C. Everett Koop-13th Surgeon General of the U. S. 1982-1989

Note: This is #5 in the 10-part series about the Most Unforgettable People in my life. Please check my website, www.stevemarshallassociates.com, for the complete listing.

I first met Dr. Koop in 1985 and enjoyed working with him through three very impactful endeavors over the course of the next 4 years, until he stepped down as Surgeon General one year into George H. Bush’s first term as President of the United States.

How I met him is probably what I would call the ultimate expression of serendipity; I called his office and he answered it! Let me back up a little……..I was serving as the Interim Director of Development for the American Lung Association of Washington; in actuality I was a consultant and my job was to prove the viability of a new position to head up revenue development for the Association.

In a meeting of the Executive Staff one day, the topic of the Annual Meeting for the ALAW (for the State of Washington) came up and people were throwing out name suggestions for the keynote speaker. When I suggested the best person that best personified the mission for the ALAW would be C. Everett Koop, people looked up and said, “Yes, but we could never get him to do it.” I said, “Let’s try it and see.”

It was noon in Washington, DC; 9 a.m. in Seattle when I dialed the number and to my complete surprise, a stentorian voice answered, “Surgeon General Koop, how can I help you?” I fumbled a bit, stepped on my tongue a few times and I finally got out who I was and why I was calling. He replied, “What’s the date?” I told him and he hesitated just a minute before he said, “That’ll work; call back in an hour when my staff returns from lunch and work out the details.” Then he hung up.

Well, I did what he asked and we concluded that he would stay for two days, really to do whatever we wanted in the name of the Lung Association, including being the keynote speaker for the Annual Meeting. 

The day came for his arrival at Seattle Tacoma Airport and I had hired a limousine to help with shuttle duties. In those days you could actually meet people at the arrival gate and sure enough, within minutes of the door opening, this enormous man, dressed in a Rear Admiral’s dress uniform, came striding through it and right up to me with his hand outstretched in welcome.

Thus began a relationship which spanned the remainder of his term as the Surgeon General. In essence I became his aide-de-camp whenever he traveled to Seattle, regardless of the hosting organization, as he trusted me and I took very good care of him. He really appreciated that I managed his schedule, his breaks, his appearances, his time at each appointment, and made sure he was very comfortable in the Governor’s Suite at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel each and every time he visited the Emerald City.

At the time, he was 70, I was 35 and he literally ran me into the ground every day, which often spanned 12-15 hours. When people knew he was in the city, my phone would ring incessantly with requests for meetings, speaking engagements, and appearances to promote one of his four signature programs; Tobacco, AIDS, Abortion, and Baby Doe and the Rights of Handicapped Children.

Although our days were fully consumed with business, it was after I delivered him to the front door of the Four Seasons Olympic that I got to really know the man behind the uniform, and the distinctive visage and voice. He always invited me to join him for a nightcap, which I always made sure was waiting for him in the form of a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whisky; his favorite after work beverage.

That was when the magic would occur; as his stories would whisk me away to another era, about growing up in Brooklyn, NY, in 1919, his years as a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I actually became nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive – that is how good of a storyteller he was!

Then, he filled me in on his very rewarding career as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital (1946 – 1981), where he pioneered surgical techniques for children that are still in use today. It was after he retired from an active career as a physician that Ronald Reagan tapped him on the shoulder and requested his service as Surgeon General. He didn’t hesitate, he said; there were many burning issues for him in the areas that he made famous; including his biggest contribution to American Society; the decrease in tobacco usage in this country.

What did I learn from C. Everett Koop? Many important lessons, but here are the top three:

1.       Be passionate about what you do, no matter what it is, and fight for what is right for all.

2.       Stand up and be counted as a person that cares, no matter what the personal cost might be to you. (He paid dearly for his position on abortion – he received death threats against him and his family.)

3.       Don’t be too concerned about what people expect you to do or act; let your conscience be your guide.

He credits this last guideline for how he was so successful as Surgeon General – he never was afflicted with “Potomac Fever Politics” and the need for power, so he did what he thought he was supposed to do vs. what others expected him to do, which was nothing. And, by the time he was actually noticed by the politicos in DC, it was too late; he had become much too famous in the US as a champion for various important causes. Unlike his predecessors, his name will be forever remembered as someone that cared and was passionate about what he did. According to the Associated Press, "Koop was the only surgeon general in history to become a household name.”

I was deeply saddened to learn of his death in early 2013, but, at the same time I smiled. I am very privileged to have known this great person and to have been one of his trusted friends.