One by one they came to the microphone, sharing fond memories and opinions on the state of health care. Sixty years earlier, the speakers had graduated from Harvard Medical School, and tonight, in suits and tuxedoes, the Class of 1953 gathered at the Longwood campus, in Gordon Hall, for a reunion dinner.
And then up stepped Dr. Granville Coggs, the only African-American in his class. Wearing a burgundy sports coat, a bright yellow T-shirt, and a baseball cap, when it was his turn at the mike, he spoke not about medicine — he specialized for decades in radiology — but about his love of the gutbucket, a stringed instrument made from a broomstick and a tin wash tub. Coggs even brought a gutbucket with him, made with a single string and a fair amount of duct tape.
The initial reaction, perhaps not surprisingly, was confusion. But by the time Coggs launched into Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” his old classmates and their spouses were chuckling and applauding. Some recalled his sense of humor from their school days; others said he’d always marched to his own beat.
Coggs, 87, had to agree. “Life is a series of rhythms,” he mused, explaining his unorthodox reunion speech.
It’s an apt philosophy for the man. And when you consider Coggs’s other pursuits, it makes even more sense. He is, indeed, an accomplished bluesman, playing that gutbucket in juke joints and dives from coast to coast. But he’s also a father and grandfather, a competitive runner, and one of an estimated 250 to 300 original Tuskegee Airmen still living. The Airmen are the legendary all-black group of pilots who served in the racially segregated US Army Air Corps during World War II.
Coggs never flew a combat mission, though he was trained to fly the B-29 Bomber and the B-25 Mitchell Bomber. By the time he completed additional flight schooling and was deployed to Italy, fighting in the Pacific had ended and the war was in its final throes.
Coggs wears his Tuskegee wings and Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to the corps, with pride. “It was important to us that we fight for the right to fight, whether, in the end, we were needed or not.”
Coggs has always been drawn to people and places whose rhythms matched his own. Meeting Maud Currie, the woman he’d go on to marry, indicated a wonderful duet in the making. Attending Harvard almost a decade later was like joining a choir.
“I enjoyed it all, but in terms of feeling great as an American, it might surprise you that things changed for me when I moved to Massachusetts to attend medical school,” he said.
Cambridge was a long way from Pine Bluff, Ark., where he was raised by a father who was the president of a baptist seminary and a mother who was a teacher. “I grew up in Arkansas before the Civil Rights Movement,” he explained. “ ’Nuff said.”
In the Jim Crow South, Coggs experienced what one might expect: racial epithets, strictly enforced racial segregation, threats if he left his “zone.” Even after moving away from Arkansas, Coggs said one of the scariest times of his life came years later when he and his wife drove with a white couple through the South en route to Brooklyn, N.Y. Fearful of being pulled over by police just for traveling together, the four took turns at the wheel, driving around the clock so they could get through the diciest stretches without stopping.
It wasn’t easy in Massachusetts — Maud Coggs couldn’t get a public school teaching job because she was married, for example. But her husband found it surprising the way he felt being the only man of color of the 150 students in his Harvard Medical School class.
“It was the first time in my life I didn’t feel black. We had a class of 150, and I was the only black. So I didn’t forget what I looked like,” he said. “But it was the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who treated me as a man, a medical student, a future doctor, not a black man, a black medical student, a black future doctor.’’
He kept life simple, while his wife went off to teach at a small college in Tennessee. “I went to class, studied, and then hunkered down in my dorm to study some more,” he said.
Coggs had been accepted to several top programs, including University of Southern California, where he would have been the school’s first ever black medical student. But he chose Harvard, in part, because one of his boyhood heroes, Arkansas physician George William Stanley Ish, had graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1909.
His decision was made easier when Harvard awarded Coggs a scholarship to cover the $330 of his annual $830 tuition not covered by the G.I. Bill.
“That life rhythm, this is what I’m talking about,” Coggs said. “I couldn’t have gone to Harvard without that combination of G.I. Bill and scholarship. If one or the other had been insufficient, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Medical school paved the way for that long career, much of which was spent working in the San Francisco Bay area. He and Maud had two daughters — one of whom is also a doctor — and a son, who was killed in a construction accident at the age of 7. In his 70s, Coggs enjoyed a late blooming stint as a runner, winning three gold medals at the Texas Senior games after retiring to San Antonio, where he now lives.
As for his gutbucket, it turns out it wasn’t a product of his Southern upbringing, but a gift he received from a Harvard classmate when Coggs was living in San Francisco.
Willie J. Laws, a blues singer and guitarist and a longtime friend of Coggs, hosted a barbecue for the doctor at his Canton home during the recent class reunion festivities. Coggs calls Laws “son number two.”
“Since I’ve known him — and we go back a long time, maybe 15 years or more — he hasn’t changed,” Laws said of Coggs. “I mean that as a compliment. He is the definition of consistency. But unlike a lot of people, I think the reason Dr. Coggs is so happy and so full of energy is that consistency for him has never meant settling.”
A little later, both men broke out their instruments: bass guitar for Laws, gutbucket for Coggs. They played a little to the delight of neighbors and guests.
“Dr. Dude,” Laws called out, explaining that Coggs’s kids good naturedly call him “dude.” “Tell us a story.”
Coggs paused, long enough to shrug and pluck a few strings. “This,” he said, “this is what it’s all about.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com. Follow James on Twitter: @JamesBurnett.