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Alumni Profile: Dr. Lawrence Madlock ’66

Class of 1966 alumnus Lawrence Madlock, MD, went to segregated schools in Memphis, Tennessee, and entered BFS as a junior in 1964 “under some strange circumstances.” He returned to BFS under even stranger circumstances during the Vietnam war, and later experienced war and famine in Ethiopia. After completing medical school and his internship, he returned to his hometown, “bringing the skills back home.”

Dr. Lawrence Madlock, MD, BFS class of ’66, was raised going to segregated schools in Memphis, TN, and entered BFS as a junior in 1964 “under some strange circumstances,” as he put it recently.  “First of all the school that I went to, Melrose High School, afforded me the opportunity to do Advanced Placement work, and started me on a course so that I could graduate early.”

At 16, the precocious teenager became a high school graduate and was being offered college scholarships. He was particularly interested in a math scholarship at the University of Michigan because a mathematician was what he had made up his mind to become.  He was making plans to leave Memphis when some representatives from the American Friends Service Committee’s Southern Students Project got in touch with him.

They offered him a scholarship to attend an independent high school in New York City even though he was already a college-bound high school graduate.  “They really had to convince me that this was a better way to go to get some other kinds of experience. Cultural experience,” he explained.  He wasn’t sold on the idea until one Angela Davis, famed political activist and ’60s radical, gave him a call. She had been one of the first black high school students to come to New York City through the Southern Students Project. 

“She called me and talked to me and said ‘Look, you should do this.’  She asked me how old I was, and I said 16.  She said, ‘Well, all the freshman girls at college are gonna be 18’,” meaning they wouldn’t give him the time of day.  And besides, if it didn’t work out, she reminded him, he could quit high school any time and head for college.  “So I said ‘Well, if they let me go to New York City I’ll try it,’ so I wound up going to Brooklyn Friends School.”

In Brooklyn, “I stayed with a host family,” he said, “actually four families, because I was, um…”  He searched for the right words.  “They thought I was a bit of trouble.” Four semesters at BFS and a new host family for each: the first three placements did not work out well. Lawrence explained of one family, “They thought I should be grateful for every little thing because I was this ‘poor black person from the South,’ but I said, ‘I don’t have to take this.’” He reflected with a remarkable sense of forgiveness and understanding.  “They were in over their heads, they didn’t understand.”

Meanwhile at BFS.  “At first I didn’t like it,” he said.  “I was given a choice of schools and I did pick Brooklyn Friends. I said ‘Gee whiz, this school needs me!’”  He explained his rationale:  “I walk in and I take the tour.  The first thing they do is take me to the gym and hand me a basketball and ask me if I can dunk.  That’s what they were interested in. Even back then I knew it was a stereotype,” said the 6 foot, 2 inch Lawrence.

It’s true he had played some high school basketball back in Memphis but it was far removed from his passion for books and definitely not his strong suit.  “I went and dunked the ball and they said, ‘great!’ And I said ‘No, you’ve got me wrong, I was the last man sitting on the bench of the B team at my high school.’”  He spoke frankly of his first impressions of the school.  “It pissed me off. And I got off on a shaky start with the headmaster.”

His first week at BFS went from bad to worse when he learned that his A grades from his previous high school, as well as his SAT scores, didn’t count “because I was from a black, underprivileged school in the South, and my grades meant nothing.  I shut down for a while after that.”

Fortunately school life began to provide some rays of hope.  “I grew to love that place because it was a sanctuary from what was happening at home,” with his first three host families.  “My classmates, to a person, gathered round me. They took me to their homes, sometimes against their parents’ wills. Each and every one of them stood by me and made me love the place, be they black, white, Asian, whatever.”

Finally, during his fourth and final semester at the school, he landed with a family just right for him. They were the Burgers.  He was quick to point out that the previous three host families were not BFS families and not affiliated with any of New York City’s Quaker meetings.  The Burgers, however, were Quakers and a BFS family.  “If I had had the opportunity to stay with the Burger family–if I had started with them–there’s no doubt my experience would have been different,” he said.  “They were magnificent people. Supportive, understanding.” The Burgers also opened their home to Jack McCray ’65 and Boyd Coan ’67, two other students who came to BFS from AFSC’s Southern Students Project, Lawrence recalled.

His bond to the school was also becoming stronger.  “One of my two favorite teachers was Alberta Magzanian, the history teacher,” he said.  “She really was tough as nails but she saw the situation I was in and she really took me under her wing. The other was my English teacher, Big Phil,” he said, referring to Philip Schwartz, who often shot hoops with Lawrence and his classmates after school.

At one point, “I was already planning to leave. One day in class, he asked a question about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. No one knew the answer but me. I just started laughing.  Mr. Schwartz said, ‘Why are you laughing?’  I said, “Apparently I’m the only one who knows the answer, but I’ve been told I don’t know anything and they didn’t teach me anything at my school.  He said, ‘Come on, you gotta come on with it, you need to show ’em.’  I said, “I don’t need to compete.”  Phil said, ‘Don’t compete, just speak up in class, go to it.'”

After his second high school graduation at BFS, Lawrence attended Wesleyan. He majored in anthropology and took classes in history and ethnomusicology.  He spent a year studying abroad in Ethiopia.  He also met his wife Yvonne while at Wesleyan. She was a junior at Wellesley at the time. She received  a master’s degree in history from Wesleyan and a master’s in public health from the University of Texas while I was in medical school in Houston. She is the director of the Memphis health department..  “She’s quite a hard worker,” he boasted of his better half.  “A dynamic person who has heard most of my stories and still stayed around.”

Right before he was due to graduate Wesleyan, Lawrence was drafted.  He had registered as a Conscientious Objector at 18. So he  started graduate school for history at Harvard while things sorted themselves .  “I never finished there because the draft board told me ‘no, no, no.’“ That started a long fight about my status as a CO.  The American Friends Service Committee and BFS really helped me out a lot in that fight with the Selective Service system,” he recounted.  The Selective Service “told me I had to face 5 years in prison and a big fine, and they tried to dictate what religion I would be.  I told them I was a Quaker. They said there was no such thing as a black Quaker. They had us confused with the Amish. It was,” he put it generously, “quite interesting.”

Once the draft board reluctantly accepted his CO status they attempted to force him into the army as a medic. “I told them no and we went through that fight.  I ended up back at Friends School doing two years of alternative service,” he said.  “The draft board didn’t want me there because it looked like I would be teaching, and they wanted me to do menial labor.  [Head of School] Stuart Smith told the draft board I was indeed doing menial labor.  It’s the only time I knew a Quaker to lie.”

And how did a young man with a math scholarship to the University of Michigan who studied anthropology and history at Wesleyan and Harvard wind up a medical doctor?  During those two additional years at BFS he also discovered that medicine was his true passion.  “This is a crazy story,” he said, “but during my time in Ethiopia I’d lived through a famine and a war. It was a year of living dangerously, and almost dying a couple of times. As a man put it so plainly to me one day when I was helping him clear ground for planting with just a sharpened stick, ‘you may be the most educated person around here but you can’t do anything.’  I said, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s right.’”

He decided then and there that after he’d completed his so-called higher education he’d learn to do something useful like be an auto mechanic or brick layer.  “Over a six-month period of time people kept telling me I should be a doctor.  I also had a friend in medical school who said, ‘I’ve been meaning to call you. Have you ever thought about going to medical school?'”

The universe seemed to be speaking to him so he listened, despite having to go back to college for pre-med courses.  “I’d have to go back to school and study science and all of this stuff,” he said from his office at the University of Tennessee in Memphis where today he is Medical Director of University Health Services. “I decided to do it.”

As long as he was back in college he also took a full graduate and undergraduate course load.  To test himself before finishing his course work he took the MCAT prematurely, just as a drill to see what he was in for.  He scored so highly that medical schools began asking him to apply.  “I told them I couldn’t apply yet, I hadn’t taken the classes.”  After that, he said, “I went crazy.  I finished all of my pre-med in 1 year.”

He attended medical school in Houston at Baylor College of Medicine, then completed his internship at the University of Pennsylvania hospital in Philadelphia before returning to Memphis to complete his residency at the University of Tennessee.  “I’ve been here ever since, just bringing the skills back home.”

In the end, becoming a doctor fused all of his previous educational experience, both in and outside the classroom.  “It was the skill that brought cultural anthropology and science and people and travel together.  I told my wife this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”