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Honoring a global hero with Brooksville roots

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On Saturday, September 17, there was an abundance of school spirit and community spirit at a ceremony naming the Hernando High School Science Building after Dr. Paul Edward Farmer, a 1978 graduate of that school. Dr. Farmer, who passed away on February 22nd of this year was a world-renowned medical activist, philanthropist, professor, and humanitarian… and that’s just a small portion of his qualities.

A crowd of more than 250 friends, classmates, teachers, and community dignitaries attended the moving ceremony that honored Dr. Farmer’s life. Many were wearing purple, one of Hernando High School’s colors.

Ron Wheeles, one of Dr. Farmer’s classmates, in giving the invocation cited a verse from the book of James which stated, “Faith, by itself, if it does not have works is dead…I will show you my faith by my works.”
He went on to say, “Most people prefer to see a sermon than hear one and Paul was a man of faith and works.”
Wheeles concluded his invocation by saying, “Thank you, Lord, that many of us knew Paul and our lives are so much richer.”

Another classmate, Karen Gaffney, reminisced about Farmer’s years as a student in middle school and high school. She described a different−less serious side of him as she spoke about some of the mischiefs he used to get into at school. Dr. Farmer was brilliant and creative. For example, when they were in 7th grade, he invented a whole language and taught it to his classmates so that they could communicate without the teachers knowing what they were saying.
Ms. Gaffney called Farmer an “amazing soul” and compassionate−someone who would listen to your problems and allow you to cry on his shoulder. Later he became “an advocate for quality healthcare to those who did not have access to it; a direct care provider to the most vulnerable in our society; a supportive leader and colleague to the many partners in health who shared his vision. He was an inspiration to us all.”

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Barbara Manuel, who first met Paul when she was his music teacher in junior high school, praised his “wonderful voice.” She also related a story told to her by one of his friends that typified his free spirit, his incredible memory skills and his lack of self-consciousness. This young lady visited Paul when he was studying in Paris and the two of them wandered down the streets of Paris singing “How do you Keep them Down on the Farm after They’ve Seen Paree?” It happened to have been a song he learned as one of her students so many years before.

Four of Dr. Farmer’s five siblings each spoke about their brother and gave insight into his life, his character, and his personality. They talked about their life growing up in a more-or-less middle-class family, with an atypical lifestyle. They moved around a bit and at one time lived in a converted school bus and then on a houseboat. Although they didn’t have a lot in terms of material things, their parents instilled in them the values of gratitude and service to those more needy.

His younger brother, Jim, talked about how Paul was advanced for his age intellectually and that as a pre-teen he would sit the whole family down sometimes to teach them biology lessons, complete with illustrations pinned up on the wall and graphics on a chalkboard. Jim stated that the family was tremendously touched by this outpouring from the local community.

His sister, Jen, added,

“Of all his accolades, I think this would have meant the most to him. He loved Hernando High and Brooksville.”

She described Paul as passionate and explained how her brother cared deeply about people and treated everyone equally and made them feel good. Everyone was important to Paul. This attitude translated to his years of serving the poorest of the poor−people that many governments and even many medical providers didn’t want to deal with.

Beth Martin Langford, another Hernando High graduate spoke about the scholarship fund that will be set up in his name. Very soon, they will be seeking donations to this fund.

Blake Bell, another proud graduate of Hernando High and vice-mayor for the city of Brooksville, read a proclamation from the Florida House of Representatives honoring the late physician.

The ceremony concluded with John Stratton, Hernando County School Superintendent, speaking of how the naming of the science building in Dr. Farmer’s memory came to be. Then school board member Susan Duval, who brought up the idea of this honor; Hernando High Principal Leechele Booker; and Tricia Bechtelheimer unveiled the commemorative plaque.

You can read about Dr. Paul Farmer’s professional and humanitarian achievements and the many accolades are well known.

Going back to how he came to be an advocate and tireless worker for healthcare among the poorest in the world, Farmer described it as “luck” that he ended up in 1983 living in a squatter settlement of peasants in Haiti who had lost their land due to the building of a hydroelectric dam. It was an epiphany to him and a turning point in his life.

He stated, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

Among the people who eulogized Dr. Farmer on a national and international level were well-known political figures, leading physicians, academics and, of course, his colleagues.

Even someone as well-known and impactful as the late African Archbishop Desmond Tutu several years ago praised Farmer, calling him “one of the great advocates for the poorest and the sickest of our planet.”

A PBS correspondent, who knew Dr. Farmer personally, stated that in the year prior to his death, Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, provided more than two million women’s health checkups and three million outpatient visits to clinics all over the world. Partners in Health is now in eleven countries, including the United States, and five continents.

Dr. Farmer was interviewed about his work on numerous television programs and wrote several books. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Tracy Kidder, wrote “Mountains Beyond Mountains” detailing Farmer’s life and his work.

In 2017, a documentary about Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health, was filmed and is currently airing on Netflix. In the film a Haitian man, who was so ill that he was preparing for his death but was healed by the Partners in Health doctors, stated, “All people are people. If I myself can live today, then everyone else who were just as misfortunate should have that chance too.”

Many people like to talk about a famous celebrity they know personally or have met or who came from their hometown and we, as Hernando County citizens can be proud of what Dr. Paul Farmer contributed to the welfare of people and the betterment of our world. But I know that instead of honors and accolades, Dr. Farmer, would prefer that each of us do a part, whether it’s large or small, to make our community, if not our world, a better place.

Planted on the grounds of Hernando High School is a Southern Magnolia tree. I don’t know if they chose this particular tree on purpose or if it was just coincidence, but here is some information I found out about it.

The southern Magnolia has been around for more than 95 million years, tends to live more than a hundred years, grows anywhere from 60 to 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide. It is a large, striking evergreen tree with beautiful flowers and is cultivated in warmer areas around the world. Its timber is hard and heavy and used for furniture and other purposes.
And is it coincidental that the tree is a symbol of strength and has medicinal properties? Its bark is used in traditional medicine worldwide for such purposes as relieving cold symptoms, anxiety, and stress. It has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and a high concentration of antioxidants, and can even be used to treat the dementia and memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Paul E. Farmer, like this tree, stood tall. He spent most of his life helping people in the warmer climates of Haiti and Africa. Just as the magnolia tree has many uses, Dr. Farmer found many uses for his talents. Like the tree, Farmer was a source of life-saving medicine. And like the tree, an evergreen that thrives in all seasons, he worked tirelessly year-around in his mission. Most of all, although Dr. Paul Farmer died too soon, his work will live on for a very long time.

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