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March 26, 1996

Goodbye Dr. Salvo

by Cary Stickney

My father, Stonewall Boulet Stickney, known to readers of this newspaper as Dr. Salvo, died in Mobile Infirmary on March 6. He had suffered a stroke on February 19. He was 72 years old. Those curious about the factual details of his life will find some in the obituaries and may find others, transformed a bit, in the soon-to-be-published Best of Dr. Salvo. Here are some that I gathered as I grew up.

He went to Old Shell Road School, Barton Academy, and Murphy High School. He left Mobile for New Orleans at age seventeen, vowing, as he once told me, never to live there again. It was wartime and he entered an accelerated pre-med/medical school six-year program at Tulane. He had decided to become a doctor at an early age, influenced by his older sister's long and difficult bout with osteomyelitis, and his sense, certainly correct in those days before antibiotics, that doctors had been unable to ease her sufferings much, and that the cure seemed only slightly less bad than the disease.

At some point during those six years he decided that osteopathic surgery was less interesting than psychiatry. This was a decision I never heard him say much about; he sometimes spoke of his affection for the "sincerely crazy" as something he had felt all his life. My own account would be that he chose a branch of medicine in which the questions were more central than the answers, and one where his capacity for delight in the particularity of each person he knew would have the widest scope.

He worked at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, one summer in rural Arkansas, interned in Madison, Wisconsin, and at the American Hospital in Paris. He spent some time in Denver, Colorado, before fulfilling his obligation to the Navy as a physician in Japan during the Korean War. He returned to live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until 1968, during which time my father studied with Erik Erikson and underwent psychoanalysis as part of the preparation for becoming a psychoanalyst himself.

He eventually decided not to follow that path. I think he was rightly suspicious of the dogmatic element in Freudian analysis, of its pretensions to complete understanding of the human soul. I also see his distancing himself from analysis as a part of his eventual turn to public health psychiatry, which was completed by the time he came back to Alabama in 1968 as State Commissioner of Mental Health. He once described psychoanalysis to me as a deeply self-absorbed project, somewhat like becoming a Buddhist monk: all very well for the few who have the leisure to devote themselves to it. I think he found other projects both more pressing and more interesting, not to say more practicable. It may finally have been a question of taste or manners for him. "It isn't nice," he would say of psychoanalysis, "to chew your cabbage twice."

The other projects had to do with seeking to prevent some of the ways in which institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons may tend to undermine people's sanity. Functional sanity became much more important than perfect sanity, whatever that was.

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on his knee while he read aloud to me: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy; The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle; Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings; The Just-So Stories and The Jungle Book. He seemed to me then a wonderful mixture: resourceful Odysseus, who had wandered the world and knew the cities and the minds of many men, not mention possessing a remarkable attraction in the eyes of all the wise and beautiful women, combined with Dr. Dolittle, that infinitely curious and boyishly enthusiastic natural historian who found animals at least as interesting as humans, added to Uncle Remus, the ancient sage whose dialect was poetry and whose stories were jokes, proverbs, and allegories all at once.

He loved to read and passed that love on to me; though my profession is education and the reading of books, he remained more widely read than I. He regretted the streamlined character of his college education and remained an autodidact, indefatigably completing his education for the rest of his life.

Because he was always learning something, he never adopted the attitude of having already mastered the important things, and so never gave people the sense that he was condescending to meet them on their ground since they could not be expected to meet him on his. His ground was everywhere. I don't know if he knew Goethe's remark that every natural and healthy impulse was from the inner to the outer, but he lived it; he was endlessly interested in other people, and observed the world both natural and manmade with the expectation that it speak to us as often as we are willing to listen, and that what it has to say is sometimes comic, sometimes profound, usually both, but always worth hearing. He treated children as full persons in their own right, and invariably charmed them. This may have come from the clarity and intensity of his memories of his own childhood. One of his earliest and happiest memories was of skipping along the sidewalk at age five, holding hands with his mother on the way to the store. He still loved to skip as a grandfather.

There was nobody more fun to talk with or who could have been better company. Many of Dr. Salvo columns were very fair samples of his conversation: a lively mixture of memories, speculations, snatches of poetry, song, and story from sublime to ridiculous; whimsy and seriousness and affection bound together and all based on an ever-present conviction, often stated, that "Life is to be celebrated, not merely endured!" He loved to eat and drink, to sing and play guitar and tell stories and laugh. The Celtic words from which we get our word "whisky" mean "water of life," and his presence was a kind of water of life to those around him. All the best parts of being slightly drunk: a readiness to say or do things you might ordinarily be too shy to try, a happiness with yourself and your companions, a disinclination to worry and a confidence that life is good and that things will work out; these things flowed from him constantly, not as illusions, but as truths of experience. And they became true for those who knew him; that was what it meant for him to be a healer of souls, a psychiatrist in his work and in his life.

He was religious, not as a church-goer, but as someone unable to believe that all the complexity and beauty of life could possibly be based on nothing more than brute necessity and blind mechanism. When I think of him in the light of my own Christian faith, I am reminded of the teaching that we are to be Christ to one another and to see Christ in one another, and I think of the lines in one of the Gospels, "I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly"; that was surely the overwhelming thing about Stonewall Stickney: abundant life, love of life, wonder and delight at life. "You must love life before the meaning of it," says a character in Dostoyevski, and whatever his changing views about the meaning of it, my father never stopped loving it or loving other people. He inspired a lot of people in a lot of ways: I can think of a professional guitarist whose first lesson was from my father, an environmental lawyer whose first field guides were given him as an eight-year-old by my father, a psychiatric social worker who took up that career in mid-life because of meeting him, and the list goes on: artists, actors, writers, teachers...Those who knew him will continue to sing his songs and tell his stories for the rest of their lives.

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