A Teacher of Physicians: George Coleman Connor, 1920-2002
George Connor died in the city of his birth, Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 20 August 2002.
Following service in the U.S. Army in World War II, a tour that included the Battle of the Bulge, he graduated from the University of Chattanooga in 1947. He later earned a Master Degree in English at Breadloaf. He taught high school English before becoming the Executive Director of the newly formed Adult Education Council. Subsequently, he joined the faculty of the Department of English at his Alma Mater from which he "retired" in 1986. He continued to teach in numerous, quite varied settings until the time of his death from a cerebral hemorrhage.
In 1987 after a series of lunchtime conversations Professor Connor, hereafter referred to as George, agreed to serve as the founding literary guru for a new activity of the Tennessee Chapter of ACP/ASIM-a literature and medicine reading retreat. He would continue in this role for the next ten years. He and I would meet several times, usually over lunch, to select a theme and related readings for a weekend retreat for physicians and their spouses or close friends. In addition to a reading list, George provided comments and questions for discussion that would be mailed to registrants along with their books. He rightly insisted that all good literature, which he defined as literature of moral purpose, was relevant to the field of medicine.
George's teaching style could be compared to that of an official at an ice hockey game: he would launch the work at hand with a few remarks, then guide the ensuing, often animated discussion until some two to two and a half hours later when he would summarize where we had been. He insisted that all discussions should be open to the spouses and guests of physicians. At times he would read certain passages to illustrate a point. Sometimes he used personal vignettes or drew from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of relevant quotations from other works of literature. He seemed to have forgotten nothing that he had ever read. We read The Death of Ivan Ilych, Too Late the Phalarope, King Lear, and we even tackled The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Once, I urged his inclusion of William Maxwell's So Long See You Tomorrow for our next year's readings. He declined initially, stating that for him the work was intolerably sad. He relented the following year and indeed became momentarily teary as he considered the novel's concluding pages.
Those of us in frequent attendance at the retreats felt a strong bond of high regard and friendship for our literary mentor. For eight years George conducted literature and medicine workshops at Annual Sessions of the College where in three or four hours we would be treated to such works as Reynolds Price's A Whole New Life paired with short stories by the same author. These sessions also were open to physicians and their spouses or friends. His circle of physician friends grew even further. Our passion for literature grew each year as well.
After serving as our teacher for ten years George felt that at age seventy-six that we should seek a successor. He recommended Professor Gregory O'Dea, a colleague of his in the English Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Under Greg's direction the literature and medicine reading retreats continue to thrive, routinely fully subscribed and attracting registrants from states far beyond our borders.
At a memorial service for George on 24 August at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chattanooga I sat next to a young man who could not read until George undertook to teach him in recent years. "He was like a father to me," the man stated to me. "I would call him up, and he would help me figure things out. If we couldn't solve it over the phone, he would invite me to his place to discuss it." George Connor helped many physicians and their friends and spouses to "figure things out" using literature and inspired teaching as his tools.
At one retreat when the floor was opened to those wishing to present an original work, Phillip Bertram ambled to the front of our classroom and read "Requiem for Steve Biko." George was deeply moved by this poem. In my last meeting with him, this time over supper, he spoke of his high regard for this work and asked that I bring him up to date regarding the activities of the author. The poem follows.