A Centenarian Remembers
Entering the Richmond, Va., home that Charles L. Williams, M’48, H’49, shares with his daughter, Betty James, you immediately notice Williams’ infectious smile and the twinkle in his eye. He is sitting in a padded recliner with a walker nearby, the only noticeable concessions to his age.
At 102 – and believed to be the School of Medicine’s oldest living alumnus – Williams, rather remarkably, only takes medication for chronic back pain.
Asked to what he attributes his long life, Williams chuckles. “Picking the right ancestors!” he replies.
To put his century-spanning life into perspective, the Medical College of Virginia was a mere 78 years old when Williams was born on March 15, 1916, in South Richmond.
Though interested in medicine, Williams didn’t have the means to attend college. But industrious to a fault, he spent several years following high school as a driver for Cochrane Transportation and then Virginia Dairy.
Soon after marrying his wife, Doris, in 1940, Williams felt ready to take the plunge into academe. Earning his undergraduate degree at University of Richmond in three years, he entered MCV in the fall of ’44. Most of his classes were in McGuire Hall or the Egyptian Building.
“Medical school was rough,” he recalls. “Everything was very challenging.” At 28, not only was he older than most students, but he had a young family to support. Betty was born during his second year at MCV, and Marvin T. Williams, M’74, H’77, made his appearance just as his dad was about to graduate.
Working to make ends meet, Williams held several jobs during medical school, including working as slide projectionist for Richmond Academy of Medicine lectures and as business editor and editor-in-chief of the X-Ray yearbook.
He has vivid memories of being an intern when the only emergency room in town was at MCV’s West Hospital, which had opened just a few years earlier in 1941. Interns were expected to report to work daily and to be on call every other night. The position was unpaid, the only perk being that families could join the interns for lunch at the hospital on Sundays.
On occasion, Williams says, “If I was in the ER, sewing somebody up, I had to drop everything” to take outside calls. Not infrequently he would hop on an ambulance to be rushed to the scene of an accident. Because the polio epidemic was still in full swing – and the vaccine had not yet been invented – he remembers the hospital’s incubators and iron lungs as well as the heartbreak of performing spinal taps on children.
During his nearly 40 years of family practice, Williams didn’t see dramatic changes in his chosen profession. It allowed him the luxury of spending more time doing what he loved: taking care of patients. Retiring in 1988 meant he missed the enormous changes that would be effected, for example, by the advent of computers and upheavals in the insurance industry.
Charles Williams, M’48, holds a portrait of himself taken for the 1948 X-Ray yearbook.
Williams delivered about 1,000 babies during his career, many whom he continued to treat as they grew into adults and many whom his son kept as patients until his own retirement in 2015.
“I saw the tremendous respect people had for him and the enjoyment he received from his work,” says Marvin Williams, who worked alongside his father for 11 years preceding the senior Williams’ retirement.
In 2008, Charles Williams lost his wife of nearly 70 years. But he has stayed active, with a legacy that now includes four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, all of whom love gathering at their river house near Urbanna, Va. It’s a good life for a centenarian who took his life’s work seriously but enjoyed it immensely … whether delivering milk or delivering babies.