Kate Smallwood accepted Billy Guyton’s proposal of marriage in 1908 and almost immediately left Mississippi for a 5-year term as a Methodist missionary to Suzhou, China. A few months before leaving Suzhou to return home she wrote to her sister, who was also engaged,
You wanted to know Billy’s and my plans. He writes me that he is going home this summer and when you see him, ask him to tell you, because his plans are my plans, and what he does or what he wants me to do, you will find me trying my best to do. I am glad you are in love. I hope you love Mr. Johnson as much as I love Billy, but I doubt it. Maybe you will someday.
I asked Aunt Ruth, Kate’s daughter, if her mother was a changed person when she returned to Mississippi from Suzhou. My intent was to know if she had changed philosophically or religiously.
Ruth smiled as she recalled some intimate conversation with her mother and replied, “Well, it was touch and go when she came back. I think Daddy had some second thoughts about whether to marry her. But they worked it out.”
They married on Christmas Eve, 1913, and soon left for Orange, New Jersey, where he pursued a second year of internship. Kate’s fond hope was that they would return soon to China to establish a mission clinic there.
But it was never clear that Billy had the heart for mission work or living overseas. And his father’s opinion came across loud and clear. John Franklin Guyton or “Pappy,” a successful farmer, storekeeper, and strict Baptist in the tiny community of Ingomar, Mississippi, had a way of expressing his views strongly. Once he smashed a violin of Billy’s younger brother to direct him away from sinful music.
As he thought of the young couple raising a family so far away, Pappy became very emotional, almost crying. He reminded Billy that his medical career had been funded partly by his parents, who had invested far more in him than would be possible for their younger children.
“Your brothers and sisters may need to depend on you,” he said. “Maybe your parents as well. How can you do that from China?”
The decision was made. The couple would abandon the mission field. They spent a year in Ingomar where Billy began his medical practice. The role of a country doctor did not suit him, however, and perhaps they needed to separate a bit from his parents.
He traveled across the Atlantic to Vienna, Austria, where he spent several months training with a world-renowned ophthalmologist. Then Kate and Billy moved to an apartment in Denver, Colorado, where he pursued further training. They almost bought a house in Denver when he received an offer to join the medical school faculty there. However, Pappy intervened once again, this time more in line with Kate’s wishes, persuading Billy to return to Oxford, Mississippi, home of Ole Miss where his medical education had begun.
I like to learn about decisions, especially those made jointly, and their consequences. So I asked Aunt Ruth if Kate ever forgave her father-in-law for blocking her dream of life on the mission field.
Ruth replied with a smile, “Oh certainly she forgave him. She is a forgiving person.” Then she smiled again and added, “But she never went to visit my grandfather or grandmother at the old house. I can’t remember her ever going back to Ingomar. On Sunday afternoons Daddy would drop Mama off in New Albany to spend the time with her mother, and he would drive on to visit his parents in Ingomar.”
Billy started the Guyton Clinic in Oxford, attracting patients with eye, ear, nose, and throat problems from surrounding towns and counties. Three other specialists joined the practice, eventually including their oldest son Jack, who received his medical degree at Harvard and and initiated his career in ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins. After a few years practicing in Oxford, Jack moved to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
From another son, William F. Guyton, I gained a mental snapshot of the financial accounts at Billy’s clinic around 1930. In order the receipts were carefully tabulated –$2, $2, 0, 0, $2, $5, 0, 0, $2 – and so on. Both whites and blacks received care at the clinic, though from separate waiting rooms.
In that era removal of the tonsils was thought to give protection from severe sore throats that could cause rheumatic fever. That theory was wrong, and tonsillectomy as practiced then was actually a dangerous operation with appreciable mortality. Yet one day Billy lined up 60 first- and second-graders and pulled out all their tonsils, a heroic effort fortunately without a death.
In time Billy Guyton had earned a reputation as one of the most prominent specialists the state of Mississippi could boast. His clinic attracted patients from throughout the northern half of the state and some from Tennessee. He had a part-time teaching position at the 2-year medical school at Ole Miss.
Around 1935 the medical school nearly closed down. Governor Theodore Bilbo, a flamboyant populist and racist, had engineered the firing of the Ole Miss chancellor (later reinstated under pressure from accrediting agencies), the medical school dean, and at least 53 university and college faculty around the state in a dispute about the goals of higher education. The entire university lost its accreditation from 1930 to 1932, and the medical school was on probation.
Politics at the state level was only part of the problem. The American Medical Association Council developed plans to close all nine 2-year medical schools in the U.S. One concern was the prospect of an oversupply of physicians.
Several leaders of higher education asked Billy to accept a one-year term as acting dean of the medical school. He took the temporary job and later the full, established position. One of his first acts was to cancel first-year admissions to the medical school in the fall of 1935.
Together Billy and university chancellor Alfred Benjamin Butts visited legislators in small towns up and down the state requesting support for the university, as the national and state economy recovered. Billy’s country upbringing and his grasp of farming and finance helped him connect with rural legislators.
Billy also wrote letters to every AMA Council member and successfully solicited support from key academic leaders. He decided that an immediate attempt to pursue a 4-year school in Mississippi would undoubtedly fail, and he moved to upgrade the 2-year curriculum. Hospitals around north Mississippi were recruited to supply 1. surgical specimens for pathological examination, 2. bodies of the deceased for free autopsies within a 60-70 mile radius of Oxford (refrigerated transport being unavailable), and 3. patients and clinic assignments to teach the basics of histories and physical exams to sophomore medical students.
In a crucial vote, the AMA Council deferred its plans to close 2-year medical schools, and in 1938 full accreditation for the school in Oxford was restored. Billy led the school for another 7 years before stepping down and resuming a full clinical practice. He stayed connected, serving on the first planning committee for the 4-year University of Mississippi Medical School which opened in Jackson in 1955.
During this time Kate stayed active with family, church, and university. Four children arrived, all of whom she guided academically and socially. She planted the large yard of their home on South Lamar Street with jonquils, hyacinths, Japanese quince, forsythia, and bridalwreath. Each spring she hosted a breakfast for women university students. At First Methodist Church she taught Sunday School, led Mission Study and Circle, and served as president of the Women’s Society of Christian Service. She was founder and first president of the Oxford PTA, president and member of the University Dames, the AAUW, the DAR, and twice president and 45-year member of the Browning Club. Kate gave many talks to women’s groups throughout north Mississippi. She might start with flower arranging and mix in Confucian philosophy. She might discuss Chinese ideals for family life.
Kate kept up with former students in Suzhou by mail. One of them, Tsi Tsung Yang, visited the Guytons in Oxford in the late 1920s (pictured at right). The Laura Haygood School was incorporated into Soochow University, which today ranks in the top 5% of research universities in China.
In 1950 Billy and Kate took a trip around the world. It was the only time she returned to the place where she spent 5 shining years as a young adult. Her students now had much more experience of life than she herself during her time in Suzhou. What a reunion that must have been.
How much can we see of the human will as it works to change the direction of events in the lives of people we know?
An 11-year-old girl loses her father to a heart attack and suddenly discovers that all the adults who knew about the family curse expected it to happen. As she tries to sleep that night, she wonders how the loving God she learned about in Sunday School could allow such a tragedy.
Through teenage years, some combination of grief, confidence, curiosity, and restlessness gels into a desire to learn what she can about science and medicine. She goes to college, remarkable enough for a small town girl in that time, but afterward finds a limited horizon.
Now she has fallen in love with a boy from a nearby farm, and they plan together for the future. He is moving toward a career that will combine finance and farming, but she sees something else in him and for him. Her vision of who he can become – a medical doctor – appeals to him more than his own casual thought, and they begin to share the vision.
Then she learns about an amazing opportunity to travel to the opposite side of the earth, an opportunity to immerse herself in a culture different, older, in many ways richer than anything she has known. By leaving for 5 years, she opens the path for him to pursue the medical dream. This is the next step, and it becomes her plan and their plan.
After half a decade apart, communicating their love only by letters carried on ships across the Pacific, their lives rejoin. With just a brief stumble, they marry. But her grand plan to return to China collapses. He begins his medical practice, and she supports him and their new community, and they begin a family of their own.
A statewide crisis confronts him with more responsibility than he ever could have imagined. He answers, partly because he knows how to share a dream and partly because it all gets back to farming and finance and living better. Families not only around Oxford, but across the state of Mississippi will benefit from graduates of the medical school, as he finds a way to keep the doors from closing.
She shares the wisdom of the East, blended with her Methodist faith, with whomever will listen. Even the indefensible burden of racial oppression lifts just a little from her willingness to connect and converse.
All of this comes from a confluence of will that springs from many sources, one of them the heartbroken confusion of an 11-year-old girl.
Kate and Billy had three sons – Jack, Bill, and Arthur – and then a much anticipated daughter – Ruth. Jack and Arthur went to medical school, Bill became an engineer, and Ruth a statistician.
I and my siblings, Arthur’s children, as well as cousin Becky were drawn toward careers in medicine. I had no thought that my own career decision was predetermined or engineered for me. Yet the sense of who I am, making that decision, was never limited to my individual self. I did not try to strip away the family heritage or rebel against it, at least not in this area. It feels right to say that here is where I belong in the world, and this is how we have learned to make our contribution.
This dual sense of who I am and how we choose gained new significance when I learned from Aunt Ruth that the decision for a medical career began with my grandmother, not my grandfather as I had previously supposed.
I was young when Kate Smallwood Guyton passed away. I never had the chance to know her as an adult. I have very few personal memories of things she said or did in my presence. That she always called my grandfather “Bully” rather than “Billy” I readily recall, but never thought to ask why. She kept the green lawn and the pecan trees and the flower beds beautiful in a way that even a young boy could appreciate.
Just one incident sticks in my memory. When I turned 6 years old, she held my birthday party in her beautiful big yard. All of my friends came, and we played games around the yard. When it came time to cut the birthday cake, she served all of them before giving me my piece. I asked my grandmother why, and she said, “You are the host, Johnny. You take yours last.” Was that a Chinese custom, or maybe something that missionaries do? I never figured it out.
Her funeral was the first I ever attended. Aunt Ruth remembered speaking to a black woman there, who told her, “Miss Kate was the only white woman in Oxford who ever invited me into her living room.”
A few years later something nudged me to think back about her funeral, and an odd memory came up. Or something like a memory, but I don’t think it really happened. I just remember remembering it – my best guess a dream, but one with striking effect, and here it is: At the end of the service, just before we would stand and walk out, somebody came by to whisper a few words to each grandchild in turn. These are the words that I remember remembering, “We believe that she lives on in the children.”
On the day of her fatal heart attack, she was preparing a talk for the Browning Club of Oxford. This time the planned talk was not about China, but about the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. On her bedside table, left there in haste as she departed for the hospital in Memphis, were these words from Tagore copied by her hand –
When death comes and whispers to me
Thy days are ended,
Let me say to him, “I have lived in love
and not in mere time.”
He will ask, “Will thy songs remain?
I shall say, “I know not, but this I know,
That often when I sang, I found my eternity.
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Photos from family and http://www.grammyruth.com with permission. UM Medical Center from Wikimedia Commons public domain.
 Lines from “Fireflies” by Tagore.