They trip over the ends of each other's sentences as they vie to tout their individual projects and recognize each other's work. They can barely wait to add an encomium or anecdote about their shared passions for health and education.
They're determined to make their community a better place to live.
The 2012 Daily Press Citizens of the Year, Golden Bethune-Hill and Charlie Hill, grew up a few blocks from each other in the Southeast Community in Newport News. Both pursued advanced degrees and had successful careers in New York and cities along the East Coast before returning home to make an impact that's continuing to grow in retirement.
Both are committed to improving access to health care and improving residents' physical health as a means to healing a community that's changed radically since their youth. Describing himself as "a son of the community," Charlie, 68, said, "I was born and raised in this ZIP code. I know the streets. It's different now. The needs are not being met."
Together, they have set out to make a difference. Charlie, diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, and also living with lymphoma, founded the Hampton Roads Prostate Health Forum in 2006 to spread awareness about the disease that kills African-American men at twice the rate of other ethnicities. Then, in 2010, after retiring as executive vice president of Riverside Health System, Golden, now also 68, started the Newport News Community Free Clinic on 25th Street, and has served as its volunteer executive director ever since.
Together, with yard-long resumes of achievements and awards and lifelong connections with the region's business and political leaders, they're a formidable force in the community.
Both widowed, their spouses lost to cancer, the two married in 2008. Golden, who trained as a registered nurse and won awards for her work in health care in New Jersey, returned to the area in 2005 to work as an administrator at Riverside. The health system has been a prime supporter of the clinic, from providing the building on 25th Street to donating $250,000 for five years. Still, the first year, the Hills bought medications at Walmart and tracked down clients at homeless shelters to make sure they received them. They begged for furniture from retired doctors and brought their scales from home to weigh patients.
Two years later, the clinic has expanded its hours from eight to 30 a week and has added a pharmacy. Its 30 hours weekly of dental services quickly eliminated a six-month waiting list of more than 230 patients with urgent needs. The annual cost of operation is close to $700,000 a year, which at full capacity would grow to $1.2 million, said Golden.
"People have just stepped up," she said, citing the hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations to the building provided by John Lawson of W.M. Jordan at no charge, and the support of countless individuals and organizations in money and expertise. She has drawn on her sorority connections, her church, Carver Memorial Presbyterian, and a slew of medical professionals to fund and operate the clinic. Founding board member Mark Clark, a cardiologist, is typical of those involved. Recently retired, he's set to start as a volunteer himself. "Without any pay, both Golden and Charlie have done a tremendous job. They're just very good people," he said. "They've done a tremendous job engendering financial and volunteer support.
The clinic is the only one in the neighborhood. "There's nowhere else to go," said Charlie. "Before, they either went to the ER or they didn't." "People suffered and died," Golden chipped in. The couple cited Health Department figures showing that residents of the surrounding community die at twice the rate of those in other parts of the city from heart disease, stroke and cancers. The clinic's statistics show improved numbers for blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol among its patients.
Numbers are Charlie's bailiwick with his background in business and economics. That's how he learned he had prostate cancer, by tracking his PSA (prostate specific antigen) numbers over time. "I would track key numbers. The trend suggested something was going on. Having data to show the doctors was important," he said, particularly as his numbers never strayed beyond the acceptable range. After a biopsy, he then went to Johns Hopkins to have a radical nerve-sparing prostatectomy. At the time, comparable treatment wasn't available on the Peninsula. "Now you can't be in a better place," he said.
Now, through his work with the Hampton Roads Prostate Health Forum, or HRPHF, he takes the numbers on incidence and mortality, particularly among African Americans — and the importance of early detection — to anyone who will listen. He scolds the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for its stance on the PSA test as an ineffective tool. He likens it to the Tuskegee Experiment — a 40-year clinical study by the U.S. Public Health Service which studied the untreated progression of syphilis using African American subjects in Alabama.Hill says that its data didn't take into account the elevated rate among African Americans. "I know five men who aren't going to do anything as a result of that," he said, while Golden noted that PSA testing has resulted in a 40 percent drop overall in the mortality rate.
"It's all we've got," she said, emphasizing that Charlie is living proof of the importance of early detection.
Friends and colleagues marvel at Charlie's fortitude. "He has been able to focus not on his afflictions but on saving others. There are a number of men who are alive and well today because of him," said Hampton City Council member George Wallace, a friend and neighbor. HRPHF co-founder and urologist Richard G. Rento II said, "He has been a tireless advocate. He must be on the phone 20 hours a day. … He has done an excellent job of getting into the high-risk community. It has been pretty impressive how many people he has touched in a short time."
One of Charlie's fraternity brothers, Bruce Bond, describes him as an inspiration to all. "He's one everyone should emulate. He's living with what he's trying to convey to others — early detection, the knowledge of the treatments." At Old Dominion University Patricia Hentosh, prostate cancer researcher and a professor of molecular diagnostics, got involved with the Forum in 2007. "His idea was to get a representative from each health system and each academic institution," she said. "I just got hooked on it. … They're the two most selfless people that I've run into. They give so much of themselves."
In the same way, Golden drew in all three local health systems to support the Clinic.
Both have a deep faith, verbalized more freely by Golden, an ordained deacon, and are active at Carver Memorial. Their pastor, Rev. Lawrence Willis, said, "They have a very strong faith base out of which all the other things flow. They both give of their time and talents to the church. … They're a strong, driven couple very much concerned with others. They're very creative and talented and use those talents in serving the community."
Both credit their success to their families, who instilled the importance of education above all, and to their childhood community for its supportive environment. They draw a picture of a close-knit neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other. "It was safe. You could sleep outdoors," said Golden, who said the changes she observed on her return in 2005 "plagued her mind."
They're now committed to moving forward and restoring the physical health of residents in order to improve their quality of life.
"The Clinic and the Forum will both outlive us. We have to make sure they're sustained," said Golden.
Each year since 1989, the Daily Press has recognized men and women whose efforts make the Peninsula a better place to live and work. Whether it be tackling poverty, reaching out to youth or keeping our neighborhoods safe, recipients define the values of citizenship. The award is accompanied by a $1,000 donation by the Daily Press to the charity of the honoree's choice.
1989: William Roth
1990: Marcellus "Boo" Williams
1991: Walter Segaloff
1992: Lorraine Austin
1993: Robert Templin
1994: Mary Johnson
1995: Alan Witt
1996: Corrine Garland
1997: Troy Collier
1998: Jack Ezzell
1999: Gary Hamm
2000: Rona Altschuler
2001: Alan Diamonstein
2002: Harriet Storm
2003: The soldiers of the 7th Transportation Group at Fort Eustis who volunteer at An Achievable Dream
2004: Debbie Smith
2005: McKinley Price
2006: Bobby Freeman
2007: Jim and Patricia "Cooka" Shaw
2008: Ward R. Scull III
2009: The "Gloucester 40"
2010: William R. Harvey