When Dr. W. Montague Cobb walks across the second floor of his Columbia Heights rowhouse, he stops by a mantel filled with faded family photographs, points to a relief map of the United States where he has traced the battles of the Civil War, then moves into his Victorian study.
It's a small room, where an oblong oak desk, his family's for the last century, has an honored place. The walls are lined with autographed photographs and bronze plaques -- ranging from Cobb's days on his high school cross-country team to a picture of Cobb sitting on the deck of the USS Missouri.
In the basement, Cobb has "an academy," an academy in the Platonic sense. "There's no drinking there, only intellectual thought," says Cobb, 78, who is receiving the Capital Press Club's Pioneer Award tonight, and whose career -- professor of anatomy at Howard University for 45 years, civic activist and medical historian -- has made him one of the city's human institutions.
Tapping his pipe and providing colorful historic commentary, Cobb moves into another study, again lined with photographs and books describing a century of medical history, social movements and friendships. Here Cobb sits on a leather chair and pulls out glossy photographs of concert singer Roland Hayes and gangster John Dillinger to prove a point he is making about racial perceptions of anthropologists.
His citations always catalogue his life and achievements as professor, humanist and scholar. But giving Cobb a neat pigeonhole does not do justice to his energy and influence. "He's a Leonardo da Vinci type," says Dr. Charles Epps, an orthopedic surgeon and prote'ge' of Cobb.
Cobb's achievements were long concealed from national notice by the shroud of segregation but he has since received some important recognition. Because of the longevity of his teaching career, he has touched three generations of black doctors: by his count, more than 7,000. When the push to desegregate hospitals in Washington and the rest of the country started in the late 1940s, Cobb was a principal participant. For almost 30 years he has been an editor for the Journal of the National Medical Association and probably knows more than anyone about the history of blacks in medicine.
Just at the time when his peers were settling down to write their memoirs and take on the title "emeritus," he assumed the presidency of the national NAACP in 1976. And he is working on two books. This year he also appeared in a play, written by one of his daughters, at the Kennedy Center in which he played philosopher and educator W.E.B. DuBois. "His age has not destroyed his dreams," says Edward Mazique, a student of Cobb's in the 1920s at Howard, and a physician activist influenced by Cobb's own civic involvements. "He is viable and very much in demand. He is held in high esteem by his colleagues who consider him an elder statesman."
Cobb is being honored by the press club along with Donald McHenry, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Toni Morrison, award-winning novelist; Pluria Marshall, chairman of the National Black Media Coalition, and Kent Cushenberry, a corporate manager at IBM.
"I'm just Monty Cobb, the printer's son," he says. No conversation with Cobb, whether he is entertaining at the Cosmos Club or in his home, is complete without a poem, a quote from the classics or a turn-of-the-century Bert Williams routine. He also has a set of records, arranged for a quartet but missing the fourth part, which he provides with his violin. The other day there was a spontaneous chorus from Gilbert & Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore." And a dose of quotes. "Paul wrote, 'If a man thinks something of himself when he is nothing, only he is deceived,' " said Cobb, referring to his beginnings.
This erudite, long-distance scholar is a combination of many elements: his slave ancestor who bought his freedom from Daniel Webster, his childhood neighborhood around 12 and T streets NW, and the teachers at Dunbar High School and Amherst College. At Amherst in the early 1920s, with professors like Robert Frost and Alexander Meiklejohn, he found enhanced intellectual encouragement. "In my class there were four blacks, Bill Hastie later the first black federal judge , Mercer Cooke later a diplomat and scholar and Ben Davis later an official of the U.S. Communist Party , all distinguished except me. Our accumulated teachers through Dunbar left us able to hold our own in any company. We had that security. I point out to my white friends what a disadvantage it was that the white children didn't have Latin teachers like Clyde McDuffie, who put the map of the ongoing World War I battles on the wall and then said, 'Let's see how Caesar fought it out on the same lines.' "
His teaching, which continues through visiting professorships, is a particular source of pride. "I can circle the globe and not have to put down anywhere, except maybe the Soviet Union, where somebody I have taught is not practicing." For 22 years he headed the anatomy department at Howard, a career marked with its own controversies, some brought on by Cobb himself and some by students. In 1969, a group of freshmen medical students boycotted classes, targeting Cobb as a symbol of the school's outdatedness. Cobb lost his chairmanship but later that class honored him.
The day he turned 70, Cobb recalls, "I was off the payroll. Boom. I would say this without bitterness, Howard doesn't seem to know how to make their scholars happy. But I have three Latin words for that, illegitimi non carborundum, which loosely translates, 'Don't let the bastards get you down.' "
The pendulum has swung in other areas. During the push for hospital integration, Cobb recalled, "The dean at Georgetown said, 'Negroes have souls and are entitled to dispensation but they don't have intellects enough to be admitted to medical schools.' Later, in 1978, they Georgetown gave me an award."
Sitting near a portrait of his wife of 47 years, Hilda, who died of cancer in 1976, Cobb shows that his philosophy is not limited to the classics or medicine. "In order to get along with a woman, you avoid confrontation," he says dramatically. He has two daughters, Carolyn Wilkinson, a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution, and Amelia Cobb Gray, a theater professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
Cobb believes his generation can stand by its accomplishments, but wants to see their spirit carried forward. "We were a generation of offensive linemen, big and rough. We had to make a hole. Now we have to have fastbacks or the hole will close in."