Some 200 friends and relatives gathered on Sunday afternoon in the auditorium of the International House to commemorate Dr. Wendell Lipscomb, the 84-year-old Berkeley native and African-American physician and former Tuskegee Airmen flight instructor who died last May in a downtown Berkeley automobile accident.
The memorial ended with a slideshow of photographs from various points in Dr. Lipscomb’s life. There were World War II era images of a handsome, dashing young man in a flight suit, snapshots from various world travels, and one memorable image in a near-legendary green Jaguar XKE that Lipscomb drove at more-than-legendary speeds, the familiar sight of which brought sighs and murmurs of recognition from the crowd. The slideshow flickered past to the taped accompaniment of Dr. Lipscomb himself, singing “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Shenandoah,” and songs in Italian and French in a clear voice while he strummed the melody on a guitar.
But the highlight of the afternoon was the brief testimonies by several speakers—a few of them who claimed Lipscomb as either their surrogate father or actual stepfather. What emerged was the portrait of an earthy, multifaceted man, a “glorious human being” whose enormous love of people and “enormous appetite for knowledge and experience” left lasting impressions on everyone he came in contact with.
“He never let the racial thing get him down-I never did figure that out about him,” said Emmett Rice, a longtime friend who knew Lipscomb at Tuskegee during World War II as well as when both of them lived at the International House in the late ‘40s. “I carry those [racial] scars around with me to this day. Almost all of us did. But Wendell didn’t. That was the remarkable thing about him. He always focused on ways around the obstacles—not on the obstacles themselves.”
Kathryn Raphael, Lipscomb’s step-daughter through his marriage to his second wife, Ellen Gunther, recalled the tragedy that ensued when Lipscomb contracted throat cancer and could no longer sing. “I remember—before that—how he had this incredible voice,” Raphael said. “He played the guitar, and later, the mandolin. At Christmastime he sang Handel’s Messiah-he would go out caroling with groups of singers.”
Others recalled Lipscomb as a fixture at dining room tables around Berkeley—so welcome a guest in his later years in several households that he could let himself in and help himself to food at the refrigerator, entertain everyone with some new song he had heard or new skill he had learned, then nap at the table while the talk ranged around him.
“Sometimes—with his eyes still closed—he’d make a witty comment when the conversation took a turn that was interesting for him,” said John Hanscom, who spoke with a brown Eeyore doll plopped in front of him—a long-treasured gift, he said, from his “Uncle Lippy” while Hanscom was an infant.
Craig Woolridge, who described himself as Lipscomb’s godson, also mentioned Lipscomb’s throat cancer as a defining memory of the doctor’s spirit. “He was diagnosed 10 years ago with a less than favorable outcome,” Woolridge said. “But he had more things to explore, and he’d be damned if a death sentence would get in his way.”
Another surrogate son, Chris Lawrence, talked of a harrowing ride across Alameda at speeds approaching 160 mph in Lipscomb’s Jaguar, which he described as “12 cylinders rolled up in a rocket. The steering wheel was just a formality. We entered a state of calmness that heretofore I could never imagine. Wendell seemed perfectly natural in this state. He was not constrained by gravity. He looked to the horizon as if he were thinking that if we had enough takeoff room, he could just continue on up. It was all about up with Wendell.”
International House Executive Director Joe Lurie, who became close to Lipscomb during the years the doctor served on the I-House board of directors, described Lipscomb as “the master of saying things in a short way that had enormous meaning. I asked him one time how it was living at the I-House in the ‘40s, and he told me of an East Indian man he met there. The man had recently come to the United States, and hadn’t met any African-Americans before. And one day, Wendell said this man turned to him and said, ‘I didn’t know.’ That was Wendell’s way of saying that this East Indian man had never heard of African-Americans who studied medicine or spoke multiple languages… And that was Wendell’s life. Changing people’s perceptions-turning incidents of ‘I didn’t know’ to ‘now I know.’”