From doctor to teacher, William Legg is still a healer at 93

William Legg has done woodworking as a hobby for at least six decades. He’s holding an ornament he made, consisting of three pieces that fit together to form the one ornament.
William Legg has done woodworking as a hobby for at least six decades. He’s holding an ornament he made, consisting of three pieces that fit together to form the one ornament. Special to The Star

William Legg has been a fixture at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences for 15 years, but he started fixing people as an osteopathic physician in 1953.

That’s the year Legg, who is 93, graduated from The Kansas City College of Osteopathy and Surgery, KCUMB’s name at the time. He then went into practice in Gladstone with another physician and became affiliated with North Kansas City Hospital in 1972.

When he was fresh out of medical school, he did his own X-rays and lab work, he said. In the first 25 years of his practice, he delivered 200 to 300 babies and made hundreds of house calls.

He retired as a physician in 1999 after a 46-year career. Shortly thereafter, he got a call from KCUMB, asking if he’d like to help out.

“I said yes, and here I am.”

Legg strolls around the university’s osteopathic manipulative medicine lab one day a week — using a walker these days — while students do their work. At times, he steps in with hands-on instruction.

“I assist the professor in helping the students understand what they’re trying to do,” he said.

He also serves as a mentor for the students in other areas of their lives.

“If they have something else wrong with them — having problems at home or having problems with husbands or something like that — I’ll talk to them,” he said.

Jennifer Roberts Merriman has talked with Legg a lot in the past four years. A St. Louis-area native and a fourth-year student at KCUMB, Merriman is set to graduate in May and plans to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.

“He helped me decide what I want to do, which is osteopathic manipulative medicine for pregnant women,” she said. “He spent hours and hours with me extra. Anybody who asked him for help, he would.

“He always said to me, ‘You just have to be a better physician than I was.’”

Merriman described Legg’s habit of walking around during lab sessions, stopping and showing students how to position their hands on the patient’s body.

“He throws out these clinical pearls — something that you can’t find in a textbook, but it’s a real-life application,” she said.

Merriman, a springboard diver, injured her back in high school and continued to dive as a student at the University of Kansas.

“But the whole time, I had an injured back,” she said. “Out of two years of physical rehab, he’s the only one who could fix my back. In 10 minutes he took away six years of pain that no one else was able to diagnose, much less treat.”

What sets Legg apart from other physicians, she said, “is his ability to evaluate someone just by looking them.”

“He looks at your posture,” she said. “He really listens to people when they tell him their history. He picks up on things that other doctors don’t pick up on. I have seen classmates walk into the lab on crutches and walk out carrying them.”

Merriman feels a familial connection with Legg as well as a professional one.

“I think of him like my grandpa,” she said. “I don’t have any grandpas left.”

Legg’s life journey started on a farm south of Orrick, Mo., where he was born in 1921. In his youth, he played basketball and baseball, ran track and pole vaulted.

After high school, he completed two years of college at Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo. He transferred to Baylor University for a time and then joined the Army.

He did his basic training at Camp Barkeley, in Texas, and then was shipped overseas during World War II. He landed first at New Caledonia, an archipelago in the southwest Pacific Ocean, spent time in a few other locations and finally was sent to Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands. He was there for 20 months and was discharged in 1945, after the war had ended.

He returned to the states and finished his undergraduate degree, majoring in chemistry and zoology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Then it was on to medical school.

In 1952, while a third-year med student, he created the Department of Muscle Reeducation and Rehabilitation at the school.

He said he’d chosen osteopathy over allopathic medicine (which medical doctors practice) “because there were things the osteopath could do that the M.D.s couldn’t do” based on their training.

Part of what he did for 24 years, while a practicing osteopath, was to serve as a sideline physician at football games for North Kansas City High School and other area high schools. That started after he’d been in the stands as a spectator, and “they kept asking me to come down” to help with players’ injuries.

So, he decided to bring his doctor’s black bag with him and watch the games from the sidelines, which he did until 1999. In 1998, he invented a procedure to correct dislocated shoulders that required no anesthesia.

“I did the procedure on players on the sideline,” he said. “You stop enervation to the muscles to stop the pain.”

Legg also lectures two or three times a year at KCUMB, but he finds it tiring.

“I’m getting too old for lecturing,” he said.

John Dougherty, KCUMB’s senior associate dean, has heard some of Legg’s lectures over the years. Dougherty was a first-year student at the school in 1988 when he met Legg.

Despite his age, Legg still has a teaching physician’s outlook, Dougherty said.

“He’s often gotten onto me — ‘You need to slow down, young man’ — and I’m almost 50,” Dougherty said. “He said this within the past month.”

Dougherty knew what Legg meant: “You’re going to miss some important things if you don’t listen and you don’t look.”

Dougherty ranks Legg among the best medical educators he’s ever seen who genuinely care about their students.

“Some students will come to him when they won’t come to the others of us, and that’s a gift,” he said.

Legg lives in the Village of Oakwood, near Gladstone. He fractured his hip about a year ago and had surgery, but that doesn’t stop him from keeping up with his vegetable garden.

“I also like to hunt and fish,” he said. “But I seldom go at all anymore. I can’t get around.”

Woodworking has been a hobby for Legg at least since he started his medical practice. He’d sometimes get up at 2 or 3 a.m., worried about a patient, and begin working with wood.

“I’ve made everything from a queen-sized waterbed to these things here,” gesturing to a Christmas tree about 4 inches high, which he’d made of aromatic cedar.

It had three removable sections of the same shape but of different sizes, all of which fit together to form one piece. It makes a nice Christmas tree ornament, he said.

Legg and his wife have a son who’s an osteopathic physician in Springfield, Mo.; a grandson who’s a third-year student at KCUMB; another son who’s a professor at the University of Wyoming; and a daughter who works with computers.

They’ve gone steady as a married couple for 65 years. His secret?

“I spend a lot of time outside,” he said. “She’s a wonderful person; she has to be to be living with me. She has her degree in psychology. And nine times out of 10, I was on the sideline at some sporting event on our anniversary.”

Even today, Legg hears from former former patients about once a week, asking for guidance on medical conditions.

“And it’s been 15 years,” he said. “That’s what I miss. I miss my patients.”

In his words

At 93, physician William Legg is someone people look to for advice. Here’s some:

▪ On stayng vital:

“Just hard work, and pay attention to what you’re doin’, and try to do a good job so it won’t come back and haunt’cha. … I have a fairly decent diet. Things I should eat, I eat.”

▪ To medical students:

“Always be honest with your patient and keep good rapport with them, and they won’t give you any problem.”

▪ On smoking:

“I smoked for about eight to 10 years ... My wife bought me a cigarette lighter for the car ... It was too convenient, and it wasn’t good for ya, so I carried ’em around for a week and gave ’em away."