Alan Blake: Part 12

I crisscrossed this country for 40 years, reporting “The American

Story with Bob Dotson” on the NBC TODAY Show. That quest was almost

non-stop. More than four million miles searching for people who are

practically invisible, the ones who change our lives, but don’t take time to

tweet and tell us about it.


Wisdom is found in unexpected places. Tools for some of the first

microsurgeries were invented in a garage. An out of work truck driver

tinkered and perfected them until they changed our world. It all seemed as

easy to Jim Crudup as rewiring his old car.


I met him one pretty spring day outside Forest, Mississippi. Paused

to admire his beautiful ’46 Ford. The coupe and I are the same age. Jim

smiled when I added, “Looks like it’s in better shape than me.”


“You can’t always tell about a car — by its polish,” he grinned.


Same with people. The former truck driver in that beautiful Ford

taught surgery for thirty years with only a high school education, even

though he could not stand the sight of blood and didn’t like needles.


Jim Crudup started driving trucks after he got out of the Army. When

his business hit hard times, he took a job cleaning medical tools at a

research lab at the University of Michigan. One day he borrowed the

doctor’s books and began teaching himself.


Dr. Sherman Silber heard some of the older surgeons talking about

this amazing guy, Jim, “He just watched what they were doing, and he did

it better than them.”


Dr. Silber was a struggling med student in the 1960s, “I had no

manual ability whatsoever!”


Jim explained that surgery is mostly in the mind, not really in the

hands, and then showed him how to think it through, calming the med

student’s frustration. Dr. Silber became one of the pioneers of

microsurgery; a leading fertility specialist, using techniques he perfected

with tools Jim made for him.


“We practiced on rats,” he said. “Once a surgeon can do a heart

transplant on a rat, it’s not a big deal to do a testicle transplant on

a human.”


Of course, Jim was not allowed to work on people, but the professors

did not know how to use those microsurgery tools. They sent students to

learn what only Jim could teach.


I asked Crudup: “How did the young doctors react when they were

told to learn from a guy who cleaned their tools?”


“They didn’t know that I was black,” he giggled. “They would come

over and say, ‘Well where’s Jim?’ I’d just say, ‘You’re looking at him!’”


The former truck driver had a way of making it pretty obvious by the

end of one or two operations that he knew a lot more about surgery than

they did, and then the whole relationship would change, but the gentle man

with the ready smile, never became a doctor himself. He started working

at the hospital in his late thirties with four kids to raise — and all those

students. Jim helped many doctors to greater fortune than his own.


“What did you get out of all this?” I asked.


A rueful smile crossed his face, “One day I knew I’d be on an

operating table with one of my students holding a knife over me. I could

rest assured they were well taught.”


Each year the best surgical student at the University of Michigan gets

his name on a plaque that bears Jim Crudup’s face. The Head of Vascular

Surgery, Dr. Thomas Wakefield told me it was his department’s most

important award, “and it’s named after our most important teacher.” To his

neighbors Jim was just that quiet old guy who could fix anything. Crudup

seldom mentioned what he’d done. What he’d done, speaks for itself.


Telling tales on television is a bit like writing on smoke. After a brief

mention, the men and women I profiled drifted away, but the lessons they

left us linger. Their importance undiminished.

This story first appeared in the New York Times best-selling book:

“American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing

Extraordinary Things.” (Penguin/Random House)


Want to hear more? Upstate International invites you to join me for:

Lunch with Bob Dotson on February 21, 2018 at the Poinsett Club, 807 East Washington Street in Greenville.

RSVP is required. Tickets go on sale January 21 through Upstate International.


We’ll explore the reasons why modern day pioneers — from every corner of the planet — still seek America’s promise.

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