Living

Obituary: David Cromwell Jenkins, M.D., D.F.C.

There has never been anybody remotely like David Jenkins. He enriched the lives of everyone he met, and none will ever forget his kindness, his gentleness, his erudition coupled with self-effacement, or his quick wit.

David was born Aug. 10, 1921, in Sale, a suburb of Manchester, England, to Maybel Lowe Jenkins, a pediatric nurse, and Charles Evans Jenkins, a physician. Maybel and Charles had suffered the loss of a one day old daughter two years prior to David’s birth, thus he was particularly precious to them. A sister, Mary Gwendolen Cromwell Jenkins, known as Mollie, was born in 1923.

David suffered adversity in childhood. Born left-handed, it was thought to be beneficial to force him to use his right hand instead. Perhaps as a result he developed a pronounced stammer, and was cruelly teased by other children. Another cataclysm was the sudden and unexpected death of his mother, when David was 13 and Mollie 11. For the rest of their lives, David and Mollie would say “that was before mother’s death, “ or “that was after mother’s death” – it was the signal event from which all others were dated.

When he was 11, a neighbor took David to see Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Cobham’s Flying Circus in nearby Wythenshawe. The air show featured Flying Fleas, aircraft that amateur enthusiasts could build from a mail order kit, using wooden packing crates and a 10 horsepower automobile engine. David was entranced by the planes, and aviation became a lifelong passion. Even when he was very old, the sound of a plane overhead would make David immediately halt and squint up at the sky, trying to determine the make and model of the craft.

Another passion was the sea, fueled by annual summer visits to friends in his favorite place – Largo, on the Fife coast of Scotland. He liked to quote Kenneth Grahame: “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats, “ and he never went to any coast without keeping close tabs on the tide tables.

After his mother’s death, David was sent to board at Clifton College in Bristol. There at age 13 he met George Gibbs, and they remained best friends for life. They were both passionate sportsmen, excelling at cricket and rugby, and playing team sports as Old Cliftonians well into middle age.

In 1940, the Luftwaffe began its campaign of bombing London (the “Blitz”), and David volunteered to join the Royal Air Force. He was rejected by the interviewer because of his stammer. But, he had memorized the questions that were asked, and he wrote them down and devised answers that lacked the consonants that gave him trouble. He then went to Padgate, many miles away, and volunteered there. This time the stammer was not detected, and he was accepted. Young men were encouraged to keep fit and perform volunteer work as they waited to be called to active service, and David worked for six months in the Forest of Dean, cutting pit props to reinforce coal mines as part of the war effort. In 1941 the R.A.F. formally inducted him at Lord’s Cricket Ground, which served as the Aircrew Receiving Center.

He was fond of recalling that the R.A.F. mess was in Regent’s Park Zoo; the animals had been moved to the countryside for their protection. He was sent to South Africa to learn to fly, traveling by ship in a convoy from Liverpool to Durban. The voyage took six weeks due to detours required to evade German U-boats. Once in South Africa, David trained on Tiger Moths, a fabric covered biplane. He loved the time he spent there, and in his spare time he flew solo over the unspoiled countryside of what would later be called Zimbabwe, observing the great herds of elephants and giraffes. He was awarded his “wings” in 1943 and after several training assignments he joined 115 Squadron, based in Witchford, near Ely. The squadron had about 30 Lancasters, a four engine aircraft that was the R.A.F.’s main heavy bomber. During the course of the war, over 7,000 Lancasters were built; each typically lasted only three weeks. In 1943 an R.A.F. bomber crew had a 16% chance of surviving a full tour of duty (30 missions). 115 was a night- bombing squadron, carrying a mixture of high-explosive bombs and incendiary bombs.

David always wore his pajamas under his uniform, as it was bitterly cold. Aircrew carried a small box, known as “Pandora’s box, “ which contained rations, maps, and currency, in case they were shot down over enemy territory. A file was sewn into the pocket of their jackets, under the wings insignia, and one fly-button of their trousers was a tiny compass with a luminous dot pointing north. Each Lancaster had a crew of seven, and David’s crew always praised his skill, his courage, and his calmness under fire. He completed a full tour of 30 missions, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He would never speak of the incident for which he received this decoration, and if you asked, he would say, “Oh, they were handed out with the rations.” In his 70s he tracked down his crew and a reunion was held in Weston-super-Mare. His air gunner/wireless operator Harry Rossiter then became a close friend for life.

Of the 125,000 airmen who flew with Bomber Command, 55,573 were killed. Counting the wounded and the captured, the casualty rate was 60%, much higher than that even for infantry soldiers in World War I. Fewer than 1,000 veterans of Bomber Command are still living. Debates over the morality of the bombing, especially those raids that took place very close to the end of the war, prevented the honoring of bomber crews for decades. A memorial to them was finally unveiled in London in 2012, and The Times (London), noted that “These men were, are, and always will be heroes.”

Those who learned of David’s service as a bomber pilot tried to talk to him about his experiences, but he never would do so. The deaths of his comrades, and of an estimated 600,000 German civilians, sickened him, and he found those memories almost unendurable. Those who worked with him in later years will recall that when one said to David, “Good night, “ he never replied: “Good night.” He always said: “Peace.”

During the war David met Annette Evill, an officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force, and they fell deeply in love. “She was a spellbinder, “ he recalled. “A real crackerjack.” Through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications that would have been easily resolved had they only had cell phones, she married another, and David was heartbroken. Happily married for 50 years, upon her husband’s death Annette contacted David; they met again in London and in Kansas City, and their friendship lasted until her death.

After the war David was offered a position as a flying instructor with the R.A.F.’s Empire Flying School, which trained military pilots. This was a highly sought after honor, and David enjoyed teaching all of the risky skills; landing with one engine turned off; with two engines turned off; how to feather the propeller if an engine was on fire. A fellow instructor actually performed barrel rolls with the 36,000 lb. Lancaster, and David always maintained that the only proper training for a pilot was military training. Whenever he heard of the crash of a modern heavily computerized civilian aircraft he would remark: “It’s a good idea to look out the windshield occasionally.” Although he loved flying, a career in medicine called to him as well, and he graduated from the London School of Medicine with an M.D. degree in 1953. He then studied clinical medicine and clinical pathology. He also spent a year in Newcastle, studying pediatric neurology.

He loved children and they were perennially attracted by his gentle manner and eccentric charm. David and Mollie’s father died unexpectedly in 1953, after a two-day illness. Although he was an admired and hard-working physician, of whom David liked to remark approvingly: “He never took a day’s vacation in his whole life, “ he died with 5,000 pounds in debt; an enormous sum. David and Mollie proceeded to pay this off, living in a tiny apartment with other young friends. The move to this new location required David to move his cherished aquarium, which he transported, half-full, on the London Tube. He and Mollie then lived together in Crediton Hill, accompanied by their father’s Sealyham Nip, and their cat Lucy.

David was a devoted member of The Hampstead Cricket Club, and articles in the Ham and High describe his prowess as a spin bowler. In 1961, aged 40, David decided to do something different and undertake a two year research project at the University of Kansas Medical Center. In fact he remained in Kansas City for the next 53 years. Due to the strictness of American licensing rules, he was obliged to repeat his residency in Pathology.

He then joined the faculty of K.U.M.C. in the Department of Pathology, specializing in Microbiology. He taught medical technologists, nurses, medical students, and residents, and his amusing and erudite lectures were much admired – quite an achievement for a man who once struggled from a crippling stammer. He lived in a modest apartment across the street from the hospital and rode his bike most places. He was a founding member of the Kansas City Rugby Club, wearing the Number 2 jersey.

He coached not only rugby but cricket, and traveled to St. Louis for matches, although he always maintained that the 11th Commandment was “Do not attempt to explain cricket to Americans.” With a friend he bought a small sailboat which he raced at Lake Quivira. He was a strong proponent of exercise, and never drove when he could walk, and never took an elevator when he could climb - or, actually, run - up stairs. He relished canoeing in the Ozarks and went on annual trips for over 25 years with the River Rats, whose members were drawn from the Department of Pathology and their friends and neighbors. He believed that team sports promote unselfishness as well as health, and quoted the dean of his medical school who said “It’s not the few who play sports well who matter. It is the many who play badly, and enjoy it.” He deplored the corruption of amateurism, or “shamateurism” as he termed it.

David was honorable and upright in everything he did. He refused to accept even a free meal at corporate sponsored seminars, and would not own pharmaceutical stocks because he felt it was a conflict of interest for a physician, even one who did not prescribe. He kept a careful ledger of his expenditures, and from his first months in Kansas City, he would buy a $25 share of a dividend bearing stock, and, to balance this, write a $25 check to charity. Generous with charities and with friends, he was notoriously frugal in his personal spending, wearing the same threadbare and ink stained sport coat for decades. Though he enjoyed golf, he would only play on public courses, using a set of clubs so ancient that the head of one flew off when he struck the ball. His winter coat had been his father’s, and his dinner jacket (”tuxedo”) was made in 1948. When he wore it he was invariably the best dressed man in the room.

David loved the natural world; when asked once what could he not live without, he replied: “the green grass, the blue sky, the sea, and clouds.” He was an environmentalist and conservationist before those terms were in common use. To maximize gas mileage he deliberately bought cars without air conditioning, despite 100 degree summers; he preferred to start from a halt in third gear, and he drove his cars until they were nearly antiques.

On his vacations in Largo he would spend hours tidying up the beach, bringing 30 gallon trash bags with him from America and filling them with litter left by holiday makers. When a colleague was unjustly fired, David resigned from the K.U.M.C. faculty in protest. The colleague found a new and better job in California almost immediately, and offered David a position. David preferred to remain in Kansas City, and was unemployed for 18 months. He then joined the faculty of The University of Missouri School of Medicine, Kansas City. He was enthusiastic about the school’s emphasis on early exposure to clinical medicine, and was a great admirer of its founder E. Grey Dimond. Following his tenure at U.M.K.C., David became Associate Medical Director of Community Blood Center. He was to be found in his office seven days a week, and he was particularly proud of the Apheresis Department. No one will ever forget his lectures on the physiology of transfusion, and his description of the “soggy doggies.” His lectures were delivered in his beautiful sonorous deep voice and upper class British accent, which was unaltered by decades in America.

If you closed your eyes you could imagine that Laurence Olivier was speaking, but when you opened them you would note that David was wearing some rumpled and dissonant collection of shabby clothes, and rubbing his back against a pillar like a horse. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature, and he could quote long passages from Shakespeare, Keats, and W.S. Gilbert, and did so, often. He also knew by heart a number of racy songs which he had learned in the R.A.F. This led to some interesting times in church in his later years, as some were set to hymn tunes, and on occasion David would accidentally launch into the wrong set of lyrics.

While at Community Blood Center David acquired the friends who formed the nucleus of The Breakfast Group, originally composed of Dave Wristen, Gary Tegtmeier, and Bill Barnes, with later additions of Malcolm Beck, Jane Rachel, and Fred Plapp. The Breakfast Group (motto: “Long may it dine”) has met weekly for lunch and breakfast for 35 years, and at one time traveled together internationally. When David became unable to drive, another BG member would drive him to the restaurant, and when he became bedfast, lunch moved to his bedroom, and this continued for years.

The BG delighted in telling famous David anecdotes, and adopted some of his catch phrases (”What? NO! Monstrous!”) Although he never had children, David had several “families”: his Breakfast Group Family, his Holder Family, his Gibbs family, and his small but devoted blood family. He acquired his Holder family in 1969, when his colleague Tom Holder and wife Kathryn moved to England with their children so that Tom could pursue a research position. David introduced them to his sister Mollie and to all of their British friends, and trans-Atlantic bonds were formed which are still strong. He was an avuncular figure to their children, who returned his affection.

His close relationship with his best friend George Gibbs continued after George’s marriage to Janice, and David was never happier than when ensconced in an armchair in the Gibbs living room, looking over the Clifton “Register” with George. Although he was formally godfather to their eldest daughter Alison, he was de facto godfather to all of the young Gibbses: Fiona, Neil, and Rachel, and he saw them whenever he returned to his beloved Clifton. His blood family dwindled down to the children of his cousins, Sheila and Mostyn, and he was especially close to Sheila’s daughter Rowena and her husband Mike. He was very proud of Rowena’s son Marcus Bethel, and was over the moon when Marcus developed a passion for cricket. A great sorrow for David was the death of his sister, Mollie, on Sept. 17, 1996, after an illness of 11 months. During this period he spent many weeks in England caring for her.

In 1982 he met Deborah Borek, who was taking a fellowship in Transfusion Medicine at Community Blood Center. A passionate Anglophile since childhood, she felt she had met Lord Peter Wimsey in the flesh, and pursued him doggedly for years. They married Nov. 15, 1997. In an interview with the Kansas City Times in 1965, David deplored the fact that American men marry younger than their British counterparts, a custom which he felt was damaging to sport, as “the heart of the team game is the bachelor.” One cannot say that he did not practice what he preached, as he remained a bachelor until he was 76.

David and Debbie’s 17 year marriage was a happy one, although marred by the death of many of David’s dearest friends and, later, by his own increasing infirmity. Active and independent all his life, David found the physical limitations of age especially distressing. In his 70s he completed an Outward Bound course in Rockland, Maine. Participants lived for a week on an open sailboat, with only a tarpaulin for protection, and conducted capsizing and righting practices and man overboard drills. On land, they rappelled down cliff faces.

In his late 70s he was still jogging and competing in 5 and 10K races, traveling internationally, and bare- boating on sailboats with Debbie and friends in the British Virgin Islands and in the south of France. He was the navigator on these voyages, and his early training in the R.A.F. served him well. Despite his age his pilot’s vision never failed him, and he was always the first to spot other vessels, dolphins, or approaching weather. He was a man who always seemed many years younger than his chronological age. But, when he turned 82, he developed Parkinson’s Disease, and suddenly, despite the expert care of his neurologist Dr. Irene Bettinger, he was every bit of 82.

David was a religion to his many friends. For his surprise 80th birthday party in London, guests came from America, and for his surprise 90th birthday party in Kansas City, guests traveled from other states and from England. Over 100 people attended the latter celebration. He was so guileless and trusting that the same ruse (”we’re going out to lunch with some friends”) sufficed for both occasions. After age 90 he rarely left the house, but continued to enjoy reading the newspapers, watching golf, and being visited by friends, whose loyalty never flagged. Knowing of David’s sweet tooth, they came bearing cookies, pastries, gummi bears, and macaroons, and David would stretch out a stealthy hand and devour them.

His friends Jill and Pat Hardman were always thinking of books, lectures, or programs that David might enjoy, and visited him frequently. Old though he was, he still loved to see a pretty woman, and nothing perked him up like visits from his friend Ann and his beloved “Yum-Yum”. Though he professed indifference to his wife’s dog and two cats, he cuddled them and talked baby talk to them when he thought himself unobserved.

He was able to stay in his home until the end, thanks to years of loving and devoted round the clock care by Y. Kono Garba, Director of Metrocare Staffing L.L.C., and his colleagues Anita, Bayron, Gideon, Godfrey, Simon, Solomon, Martin and Victor. David died on January 9, 2015, of aspiration pneumonia complicating Parkinson’s Disease. He will be cremated by the Cremation Society of Kansas and Missouri, and his ashes buried at Brooklands Cemetery, Sale, England, adjacent to those of his parents and sister. A party in celebration of his life will be held in the Spring.

David’s favorite charities were City Union Mission, Special Olympics, Outward Bound, Habitat for Humanity (for which he volunteered in retirement), Kansas City Public Television, and, in the U.K., The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and friends may make contributions in his honor, but should not feel obliged to do so. They honored him more than amply during his lifetime.

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