Founding member of UF's College of Medicine dies at 86 in Gainesville


Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Dr. Richard P. Schmidt, a nationally known neurologist and one of the founding members of the University of Florida College of Medicine, died Friday in Gainesville after a long illness. He was 86.

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Schmidt

Schmidt was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1921. He earned his bachelor of science degree from Kent State University and a medical degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

He married Betty Heminger Schmidt; the couple had two children.

He came to the University of Florida in 1958 from Washington University in St. Louis, welcoming the challenge of being part of a fledgling medical school. He took the position of associate professor and chief of the division of neurology in the department of medicine.

Dr. Samuel Greenberg, 95, is a retired psychiatrist who counted Schmidt among his friends. Greenberg describes Schmidt as "a great man who was also a very good man."

"He was a man of great integrity who had all the old-fashioned virtues of a physician that are not as honored today as they used to be," Greenberg said.

Schmidt left UF in 1970 to become dean and vice president for academic affairs of the medical center at the State University of New York in Syracuse.

He also served as acting president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook between 1979 and 1980.

He returned to Gainesville in 1984 to take an appointment as a distinguished professor and clinician at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. That same year, his wife, Betty, died suddenly.

Schmidt remarried; he and his wife, Eleanor, had been married for 22 years. In addition to the two children from his first marriage, he has four stepchildren and six grandchildren.

Eleanor Schmidt described her husband as a man who, quite simply, loved life. He was a photographer whose favorite subject was wildflowers, a baker who often gifted friends with sourdough bread or bagels, grew his own hot peppers for salsa, wrote poetry and studied his family's genealogy.

Greenberg will remember Schmidt as a vigorous, dynamic man with a good sense of humor.

"In his old age, he converted to Judaism, which I found remarkable," he said.

According to his wife, Schmidt had a life-long fascination with the English language, and grew interested in the derivation of Yiddish words. Raised as a Unitarian Universalist, he converted to Judaism five years ago.

She tells a story from his administration at Stony Brook, set in the heart of Long Island. It was the end of the '70s and students were demanding the right to cohabit in the school's dorm rooms. They asked for a meeting with the president - Schmidt.

"That part of Long Island is a very traditional Jewish community," Eleanor Schmidt said. "So he told them if he got a note from each of their grandmothers, they could cohabit in the same room. He knew that was never going to happen."

Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez-Rothi was one of Schmidt's physicians, who first met Schmidt when he returned to UF as a distinguished professor at the VA hospital.

"I was always awed by him. He was such an incredible man, but so humble about it," Gonzalez-Rothi said.

Through a very difficult illness, Gonzalez-Rothi said Schmidt never asked, "Why me?"

"He was going blind, which had to be one of the very worst things for him," he said. "Reading and writing were his passions, but he accepted and dealt with it."

Gonzalez-Rothi described the late neurologist as "one of those people who stood out from everyone else," saying that in a room full of people, "you would inevitably be drawn to Dick Schmidt."

Greenberg put it this way: "Dick Schmidt was a man who didn't trim his sails for anybody. He didn't need to make points with anyone."

Services for Schmidt are set for 1 p.m. Monday at Congregation B'Nai Israel.

Diane Chun can be reached at 352-374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com

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