Remembering Dr. Levi Watkins: When Great Trees Fall

LeviLevi Watkins, M.D., (1944-2015) was a medical pioneer, civil rights trailblazer and founder of Johns Hopkins' annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration in 1982. How do you remember Dr. Watkins? Did he perform surgery on a loved one, share a laugh with you, mentor you or provide guidance in your career?

Leave a comment below to share your memories of Dr. Watkins.

Listen to Dr. Watkins' remarks at the 2015 MLK Commemoration about tolerance and his introduction of a tribute to Maya Angelou.

View a brief video from Selwyn Vickers, who in 2013 became the first
African-American senior vice president and dean of the University of Alabama at
Birmingham School of Medicine, of how Dr. Watkins made a difference his medical career.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }


Joseph Conrod Sr. April 20, 2015 at 10:24 am

I was inspired by Dr. Watkins many years ago as the African American surgeon implanting the first automatic heart defibrillator. This was long before I became a member of JHM. I became more connected with the Hopkins institution due to his achievement. As an African American myself, I was proud of this enormous achievement that is everlasting in cardiac care. His accomplishment gave me hope as well as others that one day we could be able to make some sort of an impact on this society. It ultimately lead me to being involved in diversity and inclusion, and the strong notion that if you provide opportunity for all to succeed, the world can truly benefit. Dr. Watkins is a shining example of that notion. At that time, I never imagined that one day I would ultimately be working for the same institution and meeting him in person. I am honored to just have been in his presence. His legacy will truly live forever.


peggy wiley April 16, 2015 at 5:38 pm

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Watkins several years ago while working here at Johns Hopkins. What I will keep with me forever is the day Mrs. Coretta Scott King came for the MLK service and Dr. Watkins ask that I do the escort with him. I not only had the honor of being with him but I met Mrs. King, because of him. She held my hand and gave me a hug, then Dr. Watkins invited me into the room with him and her before she was to give a very powerful speech. He was and is a man of not only honor he has great diginity as well. It is my honor to have met him and to have worked with him.


Lauretta Jones RRT/RN April 16, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Alway a southern gentleman.Humble sevant of our lord God. Dr. Levi truely represented medicine and GOD well.Everytime we saw each other in passing ,I was greeted with a smile and sometimes a hug, always chivelrous,He would say Still Kicking but not high(southern saying) Proud to have known him.Dr. Levi Watkins will truely be missed


Sharon Jackson April 16, 2015 at 9:26 am

I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Watkins in the Adult Consultation Clinic from 1976-1982. I did the EKG's on his heart patients after their surgery. I always knew he was the surgeon, because all of his patients chest healed with a straight clean thin line. We used to call the line a straight zipper. I saw him walking to the Weinberg Building a week before he passed. He always would shake my hand and say it's good to see you today. But the last time I seen him he hugged me instead of a hand shake. And when I heard of his death, I though Oh God that was his way of saying goodbye to me. I was hurt and deeply suddened when I heard the news. He will be missed. My prayers for your family during this difficult time.


LESLIE KENNEDY April 16, 2015 at 6:49 am

My prayers go to the family of DR. LEVY WATKINS . GOD BLESS YOU ALL


LESLIE KENNEDY April 16, 2015 at 6:48 am



Irv Birenbaum CCP April 15, 2015 at 11:49 pm

I worked in cardiac surgery with Dr. Watkins from the time when he was chief resident to the time he retired from surgery. I have known few people as noble as Dr. Watkins. He was a man of myriad accomplishments in the OR and in the world at large. A skilled and innovative surgeon, he was also a champion of social justice. One thing that stands large in my mind was his zeal for the education of underprivileged young people. My wife, who at the time was a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, asked me if I could have Dr. Watkins come and speak to her classes about his experiences with Dr. King as part of a program for Black History Month program. Dr. Watkins was a man who spoke to heads of state and university audiences, and I thought he might find speaking to an auditorium full of middle school students somewhat less than important. I carried my wife's request to Dr. Watkins and he said unhesitatingly "Brother I will be there. Anytime your wife wants me to speak to poor children just ask and I will be there." And oh my the talk he gave just rocked the house! He gave many talks to many of my wife's students over the years, and when he arranged for Bishop Tutu to come and address the MLK day celebration at JHH he made certain that a number of my wife's middle schoolers could attend. They talked about this event for years, and I am sure it was a life changing experience for all of them.

Rest easy Dr. Watkins. You blazed many paths and you made positive changes in many fields. We shall not see your like again soon.


CAROLYN WEBB April 15, 2015 at 11:10 am



Betty Gibula April 15, 2015 at 10:35 am

I spent countless hours over the years in the Carnegie GOR Waiting Room awaiting news of a family members multiple surgeries performed there. As you sit in that Waiting Room, you see the families of patients sitting long hours, wondering, hoping and hopefully gaining relief that their family member pulled through, would be healthy again. During those hours spent, I have the most vivid memory of two brilliant physicians, Dr. Levi Watkins and Dr. Benjamin Carson. Why do I single them out you might ask? Well, there were many physicians who entered the waiting room to report on the outcome of surgeries, some physicians did not even walk into the room, they summoned the stressed family members into the hall for a few quick sentences about the fate of their loved ones. However, there were two brilliant surgeons who exhibited the most compassion. Every time they walked into the room to report on a loved one, the very first thing they did was to ask the family to pray with them before even uttering a word about the patient's status or outcome. You do not see that every sit in awe of these two skilled men. Dr. Watkins was a mentor, an example for all physicians to follow and a great teacher. He was taken from us too soon.


Avery Spitz RN April 15, 2015 at 8:57 am

I met him one time in Fells Point at a restaurant and when he learned that my co-worker and I were also Johns Hopkins employees, he stayed and chatted with us for awhile. He gave us his business card and said call or stop by. I believe he meant it. Seeing him on campus he always said hello, smiled and made you feel important (even though inside you were jelly due to his status). I am blessed to have gotten a warm hello and smile like I was the only person in the world, just 2 weeks ago. Thank you Dr. Watkins, your Hopkins family will miss you.


Sandy (Fogwell) Alsruhe April 15, 2015 at 7:09 am

I was so suprised yesterday when I saw the email that Dr Levin Watkins had passed away. What a wonderful and caring man he was. After all these years I still tell people about how wonderful he was with my family. I meet Dr. Watkins back in the mid 70's when my father was brought to Hopkins due to a heart attack. On a Saturday night Dr Watkins sat with my family telling us what he would be doing on Sunday during the surgery giving my dad a 10% chance. After being on his feet for 8 - 9 hours of surgery he came and advised my father had made it through the surgery. I did not realize I had questions. He could tell though. He stood at a gurney outside the waiting room area for 1/2 hour answering my questions without an hesitation. What a wonderful man he was. My dad was the third person he placed the auto defibulator into. We saw him for the next 7 months due to the complications my dad had. He was wonderful each time we saw him. I loved to see his eyes light up when he smiled and talked to us. He was always willing to answer questions. He taught me that if I had questions not be afraid to ask them as that was how we would learn and understand what was going on. I have asked many questions of doctors and others since then and have learned much. Thank you for sharing your love of medicine and skills that God gave to you to so many. Dr. Watkins you wil be missed. My prayers for your family during this difficult time. May the peace and love of God be with them.


jeanette sporer April 14, 2015 at 6:40 pm

I remembered DR.Watkins when he did my mother's cardiac surgery in 1984.He was a dynamic person.We all loved him as a people person and physician.He would always call my mom superwoman whenever he saw her at johns hopkins hospital.I will miss him greatly.This is a great loss to me and my family.God bless Dr.Watkins....


eric holmes April 14, 2015 at 4:18 pm

My sincere condolences to the family of Dr. Watkins. He was a trailblazer and a legend. A pioneer and an icon. Always a inspiration and man full of wisdom. I was one of those employees to receive the MLK award which was a honor. I appreciate all he brought to the JHH Medical Instiutions.

Dr. Eric Holmes


Swann Nciweni April 14, 2015 at 4:17 pm

A moderator, presenter, speaker, professor, renowned African American surgeon, civil rights advocate, challenger of the status quo, dreamer defender and esteem builder...

I cannot say enough about one man who was so inspirational. I had the honor of receiving the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award in 2012. I was thankful to be able to stand on the shoulders of many great people who helped me realize my innate potential. I will carry my award as a badge of honor because I am in the company great people.

Dr. Watkins, has left a legacy for all of us to rise up against injustice and marginalization. I believe that because of his tireless efforts to advocate for change, equality, and human rights, Dr. Watkins will forever be love and missed. Dr. Watkins exemplified the passionate pursuit of equality for others by recognizing the many contributions of everyday people especially those in undeserved communities. Armed with a mission to eliminate social disparities through advocacy, Dr. Watkins will remain a viable presence in the medical community and beyond. Dr. Watkins, your power and your legacy will live on in my heart. I only hope to be 1/10th of the catalyst for change and empowerment that you were.

Three weeks I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Watkins. As we strolled through the outpatient center, we discussed the recent commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Alabama march. I felt proud to be able to talk to Dr. Watkins and just before we departed, I yelled as loud as I could "Thank you for all you've done!"



Aria Sutton April 14, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Dr. Watkins was a wonderful and brilliant person. I met him when I first came to the main campus in 2011 and his office was across the hall from where I worked. I had seen pictures of him and heard about his work but nothing meant more than meeting him. He took the time to talk to me and encouraged me to continue to reach my goals. I saw him a few weeks ago and he greeted me with his warm smile. His smile meant something wonderful to me. He always had a way of making you feel good just by seeing him. I will miss his presence on the campus.


Shirley Long April 14, 2015 at 3:49 pm

I was so in awe of Dr. Levi from the moment I met him. He was just such a "nice" person all around, always had time to say hi in the halls of Johns Hopkins or anywhere on or aff campus where you would see him, he always had time for a short chat. But most of all, I owe him for more years with my Mother, whom he operated on for a triple bypass. Without his intervention, I would have lost her much sooner that I did. My heartfelt sorrow goes out to his family. I will forever be indebted to him for the extra years he gave me with my Mother. God has taken the best from us and to have for his own. I will keep his family and friends in my thoughts and prayers. May God Be With You Always. Shirley Long


Bronita Neal April 14, 2015 at 3:48 pm

To his Family I'd like to extend my deepest condolences. Dr Watkins will be missed! I'll miss his infectous smile while talking with him as we walked the halls of the hospital. A wealth of knowledge, stickler for professionalism and a very gentle spirit. Rest in Paradise Dr. Watkins


Alison Dimick April 14, 2015 at 3:41 pm

I met him for the first time a few years ago in Canton with my sisters. He loved that fact that the 4 of us were out together and that our mom was in her 80's and was still working and independant. Whenever I would see him he never failed to have a warm hug and ask about my mom. He was a true gentleman and a wonderful person. I did take the time this year to go to the MLK celebration and see his portait unveiled. I am so glad that I did and will have to go find where it hs been hung. It is very apparent already how much you will be missed.


Betty H. Addison April 14, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Dr. Levi Watkins was an excellent role model, showing intelligence, strength, love of Black people; love for all people. I was privileged for several years to serve on the MLK Memorial Committee at JHMI, and had the opportunity to meet many of his nationally- and internationally-known colleagues. Levi always had kind words, and was never too busy to stop and chat. I recall the JHU Black Faculty and Staff Association honoring him in 2010 with the Yates Award; I was honored to have presented it to him. I am saddened at the loss of this great pioneer, the work that he did for the betterment of humankind, his many accomplishments, and his commitment to the people of color at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. My condolences to his family.

With sincere gratitude for your life,


Melinda Thomas April 14, 2015 at 11:49 am

Losing someone who was brilliant, gifted, talented, kind and compassionate is very difficult to overcome. News of Dr. Watkins’ passing hit hard. I asked why? Why Dr. Watkins? He had so much to accomplish, so much to give, so much unfinished business. In total disbelief, I found myself late into the evening on Saturday, searching for video presentations featuring Dr. Watkins. I wanted to hear him again, be inspired again, remember what he stood for and in that moment, I wanted to feel connected to his inspirational words.

I attended the annual MLK commemoration events not just to listen to the celebrity speakers but more so, to hear Dr. Watkins. I was guaranteed a teachable moment followed by some good humor. I always wondered what I’d say to him, if I got close enough. In 2012, I got close enough and just said “hi Dr. Watkins!” He stood for what he believed in and that’s has inspired me and I’m sure countless others to do the same. Dr. Watkins’ legacy will live on. The world has lost a great and humble human being. He’s gone to the great beyond. May he rest in Eternal peace.


Janet Anderson April 14, 2015 at 10:41 am

Dr. Watkins put a lot of thought into the selection of the speakers and theme of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. The planning meetings were always enjoyable, especially when he shared amusing stories of Thanksgiving dinners at the home of Maya Angelou, his friend who spoke at two commemorations (before my time). I'm glad I was able to celebrate the unveiling of his portrait with the hundreds of "his closest friends" in the packed Turner Auditorium this January and to hear him say "I love y'all." What a great, humble man he was, who recognized you warmly regardless of your title or position at Johns Hopkins!


Judy Minkove April 14, 2015 at 10:24 am

I was deeply saddened to learn about Levi Watkins’ untimely death. Over the past several years, I had the privilege of working with him on the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorations. From the outset, I was struck by his warmth, insightfulness and Southern charm. Despite Levi’s esteemed position and brilliance, I witnessed how he treated people from all walks of life with respect and compassion.

It was such a pleasure watching Levi preside over the MLK event planning committee. In his lilting voice, he would share updates and humorous anecdotes from past interactions with celebrity guests. One of my fondest memories was when he introduced me to his beloved friend Maya Angelou, who spoke at the 2007 MLK event.

But my most poignant memory—one I will never forget—was listening to a voicemail Levi left for me in the summer of 2012 to express condolences on the loss of my 28-year-old daughter. He said he hoped I would take comfort in “sister Maya’s words.” And then, in all his eloquence, he recited Maya’s famous poem, “When Great Trees Fall.” I listened to that message over and over again and am getting choked up now, realizing that he, too, was a great tree and a dear friend, whom I will sorely miss.

After Maya died, The Baltimore Sun featured a long article about Levi Watkins’ longstanding friendship with her. The story ended with Levi quoting from that very poem to honor her legacy. I am sharing her words again now, in tribute to Levi. I feel so grateful to have known him. May he rest in peace, and may we always be inspired by his example.

When Great Trees Fall
by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.


Deborah Mcclary April 14, 2015 at 12:40 pm

wow so awesome. getting ready to look for it in print.


Darnell Williams April 14, 2015 at 10:16 am

I have been deeply saddened by the passing of Levi Watkins, someone I placed in a category of hero and friend....terms I do not use loosely. I knew of Levi before coming to work here at Hopkins in 1984, and since that time in the 31 years as an employee, I grew to know him well. It all started because I had been following this gifted surgeon's work in any article that I found. I learned that he was not only a gifted and pioneering surgeon, but was also a champion of civil and equal rights. I met Levi probably around 1986 walking in the hallway in the JH Hospital. He was on his way to a meeting but simply said "walk with me". I was in awe. I told him I was proud as a black man who grew up in the 60's in Baltimore to see the things he was doing to affect change. We couldn't talk long that day but that conversation led to many more over the years. When he saw me he would simply say "hey brother Darnell", what's happening. He was so uplifting and encouraging to others. He spoke softly but his words did not land on deaf ears. For as much as he had accomplished, he was a regular brother who made everyone matter and feel worthy. Rest peacefully brother Levi. Your giant heart will always be remembered.


Kimberly Brown/Anna Triolo April 14, 2015 at 10:09 am

Dr. Levi Watkins was a wonderful kind man. My sister Anna and I knew him personally and we loved to hear his stories of his family and his growing up as a bi-racial child living in the south. We loved to hear him talk of his famous friends including Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou. He was a man with dignity and class and we will certainly miss him. I'm sure we will see you again and you will have new wonderful stories to tell. Bless you.


Amy Goodwin April 14, 2015 at 10:09 am

I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Watkins on the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. He was always kind to me and to my colleagues on the marketing and communications team. He ran a tight meeting and kept everyone on task while making us laugh along the way. He knew how to get things done and lived with passion and enthusiasm; he will be very much missed.


Deborah Mcclary April 14, 2015 at 8:40 am

I remember Dr. Levi Watkins, I did not know him personally but I remember seeing him in the halls of Johns Hopkins and the elevators and I always felt overwhelmed with admiration for this man. I would always muster up a Hi Dr. Watkins, and he would smile warmly and return the greeting. I would just feel so honored but he looked at me and I would feel like a friend and equal colleague. I am going to miss knowing that Dr. Watkins is somewhere in the building. There is another empty space that is only replaced by the continued closeness of the Johnns Hopkins Family. I was fortunate to had shared the same space as the gentle giant of a man, the distinguised Levi Watkins. I will miss him.


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