I have received a number of official letters in my professional life but few have altered the direction of my life similar to the one I received from my congressional representative in 1964. The letter I received came in response to the only letter I have ever written to a congressman.
In 1964 I graduated from the University of Arkansas Medical School and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to begin a one year rotating internship at Grady Memorial Hospital. A rotating internship meant I was not specializing during that year, but was to spend 3 months in training as a new physician in each of the four medical fields; internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine and surgery. During that eventful year, I met and began a courtship with Cathy Young of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. After dating for several months, we were both convinced that we were meant to spend a lifetime together in marriage, and began making plans for our future. I was certain I wanted to pursue a career in general surgery, and that required 4 additional years of surgical training following the internship year. The salaries in those days for a surgical resident was very low and not enough to support a husband and wife, but Cathy was an elementary school teacher and with our combined salaries, we were certain we could make it. The major obstacle we faced was the war that was raging in Vietnam, since every able-bodied physician completing his internship was immediately commissioned into active duty in one of the branches of the armed forces. I had already enlisted in the U. S. Air Force as a medical student and was certain to enter active duty as a Captain following the internship.
There was an option that allowed physicians enough time to complete their training, and it was a federal deferment plan called The Berry Plan. One had to apply through a federal agency in Washington, D.C. and then wait on their decision whether you were selected. No one knew the criteria used for that selection, and there were no contact numbers to call in Washington to determine one’s status in the process. Cathy and I didn’t want to marry one month and have me ship out to Vietnam the next, so our anxieties were high. In addition, a residency program would not accept me unless I had already secured the proper deferment for the full length of their training.
I called Pop and Mom one day to let them know how Cathy and I were doing, and that I had not “heard anything from Washington.” Pop casually asked, “Why don’t you write my friend, Congressman Oren Harris and see if he can help you? He’s a pretty powerful man in Washington.” I didn’t know much about Congressman Harris except that he was from El Dorado and had been our representative from the 4th District of Arkansas for many years. What I didn’t know was that he was chairman of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce and was one of the best known and respected men on Capitol Hill. I immediately sat down and crafted a lengthy, hand-written letter to Congressman Harris explaining my situation and asking for his help. Within a week I received the letter above from the Congressman, and I knew that I would be hearing very soon from the proper authorities. Within just a few days, I received a telegram from the agency handling deferments stating that I had been selected to receive a 4 year deferment allowing me to continue with my surgical training!
Cathy and I were ecstatic! Now I could apply for the LSU Surgical Program at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and we could make definite plans for our marriage in the fall of 1965. Within another month of receiving the deferment, I was accepted into the LSU Program which was to begin on July 1, 1965. Cathy and I set the wedding date for August 7, 1965 in her home town of Fort Lauderdale. When all those plans were finalized, I wrote Congressman Harris a thank you letter telling him how grateful I was for his help and all about our future plans. Again I received a wonderful personal letter from him which I have also saved.
As an interesting footnote, I never had a personal meeting with Congressman Harris until 1971 when Cathy and I moved back to El Dorado and joined the First Baptist Church where Judge and Mrs. Harris were members. He had been appointed a Federal Judge by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and took his seat on the federal bench in El Dorado on August 11, 1965, just 4 days after our marriage.
In the early 1980’s I accepted a teaching position at First Baptist Church to co-teach the Men’s Theater Bible Class along with Bob Watson, Bob Merkle and Judge Harris. It was a wonderful class with a long, illustrious history dating back to the oil boom days of the 1920’s and had been meeting for many of those years in the Rialto Theater. I had the joy and privilege of getting to personally know Judge Harris and learning from his storehouse of wisdom. On more than one occasion, I was able to recount what a major influence he had been to Cathy and me and had shown him the letter he wrote so long before that had changed the direction of our lives. We both agreed that God is so good in leading us in the right paths even though at the time we may not have been fully trusting in Him.