Remembering Gator Great Dr. Robert H. Vinson
By Heidi Saliba
Some people knew Dr. Robert H. Vinson as a gifted pediatrician and academician; others knew him as a great humanitarian whose service work included missions trips to South America. But for almost everyone with whom Dr. Vinson had a relationship, he was known as the consummate friend to the cause of children’s emotional well-being.
“If you look at his record the thing about him that stands out, besides his many missions, is his emphasis on mental health,” said Dr. Gerold L. Schiebler, lifelong child advocate and retired Chair of Pediatrics. “He and Gussie did a lot of church work; they went to Brazil a number of times; he was very devoted to his church. If you look at his history one of the things he emphasized was mental health among physical health and he worked to get resources for mental health. That was one of his many legacies.”
Dr. Vinson came to UF just before Dr. Schiebler as the first – and at that time only – resident in pediatrics. Dr. Vinson’s widow, Augusta Vinson (known to friends as ‘Gussie’), recalls his passion for helping others and his lifetime of loyalty to the University of Florida.
“He realized it was not just his earthly father but his Heavenly father who wanted him to be a doctor,” Mrs. Vinson said. “He was willing to help anyone in need regardless of race, religion, or politics. He was honored for his work from 1958 to 1960, when he was the first and only resident in pediatrics at the University of Florida. He was so proud of that, it was the highlight of his life. It’s the highlight of all of our lives,” she said.
His professional career took off when he was recruited by Dr. Richard T. Smith, who was the Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the time. Dr. Vinson was drawn to Florida because of its climate, which reminded him of his time in the military that was spent in Spain. His search began in the city of Miami, but he was unimpressed and headed north to Gainesville after hearing that a hospital was opening at UF as part of their new medical school. Dr. Vinson interviewed with Dr. Smith, who convinced him to pursue pediatrics and then hired him on the spot. As Dr. Schiebler noted, Dr. Vinson opened the pediatrics unit on the seventh floor of the original Shands and wrote all the rules on how pediatrics should be operated.
“He covered lots of bases and he was very loyal,” Dr. Schiebler said. “He came to the alumni meetings and always gave the prayer…and that was a hallmark, a Vinson hallmark. Just like Mike Steiner gave the annual joke, Vinson gave the annual prayer at the alumni event. As a friend he was outstanding, he was certainly a good doctor. He had patients devoted to him and he was a great advocate for children. He was a productive member of his community, a tremendously loyal advocate to the University of Florida and the department and he came to every meeting.”
Dr. Schiebler is not alone in his sentiments for Dr. Vinson; many who knew him recall “Doc Bob,” as he was affectionately known, as a very caring and giving individual in many respects. Dr. Arlan Rosenbloom, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus with whom Dr. Vinson worked, said, “Bob Vinson was one of the first people in pediatric practice in the state…I got to know. He never hesitated to call directly for advice or to make a referral. His special status as the first pediatric resident gave him a sense of ownership and responsibility that translated into tremendous support for the burgeoning faculty who returned the favor by diligently responding to his calls…I cherished the trust Bob put in me as a consultant. Such trust coming from someone as diligent, critical, and caring as Bob Vinson was indeed among the most rewarding of my experiences at UF over the past four decades plus.”
In addition to having earned the admiration of his colleagues, Dr. Vinson holds a special place in the hearts of many people around the globe. He and his wife established and worked with various charitable organizations for the benefit of helping families both locally and abroad.
At his memorial service, which Mrs. Vinson described as uplifting, their youngest son Gray spoke on how meaningful it was to the family that everyone shared in their appreciation of his father. In the eulogy, Gray remarked, “As everyone here knows my father was a very special person. Of all his accomplishments and accolades, his ties to UF were his favorites. He always wore orange and blue, and on his very last day he wore a Gator T-shirt.”
Dr. Vinson died just after sunrise, and as his family walked out of the house together they witnessed an awe-inspiring orange and blue sky. As his son described it, they all “realized that God above had turned on the beautiful Gator sunset.”
Mrs. Vinson said that in planning his memorial service, their family contacted the Gator band who sent the music to, “We Are the Boys from Old Florida,” which was played at the end of Dr. Vinson’s service.
“Lots of people were swaying back and forth during that song,” Mrs. Vinson said. This special moment, evidence of the Gator Nation’s reciprocal loyalty to Dr. Vinson, reflects the numerous bonds by which his life will forever have impact on others. His work and his legacies may have been devoted specifically to children’s mental and physical health, but because of his focus and the friendships Dr. Vinson leaves reason for everyone to sway with a song in their heart.
Words to, “We Are the Boys from Old Florida”
We are the boys from old Florida
F – L – O – R – I – D – A
Where the girls are the fairest,
the boys are the squarest
of any old state down our way. (Hey!)
We are all strong for old Florida,
down where the old Gators play. (Go Gators!)
In all kinds of weather,
we’ll all stick together, for
F – L – O – R – I – D – A