The other reason is how people related to the historical moments that were represented by the events of his life. It was a clever way of drawing the audience into a man’s life full of so many memorable moments and experiences. Something that can only happen in the movies, right? Wrong. In fact, over the last 15 years I’ve gotten to know a man whom I see as the real-life Forrest Gump. And guess what? Instead of living in GreenBOW, he lives right here in GreenVILLE.
His name is Dr. William Mackey. As I write this he is approaching his 97th birthday. Ninety-seven years of adventures and achievements that really do represent our ‘Greatest Generation.’ Like Forrest, Dr. Mackey was born on Aug. 24, 1917, and raised in a rural area, Calhoun, Tennessee. He was born in the farmhouse his great-grandfather built right after the Civil War ended on the Hiwassee River.
Being close to rivers was important because his great-grandfather not only helped rebuild all of the bridges in the South destroyed in the war, but he actually built the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River near Rockford, Illinois, in 1856. After finishing that bridge, the celebration afterwards actually involved a boat partially destroying the bridge. He had to go to court to get the bridge rebuilt. His lawyer? Abraham Lincoln.
Back to Dr. Mackey. The house he was born in was called “Maywood,” and he was born in the same bedroom where his grandmother died giving birth to his mother, a medical event that would prove ironic in his future. Like Forrest, Dr. Mackey grew up in that house until he left for college. He went to school at the grammar school his grandfather built. Dr. Mackey wasn’t picked on like Forrest was, but he was little, and he said, “Tennis was the one sport I could play because I would have been killed in football.”
Like Mrs. Gump, Dr. Mackey’s father ran his own business. His dad was a pharmacist because he didn’t have the money to become a doctor. Dr. Mackey worked in his dad’s pharmacy and was in charge of running the soda fountain.
“I jerked so much soda at that fountain that I’ve hated soda my entire life. Even when I was in the war, I traded my Coca-Colas for other goods,” remarked Dr. Mackey in a way that sounded like, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
The other life lesson he learned working in that pharmacy is service to those without means. He made many trips around the rural counties with his father in an old Ford car to “collect” payment. They were given chickens, pigs, and even cows. “One time my father came back to the car with a calf in his arms. He told me to sit up and he put that calf in my lap. A calf! That little cow peed all over my lap on that trip. I’ll never forget that.”
Forrest Gump may not have been a smart man, but Dr. Mackey has a brilliant mind. While Forrest went to college to play football, Dr. Mackey went to a two-year junior college as a pre-med student. He took a 12-mile bus ride each way to school. In order to help pay the bills, he had two paper routes and helped sell the milk they got from the cows on their family farm.
When he went off to medical school at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, his dad used to send him $5 a week to help as much as he could. This helped him join a fraternity which was useful because he couldn’t afford any of the medical school textbooks. Other guys in his fraternity let him use their old books to get through his first couple of years. This farm boy used those books well and was first in his class through his first three years of medical school. And then something happened. He met his “Jenny.”
Dr. Mackey had never been on a date in his life. “I couldn’t afford to date. Guys took gals to movies and dancing. I didn’t have the money.” That all changed one night at a party thrown by one of the medical fraternities.
“But then I saw this girl named Ruth Carolyn Humphries, and that was it. We drove away that night in a borrowed $300 Chevy. Our first date was a movie. I spent all of my money on movies and dancing from that point on. As a result, that dancing and dating took me away from my studies and I finished third in my class. But I won in the end. I had my Ruth.”
Forrest has his “Jen-ny” and Dr. Mackey had his Ruth. He earned an internship at the John Gaston Hospital.
“My experience in that ER taught me more in nine months about medicine and about life than any experience before. I was delivering babies, doing surgeries, and I even witnessed one of the first open heart surgeries in the country to repair a stabbing victim. The most prevalent medical emergency I saw every night was removing ice picks from men who had been stabbed by their wives. I guess happy wife meant longer life in those days.” In his time there, Dr. Mackey helped run the third blood bank ever opened in the U.S.
“I worked hard to use that blood bank to help C-section patients. I drew blood into milk bottles that we stored in refrigerators until we could cross-match it for use. I made my own I.V. devices with rubber hoses because we didn’t have any of that type of equipment then. I even built my own little blood spinner before I left.”
Dr. Mackey “left” because he volunteered for the Army in World War II with the Medical Corps. Was he nervous or scared about serving? “Well, all of my friends and the other doctors had all left already on orders from the Army. And then Pearl Harbor happened. I remember that day clearly because I was up all night. I delivered 32 babies that day and night. I didn’t even hear about the day’s events until I went into another doctor’s room the next morning and heard it on the radio. I thought it was terrible. They had sunk our Navy. It was all hands on deck at that point.”
Dr. Mackey headed to Nashville for his Army physical. He weighed in at a strapping 110 pounds.
“They said, ‘You’re too small to go to war.’ I told them that was nonsense and I signed a waiver and joined anyway as a lieutenant.”
But he wasn’t leaving before he took care of something very important. He was going to marry Ruth.
“We were married on April 29, 1942 and I was on a train west with the Army a few days later.”
His first two years in the Army weren’t quite what you might expect. He spent time on the west coast in California in the U.S. defense positions. Ruth joined him there and they had a little apartment together in Hollywood. Yes, that Hollywood.
“It was actually a wonderful time. Everywhere we went we saw movies being made and big movie stars out at dinner and at the grocery store. Rita Hayward, Joey Brown, and others. Ruth worked at the UCLA switchboard to earn us a little money. Everything was rationed then. But one day Ruth was in the grocery store talking to Rita Hayward. Well, the store owner heard her voice and said, ‘Now that sounds like a true southern belle.’ Turns out he was from Memphis, and from that point on he took care of us with extra goods.”
Forrest Gump may have become a world-class ping-pong athlete in the Army during the Vietnam War, but Dr. Mackey had his chance at athletic stardom too. One of his jobs was taking care of the men at different bases up and down the coast. At one base they had put together a baseball league. Well, many of the major league players were in the Army at that point.
“I got to play in one game. I came up to bat against Red Ruffing of the New York Yankees. Holy smokes I was shaking in my shoes. It didn’t end well.”
Mark one down for Forrest in the athleticism column. It wasn’t all fun and games though.
“We were more scared than people knew. Japan came close to our coast many times. Submarines had turned up in Santa Barbara.” And as one of the doctors stationed there he had to deal with some of the darker sides of war time. “There was a barracks set up on the Santa Monica pier. One of the boys there was a mess mentally about going to war. I recommended he be discharged but they sent him back to the barracks. He killed himself right then and there. I got my ambulance driver and we took him to the Los Angeles morgue because we had to do an autopsy per policy. The doctor I met at the morgue had just set up the first forensics lab in the world, which was fascinating. But we didn’t need to use his expertise to know what happened to this poor boy.”
The Hollywood fun was about to end as their orders came to head east as the Army moved troops to Europe for the impending invasion. Dr. Mackey boarded the Queen Mary out of New York City to head to England. The Queen Mary was chosen because of her speed and size. She carried thousands of troops back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, including Winston Churchill. The ship’s speed wasn’t always a strength.
“The ship was so fast; a normal military escort couldn’t keep up. So we zig-zagged every seven minutes in order to avoid and out-run those pesky German U-boats. It was a stressful trip but I ended up running into my first cousin, who I hadn’t seen in years. Luckily he survived the war, became a lawyer, and ended up writing a great history book on our family.”
Dr. Mackey was in the 95th Infantry Medical Battalion. They landed on Omaha beach soon after the initial landing.
“It was scary. Here I was, weighing 110 pounds, wearing a 40-pound pack. We had to jump from the big boat to a smaller landing boat. Well, if you fell over the side, that 40lb pack would sink you to the bottom and you would drown. There may have been no bullets flying when we landed, but I was plenty scared.”
His path throughout the war followed the Allied forces’ advances through Europe. His main job was to stabilize the wounded soldiers on the front lines so that they could be transported back to the hospitals.
“It was terribly frustrating and hard work. We had no IVs, no blood. All I had to work with was morphine, penicillin, and tetanus shots. Even with the boys we stabilized, half of them couldn’t survive the trip back to the hospitals. I think we would have saved half of the boys who died if we had any type of IVs for blood transfusions. It pains me still. One positive was a time when we had all the boys with frozen feet in a school house trying to save their feet. Well, I was good with mechanical stuff and somehow, by the grace of God, I got the furnace working and saved many boys from losing their feet.”
Those guys were probably more grateful for Dr. Mackey’s actions than Lieutenant Dan was for Forrest saving his life. In talking with Dr. Mackey about his time in Europe, I’m reminded of Forrest Gump sitting in the rain in Vietnam when he says that during every spare moment, “I thought of Jen-ny.”
The reason behind this are the hundreds of letters I’ve read that Dr. Mackey sent to his Ruth during the war. She kept every one of them. They wrote each other constantly. And they numbered each one in order to try and keep some order to their correspondence. For good reason too. Ruth was pregnant when he left for Europe.
The beauty in those letters is remarkable. People in our electronic, smartphone, social media era just don’t write like that anymore. Dr. Mackey addressed every letter, “Dearest Sweetest Wife in the World,” and signed them, “Your Adoring Husband, Billy.” He rarely spoke of what he was going through and mainly focused on how she was doing and what was going on “back home.” Those letters were a love story. Then one day he got the telegraph he had been waiting for since he got to Europe. “One stormy night in France I got a telegraph letting me know that Bill had been born. I was elated. We smoked cigars that night at the French chateau we were at. It had belonged to one of Napoleon’s generals. We were in Jaulny, France.” He got the telegraph nine days after his son “Billy” was born.
Before coming home, Dr. Mackey experienced one of the toughest parts of the war our troops encountered; liberating a concentration camp. “I wasn’t at the front when we freed one of the camps. But I treated some of the prisoners there, mostly women and children. It was maddening and frightening at the same time. By this point those poor, brave folks were emotionless. I still can’t explain my emotions that day.”
Happier emotions came when he was on a boat back to Boston. There were big celebrations there but as soon as he landed he hopped on a train to Memphis. He stepped out of a taxi and saw his Ruth standing there with Billy. “I reached for him and he came right to me. It’s as though everything I had just been through was erased in that moment.” It was Forrest’s “I’m home Mama” moment.
Even better news came soon after. Dr. Mackey’s brother, Thomas, was also brilliant. He was a key engineer who was working on the Manhattan project. Dr. Mackey was about to ship out to train for the invasion of Japan. His brother told him, “Billy, the war is about to be over. That’s all I can tell you. We did our job.” Days later the atomic bombs were dropped, the war was over and “I needed to find a job.”
Forrest went into the shrimp-boat business and Dr. Mackey went back to what he knew best. That first job was being chief resident at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis for the big salary of $90 a week. Now while Forrest didn’t always have his Jenny, Dr. Mackey had his Ruth and they started their life together and he started a remarkable medical career. He became one of the preeminent OB/GYNs in the state of Tennessee. Dr. Mackey was in private practice for 50 years. He started the first OB/GYN hospital clinic in Memphis. He held privileges at multiple hospitals in the Memphis area and delivered over 5,000 babies in his career. And he may have been born in the room where his grandmother died in childbirth, but over the course of his career he saved the lives of countless mothers. Dr. Mackey was the first doctor to bring pap smears and mammograms to Memphis in the early 1950s, tests that helped save hundreds of women in his practice alone.
The frustrations of not being able to save more lives in the war drove him in his medical practice and he wanted his medical skills to matter. Making a difference in patients’ lives was the focus and when the opportunities came to do that, he did so whole heartedly. One little known fact about his career is that he never charged nurses or medical students for care and often refused to take money from patients who were poor and uninsured. “I used to keep track of how many babies I delivered, but it became impossible, as I delivered so many for free that I lost track.”
But the action he’s most proud of, and one that everybody in Greenville will recognize, is the creation of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Dr. Mackey is the last living member of the Medical Board that founded the hospital with actor Danny Thomas. That group of doctors were the ones that helped Danny Thomas make his dream come true in Memphis. Where did they build this new hospital? Right next to St. Joseph’s Hospital, the one that hired Dr. Mackey for $90 a week when he got back from World War II.
Recently, the CEO of St Jude sent Dr. Mackey correspondence telling him, “I thank you again, on behalf of everyone at St. Jude for your courage and support you gave so many years ago … when this amazing humanitarian project first began to take shape and no one believed it possible to cure some of these deadly childhood cancers.” To this day he is proud of what they accomplished. When he looked at the book sent to him showing pictures of the patients of St. Jude, there was a moment, a look in his eyes that showed how deeply St. Jude touches his soul.
In his words, “We were just a group of fellas who had intermediate training in medicine. And just stuck to it and learned how to do better. They listened to what the patients and families said. To what we said. And they took it to heart and tried to make it turn out. And it did turnout after all.” Not bad for a farm boy from Calhoun, Tennessee who grew up “jerking” sodas in his Dad’s pharmacy, selling milk from his own cows, and working two paper routes.
The saddest part in Forrest Gump was when Forrest lost his Jenny. I still tear up when he’s talking to her spirit in the cemetery. And the saddest part of Dr. Mackey’s life was when he lost his Ruth. In a cruel twist of fate, she had battled uterine cancer in the early 1980s, but overcame it. Yet again, he saw an opportunity to help others and they established the Ruth Carolyn Mackey GYN Oncology Center and Foundation.
After helping so many in their fight against cancer, whether through the foundation or at St. Judes, Ruth was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This time it was too much to overcome and Dr. Mackey lost his wife of 52 years. His first date. His first and only girlfriend. His Jenny. And it nearly killed him with grief.
“We were married for 52 years. At that point you are just part of the other person and they’re part of you. You don’t feel like living.” Somehow, some way, he picked himself back up and decided to live on. “But eventually, you get your old personality back, your drive, and your love of living.” It’s what Ruth would have wanted him to do.
The reason I have been blessed to get to know this man is that he is my wife’s grandfather. After he lost Ruth 20 years ago he moved to Topsail Island to be closer to his family. His son, “Billy,” had 3 daughters of his own. And as of today, Dr. Mackey, or as we call him, “G-Daddy,” has 9 great-grandchildren and he now lives in Greenville. There are no words to describe the feeling I have knowing my daughters are making memories with such a remarkable man.
Our youngest, Taylor, is his sidekick around Greenville. One of their favorite things to do is go to Cracker Barrel, regardless of the time of day, and get pancakes and bacon. And an example of why I love this town: everywhere he goes; people come up to G-Daddy and thank him for his service to our country. It gives me goose bumps every time.
The movie “Forrest Gump” was a story about a man who lived life through so many memorable moments, and positively affected the people around him. I can’t think of a better way to describe the life of Dr. William Mackey. I think G-Daddy has tried every piece in that “box of chocolates.”
So, if you see G-Daddy and Taylor around Greenville, don’t hesitate to come up and say hello. It makes his day and you can tell people you met a real-life Forrest Gump.