Surgeon-cattleman-golfer now enjoys the art of retiring

By Donna Steph Hansard
Office of News and Publications

In the breezeway between Zale Lipshy University Hospital and the Charles Cameron Sprague Clinical Sciences Building stands a full-figure bronze statute of a physician in a lab coat, titled "The Mentor." An adjacent plaque tells a bit of its story.

The sculpture was created by Dr. Ben J. Wilson, chairman of surgery at UT South western and chief of surgery at Parkland Memorial Hospital from 1952 to 1960 and a resident there in 1950. It was commissioned by Dr. Ronald "Skip" Garvey, then chief executive officer of Zale Lipshy University Hospital but once a student of Dr. Wilson's. The sculpture was funded by Margaret McDermott, a former patient of Dr. Wilson's and chair of Zale Lipshy's art committee.

For Dr. Wilson - an 83-year-old Renaissance man who has exchanged his scalpel for sculpting tools - "The Mentor" serves as a physical representation of his passionate belief in a physician's devotion to his patients, as embodied by his own mentor, Dr. Carl Moyer. Dr. Moyer, who served as an inspiration for the statue, preceded Dr. Wilson as chief of surgery at Park land.

"Even though this sculpture is not C9 an exact portrait of Dr. Carl Moyer, it was the memory of his stature, posture, expression and attitude that guided my modeling hand," Dr. Wilson wrote for the statue's 1992 dedication.

"The attributes and beliefs that were his, I want to keep alive wherever those walk who tend the sick. He demanded that every physician give his utmost, and, as a disciple of Hippocrates, he not only monitored a doctor's actions but also took measure of the person's motives and humanity."

Doctors who served as residents under Dr. Wilson at Parkland said he was just as exacting of his students.

"Dr. Wilson was a superb teacher, both by example and by his in-depth knowledge of the physiology of surgery and disease processes," said Dr. Ernest Poulos, emeritus director of surgical training at St. Paul University Hospital.
"While taciturn, he was implicit, and his teaching messages rang loud and clear. Knowledge was important, but patient responsibility was always paramount."

Dr. Robert McClelland, professor of surgery at UT Southwestern, said: "He was a god to us. He was greatly respected and looked up to. He had piercing blue eyes, and he could fix those eyes on you and make you feel about an inch tall.

"Dr. Wilson was a great teacher because he made you realize how extremely important it was to do your best by the patient under all cir cum stances. The patient came first, and you needed to prepare yourself so that always happened."

"The Mentor" took 10 months to create and is one of several sculptures by Dr. Wilson on the UT Southwestern campus. A self-portrait - a bust commissioned by a group of his former residents - sits in the Department of Surgery. Two other sculptures (Dr. Poulos and the late Dr. M.T. "Pepper" Jenkins, former chair man of anesthesiology at UT South western) are located at St. Paul and in the Department of Anesthesiology, respectively.

Indiana University School of Medicine, Dr. Wilson's alma mater, also commissioned him to make four life-size bronze sculptures of its former deans, a task that "took quite awhile," Dr. Wilson said. Other pieces are in numerous universities, libraries, hospitals and private collections around the country.

Sculpting, which he took up about 15 years ago because he tired of golf, is only one of Dr. Wilson's many talents.

In 1960, he left Texas and Park land to set up a private practice in Grand Junction, Colo., as well as to serve as chief of surgery for St. Mary's Hospital. He also purchased a ranch 60 miles away, where he, his wife and four children lived during the summers and raised Angus cattle and grew feed crops.

"For 20 years I ran a ranch and practiced surgery," he said. "It was a constant learning experience, but one of the stimulants that made the area so appealing. The days were long and sometimes hard, and instead of only reading surgical journals at night, I poured over farm and ranching magazines."

Dr. Wilson retired from medicine and became a full-time rancher in 1976. He bought a homesteader cabin high in the mountains, where he took his cattle to graze in the summers. "It was a rugged existence with no electricity and no neighbors nearby, but in a gorgeous area surrounded by a national forest," he said. "We had cattle round-ups the old-fashioned way. We'd take them up to the high country in the late spring, then bring them back down every fall, as we'd have to abandon the cabin because we'd soon get at least 10 feet of snow. I'd ski up there in the winter to check on things and would ski onto the cabin's rooftop."

Finally, after too many springs repairing fences torn down by the snow, Dr. Wilson reluctantly packed up his boots, put away his farming equipment and retired again. "It was hard to abandon all that, as I loved it," he said. "It was heaven."

For a while, he served as a consultant for Curtiss Breeding Industries in Chicago, assisting with cattle embryo transfers and the company's breeding programs. He and his wife, Nancy, serving as resident managers, also restored Redstone Castle, a 42-room manor near Aspen listed in the National Historic Registry and built for $2.5 million in 1902 by a wealthy industrialist. Eventually, the Wilsons relocated to Phoenix. Today, they own an art studio and gallery in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz.

"We moved to Phoenix to retire and play golf and get away from the snow," Dr. Wilson said. "But after a few years of golf, that really wasn't challenging. I wanted something more."

It was through Nancy - an artist herself - that Dr. Wilson met Helen Blair Crosbie, an internationally renowned sculptor. "I was so impressed with her work and her philosophy of teaching that I asked her if she would mind taking on a rank amateur like me," Dr. Wilson said. "She agreed, and I began taking lessons, and we hit it off."

Dr. Wilson was surprised to find that his knowledge of anatomy also paid off in sculpting. His first attempt, "Male Torso," was good enough to be committed to bronze and was purchased by the Phoenix newspaper's art critic. Since then, his career as an artist has flourished.

Not only does he create "portrait" bronze sculptures - or likenesses of individuals, often from only looking at old photographs - Dr. Wilson also designs stone carvings such as his marble figure entitled "Compassion" at St. Mary's Hospital. The piece depicts a woman kneeling, her head bent in despair, while a hand extends to her in an act of compassion. The hand is that of a surgeon's, Dr. Wilson said.

"Devotion to patient care and the integrity of the doctor are the primary ingredients of good medical care in any era, for such a motivated physician will always be learning and applying the science of his time," he said.
For many of his former students, Dr. Wilson will forever stand as their mentor.

"His art and bronze creations will be long lasting and in time, may be the only areas in which he will be remembered," Dr. Poulos said. "How ever, in the minds and hearts of the surgeons he trained and created, Dr. Wilson will be best remembered for the relief of sick people through the method of imparting knowledge and attitudes to those he inspired."