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Rufus Ward: Visions of Fort Apache and Tennessee Williams

 

The McKinley Sanitarium is pictured at the corner of Main and Seventh streets in Columbus.

The McKinley Sanitarium is pictured at the corner of Main and Seventh streets in Columbus. Photo by: Courtesy Photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

I was recently asked if I had any information as to the name of the doctor who delivered Tennessee Williams when he was born in Columbus in 1911. There is no birth certificate of Williams to provided the doctor''s name. That question, however, brings to mind visions of Fort Apache, The Spanish American War, the Panama Canal and Dr. Walter Reed. They all share a common thread with the birth of Tennessee Williams.  

 

William Richards was born in Columbus in 1871. He was a descendant of a prominent early Columbus family. He attended medical school and after graduation enlisted in the cavalry, where he served as surgeon at Fort Apache at the close of the Indian War in Arizona. He then served during the Spanish American War. He was an assistant surgeon under Dr. Walter Reed and worked on Yellow Fever in Panama at the start of the canal construction. After leaving the military, he returned to Columbus, where he opened a medical practice and attended St Paul''s Episcopal Church. The Richards family was friends with the Rev. Walter Dakin (grandfather of Tennessee) and his family. Although his specialty was ear, nose, and throat, Dr. Richards had a general practice background and found that his friends called on him for all of their family medical needs.  

 

The Columbus City Directory of 1912 gives 618 Main St. as the address of Dr. Richards'' office. That was the location of the McKinley Sanitarium and the later Doster Hospital. Around 1925 Dr. Richards retired and moved with his family to Ocean Springs. During the early 1950s he returned to the Columbus area, moving to a family farm near Artesia .  

 

Lyle Leverich in "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams" related that in 1941 Tennessee wrote in his journal he had taken a "bike trip" from New Orleans to the Mississippi Coast to "join Bill Richards and his family." Tennessee described Bill Richards as "Bill who is the son of the Doctor who brought me into this world." Dr. Richards'' son, William, was an early friend and long-time acquaintance of Tennessee and was called Bill by Tennessee. A member of the Richards family recalls an occasion before World War II when Tennessee Williams rode his bicycle from New Orleans to their house in Ocean Springs for a visit. Another family member recalls going to a restaurant (Begge''s) in New York with William Richards about 1963. Tennessee was there and upon seeing them enter the restaurant called them to his table. The restaurant appeared to be a gathering place for Tennessee and his friends. 

 

The historical record shows Dr. William Richards to be the doctor who delivered Tennessee Williams in Columbus at the McKinley Sanitarium in 1911.  

 

I remember Dr. Richards as a most gracious gentleman who continued to hunt and fish into his 90s. He had great respect for Native Americans and objected to the way in which they were portrayed in the western movies of the 1950s. He would often conclude an especially good meal by saying he had had "an elegant sufficiency." Dr. William Richards died in 1967 leaving a rich legacy of accomplishments and experiences that most people can only dream of. Oh, and Tennessee Williams was not the most interesting person Dr. Richards knew because he also met Geronimo.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Martha Phillip Shackelford Brown commented at 5/10/2010 12:43:00 AM:

Rufus, I am really enjoying your pieces for the paper. I've been away from Columbus for almost 38 years, but still consider it home and find its history fascinating. As 6th graders under Miss Va. Mae Ferrill at the Dem. School, I thought we were a very "history minded" class with the emphasis being more on the Civil War, and, "Yes, Miss Ferrill, I do sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic", even though you told us not to.

 

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