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Alan Whittemore Cross

Died: January 5, 2012

Richard Andrews remembers:
Alan Cross and I were friends as fellow bursary students in one of the dining halls; as adults we rediscovered each other in the 1980s on the faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill, he in social medicine, public health, and pediatrics and I in public policy and environmental sciences. Alan left an extraordinary legacy at UNC and far beyond before his untimely death due to a neurological illness in 2012. At UNC he was professor and vice chair of the Department of Social Medicine, professor of pediatrics, and professor of maternal and child health in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He also served for 12 years as director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP, a CDC Prevention Research Center). Beyond UNC, he spent several years working with community clinics in Nairobi, Kenya, and served on the board of directors for Carolina for Kibera — a charity founded by UNC students to reduce poverty and improve the prospects for young people in the slums of Nairobi — for many years.

Alan was an outstanding clinician, a fine medical researcher, and an effective and unflappable administrator. Above all he was a kind, compassionate, generous human being with a great sense of humor, who showed a passion in all his life and work for medicine, for education, for service, for research on health disparities, and for social justice. His research interests included assessing the effectiveness of community-based interventions to improve infant health, testing methods for improving adolescent health through school- and community-based interventions, and improving the delivery of preventive services to low-income populations. At HPDP, he led initiatives to challenge the tobacco industry and to promote condom distribution to youth; he also was a leader in originating the concept that every child should have a medical home, a principle that now has been adopted nationally. Along with all his official duties he also served as unofficial doctor to Chapel Hill’s public schools, working to advance health education and health services to high school students and to end discrimination against gay and lesbian students, among other initiatives.

Even as his disease progressed, Alan continued to teach students, medical residents, and faculty from his wheelchair. As the dean of the medical school said in announcing his death, “He lived the last years of his life with a neurological disease, but living with the disease did not dampen his energy and enthusiasm for caring for patients and teaching medicine to medical students and fellow physicians. He will be remembered by many of us not just as a mentor and colleague, but as a trusted physician to our children and grandchildren.” Just one indication of how widely he was admired and beloved is that both a writing award and an endowed chair at UNC, and a health care scholarship at Carolina for Kibera, have all been established in his name. He was an exceptional physician and human being, and is deeply missed.

Thomas Vargish remembers:
Remembrance: Alan W. Cross b. July 11, 1944; d. January 5, 2012 Attended Yale 1962-1966, Davenport College, B.A. in Biology. Following graduation, Alan went on to Physicians and Surgeons College of Columbia University and received an M.D. degree in 1970. While in medical school he married Mimi Johnson (1968) who remained his spouse for forty-four years. Following a two year stint in the U.S. Army at Ft. Benning, GA, Alan finished his residency in pediatrics at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY. Alan and his family then spent two years in Africa, where he taught at the University of Nairobi Medical School in Kenya. On returning to the U.S., he joined the Department of Social Medicine at the University of North Carolina where he became a faculty member in the School of Medicine and rose through the ranks to become a Professor of Pediatrics, Social Medicine and Maternal/Child Health in the School of Global Public Health. In addition to his teaching and patient practice at UNC, he also spent time working with community clinics in Kenya and was on the board of the Carolina for Kibera Progam. He received numerous awards from medical students, colleagues and others for his teaching, empathy, and compassion. Alan is survived by his spouse, Mimi, four daughters: Julia, a midwife in Minneapolis; Katie, a designer in San Francisco; and twins Susie, an artist, and Carrie, a jeweler, who both live in Chapel Hill; and seven grandchildren.

Two aspects of Alan’s life stand out in bold relief for me. The first was his total commitment to all aspects of medical education including didactic teaching, role modeling empathy and compassion, and tackling the challenges of healthcare in lesser served communities here and abroad. He did this successfully with care and vigor as evidenced by the numerous awards he received.

The second is the dignity with which he dealt with his impending demise. Because of his irreversible neurologic disorder (MSA or multiple systems atrophy) for which all treatments became futile, he knew there was limited time; but he continued to see patients and teach students. He was able to accept the inevitable end of life. In visiting with him before his death, I was moved by his calm demeanor and total understanding of what was to come. He died at home with his family around him. I can only pray that we all may be as courageous as he. He was a truly good man who will be missed by his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

Forrest Laidley remembers:
Although soft-spoken, Alan came from a remarkable family, whose ancestor’s were often in the presence of kings and queens. In fact, Queen Victoria once remarked, “My but the Cross family is tall.” He knew from an early age that he was going to be a doctor. It was his calling. A few classmates came to know just how gifted a doctor he was in saving their children’s lives.

Freshman year, Al tried out for the Yale swimming team; a team dominated by Olympians and national and state champions. He considered himself “just average,” but he made the team all four years and participated in all their Ivy Championships; yet he never spoke much of it, more interested in what you were doing than what he did.

But Alan never hid his love for Mimi and his girls. A man proud of his family and devoted to them. To his friends he was caring, hopeful, and consoling; but also, a life coach who called out the best in you; often helping you realize there was more in you than you thought.

His legacy is one of kindness, generosity, dignity, and humility. Alan loved life. He protected life. He healed life. He lived his life to serve others. His virtues are those of the saints, and he blessed us all with his smiles.

John Kerry remembers:
John F. Kerry, Chapel Hill, February 2012

In the spring of 1965, when a group of us at Yale were thrown together in the steadfast tradition of a senior secret society, part of the last class of the Old Yale and on the cusp of gargantuan change, we came to know a lanky, Jimmy Stewart kind of guy named Alan Cross.

David Thorne knew him as Moose from Groton School, where they were bell ringers together. Bigger and taller than all the others, the boy who manned his position as the “steady #8” bell was already showing his even-keeled character, natural listening ability, and gift for putting people at ease. In New Haven, never taking himself too seriously yet mature beyond his years, his choice to become a pediatrician seemed pre-ordained, his reassuring manner that of a natural caregiver.

After graduation Alan and Tom Vargish awaited medical school as lifeguards at the Greenwich Country Club. Dodging burns from over-tanning, Alan began his lifelong romance with Mimi. But he was not just posing as a lifeguard. He was a first-class long-distance swimmer and brazen skinny-dipper. In the icy cold of the St. Lawrence River, he called his swims medical research on the effects of cold on anatomical disappearance theory.

At medical school with George Brown, Alan helped George through histology and pathology despite George’s profound color blindness, nonchalantly absorbing the difficult science while focusing on his patients and fellow students. As a practicing pediatrician, he dove into his practice, taking calls from young people day and night — ever the counselor and mentor to anxious parents and friends. “Uncle Al” kept an eye on David’s youngest daughter at UNC, saved Michael Dalby’s daughter Chloe’s life on the phone to Korea, and helped my daughter Vanessa gain perspective on healing as she was finishing her residency in Boston. Vintage Alan, the caregiver.

A few days before our last reunion with him in Washington, he wrote us an email entitled ”Musings on a Good Life and a Good Death.” Even on my Blackberry, I heard in his prose the eloquence of this gentle, self-effacing man. Rather than avoid the subject of his dire illness, Alan embraced it, offering “a few ideas to generate discussion” at our upcoming gathering. He said he had three criteria by which to judge his life: living up to his values, striking the right balance between giving to others and taking care of himself, and leaving the world better than he found it. The real question, he said, is “have you accomplished what you wanted in the time you were given?” And he concluded, “I have nicely stacked the deck of the criteria so my final score is excellent.” The passage of time had not changed our conversation; with Alan it was, as always, easy, warm and accepting of reality.

We will never forget his saying “I hope I have spent my life and not saved it.”

Well spent, indeed. The account he leaves behind is full — his extraordinary wife and family, his community in Chapel Hill that he did indeed make better, as well as countless lives affected by his generosity of spirit. We have precious memories of a special friend, a gift forever to all of us who loved him.