‘GENTLEMANLY, BUT ALSO TOUGH’|
Stokes Family, NIH Director Honor Congressman’s Legacy
An hour could not contain all of the fond remembrances that NIH and its broad community holds for the late former Congressman Louis Stokes, who died in 2015 at age 90. But an event hosted Oct. 12 by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities—just one part of NIH he was instrumental in seeing founded and funded—featured as many warm recollections as could fit into 60 minutes.
Fortunately many of those stories—and a lot of shared history—were also documented by the lawmaker himself in a recently released autobiography, The Gentleman from Ohio.
Led by former Health and Human Services secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NIMHD director Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable and attended by several Stokes family members, the occasion billed as a “Fireside Chat” honored the legislator’s legacy in Bldg. 50, which bears his name, the Louis Stokes Laboratories.
A founder of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in the 1970s not long after his election as the first black U.S. representative from Ohio and first chair of CBC’s Health Brain Trust, Stokes served “numerous prominent roles in the House of Representatives throughout his career,” said Pérez-Stable, “but what I believe to be the true essence of his life’s work and why we are here today is the energy he poured into improving the nation’s health. He was an outspoken supporter of biomedical research and led the charge to appropriate billions of dollars to these efforts.”
Stokes was instrumental in launching NIH’s Office of Minority Programs in 1990, which evolved into a center in 2000 and eventually became NIMHD in 2010.
A member of Congress’s appropriations committee, Stokes was known for helping direct millions in funds to NIH for research on health conditions that disproportionately affect minority populations and to training programs for minorities underrepresented in biomedical science careers.
“A champion of legislative prowess, Congressman Stokes carved out a path for us to address health disparities,” Pérez-Stable said.
Long-time Stokes friend Sullivan, who served as HHS secretary 1989-1993, recalled meeting the lawmaker in fall 1975 and “immediately formed a great relationship that lasted a number of years.
“All of us went to Lou Stokes,” Sullivan remembered. “We were not in Ohio, not in Cleveland, so we couldn’t vote for him…but he would really respond to us whether we were from Georgia or from Nashville or from New Orleans because the issue of minority health and minority professionals was very close to him.”
According to the former HHS head, Stokes “helped get appropriations year after year for scholarship support, for research and teaching facilities, including NIH’s Research Centers at Minority Institutions,” which still exists.
“He played a very critical role not only for the health of minorities in general but also for minority institutions,” Sullivan said. “He was a very good friend…Lou Stokes represented an idealist, worked very hard, came along at a special time, accomplished much and all of us are better off for what he contributed to us.”
Collins and 3 of Stokes’s 4 adult children then took to armchairs set on a platform that temporarily transformed Bldg. 50’s science conference space into an informal, cozy living room.
The NIH director’s laboratory, which focuses on diabetes, is located on the 5th floor of the Stokes Bldg. and Collins said he often thinks about the legislator when going to work there.
“He was the gentleman from Ohio and he was always gentlemanly,” Collins recalled, “but he was also tough. He wanted, when he asked a question, that somebody might actually provide an answer. He would occasionally remind us that while our eloquence was impressive, what he was really looking for was substance…I always admired his fairness, his generosity of spirit, but [more] his principled way of handling the responsibilities he carried on his shoulders and carried them well, representing his district but really the whole nation in a way that was truly remarkable.”
Collins, along with Stokes’s daughters Shelley and Lori and son Chuck, reflected for the next hour on the impact their dad’s career and character had on improving the health and well-being of people nationwide through his promotion of laws and initiatives at NIH especially but also in the biomedical research community at large.
With a mixture of humor and emotion, the group described many Stokes anecdotes, priorities and values: the importance of family, principles in the political environment, Stokes’s appreciation for a good-natured prank by his brother as well as his devotion to justice and law.
“Thanks for remembering my father in such a beautiful way,” concluded Shelley Stokes-Hammond.
After the chat concluded, Stokes’s family lingered for a while, signing copies of the book and reminiscing with a crowd of the congressman’s admirers.
See the entire event online at https://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=26485&bhcp=1.