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Noteworthy graduate: Lawrence Mohr, physician to two presidents

New York Teacher
Lawrence Mohr, in a wheelchair

Watching medical shows on TV, a young Lawrence Mohr thought “how neat it was that physicians could use science in their everyday lives to help people.” A summer job at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Institute in 1966 after his freshman year at the University of North Carolina sparked his interest in medical research. But after he skipped a semester of college to continue his research at the institute, Mohr was drafted into the Army. When he went to Vietnam in 1968, he “had a lot of time to think” about his next step. Returning home, the Staten Island native decided “medicine was a good blend between my love of science and my love of people” and combined those “in a way that made a difference.” A love of learning nurtured in city public schools and especially the writing skills he gained there served Mohr well as he pursued a medical career. Now a much-decorated veteran, Mohr got his M.D. courtesy of hard work and an Army program. He did post-graduate training at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and was on staff there before he became the White House physician in 1987. Married with a daughter, Mohr was reluctant to accept the time-consuming commitment. But President Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff Howard Baker told Mohr “what I wanted was really not important and President Reagan wanted to see me.” The rest is history. “I was there at a fascinating time with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall coming down. Experiencing all of that at very close range was incredible,” Mohr says. After serving Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, Mohr took a job at the Medical University of South Carolina, where, for more than two decades, he has been involved in patient care, teaching and research. Today, after a fall at his home, he does his teaching — and inspiring — from a wheelchair.

I went to PS 13 in Rosebank, the same K–8 school my father and my grandfather went to. My kindergarten teacher, Miss Medway, was also my father’s kindergarten teacher. She knew the whole family. She was a great person and everybody loved her. She was talented and energetic and fun.

It was the 1950s, and it was a much different time. Miss Medway used to play the piano and we would sing. Of course, we’d start every day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and we’d sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” It was obvious Miss Medway really loved her students and wanted them to do the very best they could. She laid the foundation for school being a positive experience.

My 6th-grade teacher was Mrs. Berglund. I was really enjoying science at that point. At home, we had World Book encyclopedias and I was a voracious reader. I did a report — it was probably pretty good thinking at the time — on how gasoline was produced from crude oil. I remember writing that if oil comes from the ground, then someday it’s going to run out, and we have to think about what we’re going to do then. One day, Mrs. Berglund just declared, “You’ve got special talents. You’re going to be a scientist or an engineer.” And I said OK. At 8th-grade graduation, I got the science medal.

Then I went to Curtis HS, where I was a yearbook editor for my Class of 1965. It was a great school with a lot of bright kids who were really fun to be around and really fun to learn from. Probably the most important thing I learned at Curtis was how to write. It helped me so much on exams, in college and throughout my life. I used to tell people, “I don’t think I’m a lot smarter than most, but I know how to write.” I really treasure my experience in Honors English with Mrs. Letzler, Mrs. Trafusse and Miss Fava. Learning how to write well has been a key part of my success.

I was also in Honors math and science. I enjoyed everything. For a while I did think I wanted to be an engineer. I like to draw, too, so I thought maybe I’d be an architect.

In those days, boys had to wear a shirt and tie to school. If you didn’t have a tie, you would go see Mr. Fanning, the assistant principal, and he would give you a tie. It wasn’t heavy-handed, but it was a pretty disciplined environment. You had to do what you were supposed to do when you were supposed to do it — or face the consequences. It was about self-respect and showing respect for your teachers and your classmates.

As a university teacher, I really care about my students. I try to teach them both through talking with them and, I like to think, through my example, about the importance of resilience. It’s important to be able to face difficult challenges and pick yourself up and move on.

Probably the most important thing I can do at my age is help the next generation be prepared because they’ve gotten dealt a pretty tough hand.

— as told to reporter Suzanne Popadin

Related Topics: Noteworthy Grads