David Lauderdale

Dr. Jack McConnell, founder of Hilton Head’s free medical clinic, dies

This story has been corrected to delete an earlier reference to the Alice Glenn Doughtie Good Citizenship Award.

Dr. Jack McConnell, founder of the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic that brought free health care to anyone living or working on Hilton Head or Daufuskie islands, died Tuesday morning at the Preston Health Center on Hilton Head. He was 93.

McConnell liked to tell that his father, a Methodist minister in the poor hills of Tennessee, asked his children at dinner each night: “What have you done for someone today?”

McConnell’s answer to that question as a new retiree on Hilton Head came after picking up a hitchhiker. McConnell discovered the man needed a job, his wife had a baby on the way and he had no health insurance.

The answer seemed simple enough to McConnell: get the sizable cadre of retired doctors and medical care professionals on Hilton Head to volunteer in a new clinic that would assure health care for all, regardless of ability to pay.

State law had to be changed, a skeptical S.C. Board of Medical Examiners had to be convinced to waive medical licensure requirements, insurance had to be figured out, land had to be acquired and a clinic built.

It came to life in 1993, and the model has been replicated in almost 100 communities nationwide.

Today, the island clinic’s corps of 700 volunteers tends to more than 30,000 patient visits per year.

But the vision remains the same as the day McConnell picked up the hitchhiker, and the day the first patient showed up to get an immunization:

“May we have eyes to see those rendered invisible and excluded,

Open arms and hearts to reach out and include them,

Healing hands to touch their lives with love,

And in the process heal ourselves.”

In his career with McNeil Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson, McConnell was credited with directing the development of Tylenol tablets, and directing the program for the first commercial MRI system in the United States. He was asked by U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici to help write a bill to authorize the Human Genome Project. He worked with others dealing with the business and ethical issues associated with human genome research.

On Hilton Head, he was a retiree who quickly tired of golf. His wife, Mary Ellen, said he felt his greatest contributions to the world came in retirement.

VIM board chairman Jim Collett said, “Jack opened our eyes to the need on this island and gave us a way to help people in a way that we never would have imagined ourselves.”

Board member Morris Campbell, whose family members have been leaders on Hilton Head for many generations, wrote to colleagues: “I am saddened to hear of Dr. Jack’s passing. He was truly a good friend and an advocate for thousands of folks who were without access to health care in our country. I am so glad that our community was in his life’s path. His vision and commitment to make a contribution to the ‘better health of all’ will always be with me. Thank God for him!”

McConnell was relentless in his push to get the clinic open — and then to keep the doors open. He told the story of that massive undertaking in a book, “Circle of Caring.”

McConnell raised money by twisting arms, organizing an army of volunteers and even tap dancing on stage with his famous son, Page McConnell, keyboardist with the band Phish.

Page and his brother Steve were here when their father passed away. His daughter, Katie, is in Europe with her husband on sabbatical.

He died peacefully after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said Mary Ellen McConnell.

“I lost him a number of years ago,” she said. He had been in the Dogwood Neighborhood of the Preston Health Center at The Cypress for 4 1/2 years. It specializes in caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairments.

“He first realized he was having memory problems 10 or 12 years ago,” Mary Ellen said. “For many years, he was functional. It’s been very slow.”

She’s comforted that her husband will join his parents and seven siblings in heaven. Jack was the baby, 16 years younger than his oldest sister, who was his second-grade teacher.

When Jack McConnell was inducted into the Hilton Head Island Hall of Fame in 2015, it was said:

“The clinic spurred thousands of actions big and small by individuals, families, civic groups, schools, businesses and foundations to make the basic, critical need of health care available to all on Hilton Head. For McConnell, the clinic was about more than health care. It was about transformation.”

The Island Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

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