This is the story of Dr. Lee A. Gill, who was 103 years old and who died of congestive heart failure yesterday at Providence Hospital.
Dr. Gill practiced medicine in Washington for almost 70 years and he was an electrician at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for 44 years. His patients were mostly blacks who had little money. As a young physician he charged 50 cents for a house call and $1 for delivering a baby. He worked the night shift at Engraving and Printing so he could support his family.
"I am like the song says," he told an interviewer at his house on L Street NW in 1975. "I am like the man planted by the rivers of waters whose feet shall not be moved." He laughed as he said it because the house where he lived was only two blocks from where he was born.
In fact, he went so far--and the world changed so--that it takes some thinking to realize that, for much of Dr. Gill's life, a black physician could not make a living at his profession in Washington.
"In my time, society was white, there was no breaking it," he told the interviewer. "I was never a militant. In my time you heard what people said, but you didn't say things yourself or you'd be thought a troublemaker and lose your job, especially if you worked for the government. So I didn't have time for that foolishness."
When he was a boy, he helped his uncle, a lamplighter, getting up at 5:30 and climbing the poles to shut off the gas cocks in the morning. In those days there were water pumps along K Street NW to fill the horse troughs. His mother took in laundry and cooked for President Theodore Roosevelt in the summertime.
Once when he delivered some laundry he got a 5-cent tip. This was enough to buy more candy than he could eat while walking from 9th Street to 20th Street NW and he remembered that because his mother did not approve of him eating candy.
He attended Stevens Elementary, which was opened in 1868 and which was the first black elementary school in the city. He graduated from Hampton Institute and earned his medical degree at Howard University in 1908.
He had to turn down an internship at the old Freedmen's Hospital. Internships carried no salary then and interns were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dr. Gill decided to keep his job at Engraving and Printing, where he had begun working in 1902.
As a young doctor, he donated his services to the old Colored Social Settlement in Southwest Washington, which is said to have been the first community house of its kind for blacks in the United States.
He also worked in church clinics and for years he gave medical examinations to preschool children at Stevens. He often spent Saturdays trying to collect those 50-cent and $1 fees he earned during the week.
When he retired from Engraving and Printing in 1946, he continued to practice medicine with offices in his house. In 1956, he completed a postgraduate course at the George Washington University medical school.
As the years passed, Dr. Gill prospered. He had bought his house on L Street in 1901 for $5,500. "Then I bought the house across the street, too, for $3,700 and sold it later for $40,000," he said, shaking his head in wonder at the way prices changed. "And I got a tidy sum for another house, and I now own six other houses, altogether. Considering where I started from I'm pretty well heeled . . . ."
Dr. Gill retired from his medical practice about 1976.
He was a member of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, the Medical-Chirurgical Society, the Pathfinders social club and the Masons.
His wife, the former Marjorie Rencher, died in 1931. Survivors include two sons, Lee Rencher and Sheffield Oliver, and a daughter, Vivian G. Lee, all of Washington.
Of course, that interviewer in 1975 asked Dr. Gill to sum up all the things he had seen.
"Now as for modern times and the world today, I can't say about the world, but I'll tell you what I think about the city of Washington," the doctor replied. "I see marked improvement. In the old days I think people drank more than now, it was common for a man to fall down drunk on L Street and people would take him in their house till he sobered up. People did good things like that. But on the whole I now see marked improvement."