08/15/2014 04:19 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2014

Dare to Be 100: Deep Well Diggers

Prof. Nils Nillson was chairman of the exalted Stanford Department of Computer Sciences. His family were also patients of mine. I exploited this connection by challenging him to help relieve a discomfort that I felt because of the deaths of some of my mentors whose teaching was critical to my growth. I felt cheated by no longer having the opportunity to salvage their knowledge.

Prime among my mentors were certainly my dad. I am an only child. I was his future hope. He was a legitimate alpha male. He made his way to the leadership of all groups that he surveyed. He was Harvard undergraduate, and Harvard Med. Father was the consummate humanist scientist.

I was born in 1930, and I became Dad's main project tutoring me in his profession of medicine. I felt bumps and listened to thumps before I had any insights. His office was on the first floor of our tiny row house in down town Philadelphia. He tended to each step of my educational process. He was my main mentor.

Right after dad on my list of prime mentors was Uncle Walter, dad's older brother for whom I was named. He entered into Jefferson Medical College directly from high school he returned to his homestead of Greensburg Pennsylvania where he was a Norman Rockwell image of the family physician for close to 70 years. Uncle Walter and dad were tightly bonded,"bub" to one another. Their devotion occasioned frequent trips from my home in Philadelphia to Greensburg were I invariably found my way into Uncle Walter's medical office in the Northern Trust Bank Building. I can still visualize the chairs in his waiting room.

Like dad uncle Walter took great pleasure in sharing his patient contacts with me without any commotion. I was allowed to sit quietly in the corner. I saw everything that transpired. The scene was totally comfortable with my presence. I learned much.

The third of my early mentors was Dr. Nils Larsen of Honolulu who was responsible for bringing modern medicine to Hawaii in the 1930s. He was the head man at Queens Hospital, and was also a good friend of dad's which gave me the opportunity to present a job request for usefulness during my honeymoon after my second year of medical school. He granted me a preceptor ship at a dollar an hour. I was set to reviewing autopsy reports of the Queen's Hospital correlating the degree of coronary disease with racial background. Several medical papers resulted which are still referenced in medical journals, and led to larger context reviews with Ancel Keys.

The Larsens became so close to us that they were our first child Danna's godparents. I adored them and did everything in my power to have a touch of Dr. Lawsen rub off on me. He died in his early 80s and I cried.

Dad and Uncle Walter and Dr. Larsen's deaths diminished my life.

I asked Nils "why can't we have some mechanism for capturing these great experiences.?" He replied immediately, "have you heard of the deep well diggers?" This remark immediately led to the identification of persons such as the famous Red Adair from somewhere in Oklahoma. He was short on formal training, but possessed supreme knowledge. Whenever a fire flared in the oilfields of Kuwait or Iraq or Amarillo the first call was placed to Red. He said "Cap here, dill there, open here, close there." Quickly this amazing capacity became legendary, like an Indian Scout. He led to knowledge beyond the expected. He knew things that others didn't, and although shy of credentials he was of immense value.

The recognition arose "what happens if we didn't have Red? We need to debrief him. We need his knowledge not to be perishable." Accordingly they downloaded his experience at length.
And it is still of value.

But then I wondered "can we not all represent deep well diggers in our lives?" I asked Nils why we couldn't have a system in which everyone, everyone is obliged to, say on the 90th birthday, go to the library and for a half-hour relate what they have learned in life?

Norman Cousins was notable for similar efforts. He interviewed the world leaders with the query "what have you learned in life?" This was a regular feature of his columns in the Saturday Review of Literature. I learned much from Norman, another mentor. Norman taught that human experience is the most valuable wasted natural resource on Earth. How can we capture this, each of us in our own deeply personal trajectories? Are we not all deep well diggers of an immense value that we do not acknowledge?