By Leo Proechel, Staff Writer
“I’ve eaten in your cafe, you know Gladfelter, and I think it’s pretty good,” Dr. Jack Allison told me, as he sat across from me at Pomodoros Cafe, munching on a bite of very un-Gladfeltery-looking juicy beef and eggs. ”But once upon a time, it was marginal at best. One time I wrote an editorial, and the headline was ‘Let Us Break Bread Together, For It Will Surely Take Two of Us.’ Doctor Bannerman pulled me in and said ‘Jack, you’re not doing me any favors in my fundraising’. That was the only time I got in trouble with the president of the college.”
I met Allison at the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church, and within seconds I had known that I had to interview him. Not only had he gone to Warren Wilson from 1961-62 and been the editor of the Echo, but he had built over a hundred wells in Africa, written numerous Malawian hit pop songs about preventative health, worked in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and taught emergency medicine for 30 years.
Jack Allison, Jr. was born at the end of World War II. His father returned from the war when he was a few months old. As Allison grew up, his father’s work in natural gas furnace conversion moved the family around the country constantly, and by the time he was in seventh grade, Allison had been to seventeen different schools. Of his childhood, he said “it was difficult because I would have friends or a girlfriend and then all of a sudden I would have to go and say I’m moving.”
When he graduated high school, he didn’t have a lot of money to go to college, but his aunt had heard of Warren Wilson, which at the time was a two-year college and, according to Dr. Allison, was “for poor kids.” The college was also closely associated with the Presbyterian church, which helped with Allison’s tuition. All he recalls paying to the school during the duration of his two years here was $120 cash. In his second year at Wilson, Allison became editor of the Echo, which, at the time, published news every week, even though Allison estimated that there were only about 250 students in the college.
After receiving an Associate of Arts Degree in 1963, Allison went on to finish a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1966 from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1966. It was there that he took voice lessons and first discovered his talent for music: he won a campus-wide talent show with some friends by impersonating the Beatles.
Soon after graduating from Chapel Hill, Allison joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Malawi, where he worked in a health clinic, administering vaccines to children, and educated mothers about nutrition. During his free time, he began writing songs in the vernacular Chichewa (a variant of Swahili) about nutrition and hygiene. His first song advised mothers to brush the flies out of their babies’ eyes to prevent diseases, and his second suggested putting ground-up peanut flour into their baby’s porridge three times a day. The Malawians loved his music. Of his second song, he said, “I’m telling you true, that was the number one song in Malawi for three and a half years.” The more he wrote, the more popular he became. ”I could walk into a restaurant and people would recognize me–it was weird. I would get on a bus and people would say ‘are you the one?’” By the time he left Malawi three years later, he had recorded 17 songs, sold 10,000 copies of a single-track album through an English record company, written a bilingual jingle for the oil company Mobil, established a small foundation in order to donate his royalties to fellow Peace Corp volunteers for service projects, and still had enough money to send a Malawian child to school at Warren Wilson.
Upon returning from Africa, Allison went back to The School of Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill and graduated in 1975. He then pursued a career in teaching emergency medicine. He traveled back to Africa several times over the course of his life to provide emergency medical care, to build wells, and to fight the AIDS epidemic through educational music–once in response to a formal invitation from the United States government.
During his career as a physician, Dr. Allison helped found the International Federation for Emergency Medicine, of which he became president. He has also served as president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Emergency Medicine Foundation, Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Fellow of the American College of Preventive Medicine, Founding President and First Presiding President of the Association of Academic Chairs of Emergency Medicine, chair of the Residency Review Committee for Emergency Medicine, and oral and senior examiner for the American Board of Emergency Medicine. He has authored more than 280 articles, published in both refereed and non-refereed journals and received the highest honor proffered by the American College of Emergency Physicians, the John G. Wiegenstein Leadership Award, and the Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award from the School of Medicine of the University of North Carolina.
Dr. Allison is married to Sue Wilson and has three adopted daughters, one biological son, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. Though retired, he remains active, volunteering at the local Veterans Administration Hospital, taking classes at UNC Asheville, and keeping his body healthy. “I ran 3 miles yesterday,” he bragged “Did you run three miles yesterday? I’m in pretty good shape for an old dude.”
As we finished breakfast, Dr. Allison mentioned that he felt a connection to Warren Wilson students. “What are you going to do with your education?” he asked me. ”How are you going to reflect on Warren Wilson? I think we all ask ourselves that question. I’m pleased with what I’ve done. Could I have done better? Hell, we can always do better, but I think I’ve reflected positively on the college, and I think I’m not the only one.”