gua: Bill Sanders, UF pioneer, dies at 81

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:36 p.m.

The impact that Willie "Bill" Joe Sanders Sr. had on the lives of his family members, people in the community and the thousands of medical students he taught at the University of Florida will live on for many years.

Sanders, one of the first blacks to teach in the UF College of Medicine, died Saturday of cancer at E.T. York Haven Hospice. He was 81.

"What I will remember about him the most is how caring and devoted he was," said Paula Sanders-Pringle, one of his five children. "He was a no-nonsense guy. He meant what he said, and he said what he meant, and he did it all with love."

A memorial for Sanders will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Faith Missionary Baptist Church, 2905 SE 21st Ave. The Rev. Kevin W. Thorpe, pastor of the church, will preside over the service.

Visitation will take place from 2-7 p.m. Friday at Duncan Brothers Funeral Home, 428 NW 8th St. The family will receive friends from 7:15-8:15 p.m. Friday, also at the funeral home. An interment will be held Monday at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. The Sanders family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the American Cancer Society.

Pauletta Sanders, his wife of 48 years, said her husband was a man who enjoyed helping people in any way he could. She said he helped countless people in the community get their jobs back after being laid off. She said last year, he helped a woman fill out her application for disability benefits that she ended up receiving after being denied numerous times in the past.

"She came right here to our house and sat at our table, and my husband filled out her papers," Pauletta Sanders said. "She came back by here two days before school started and thanked him because she said she wouldn't have been able to buy her children any school clothes if it wasn't for my husband. He is the most giving and loving person. Not just for his family, but to anybody he was close to. My husband has helped many people."

Sanders retired from UF in 1989 as a tenured associate professor of anatomy and cell biology after a career that spanned more than three decades.

Sanders was born and raised in Fort Motte, S.C., the youngest of 11 children. All of his siblings preceded him in death.

Sanders enrolled in Hampton Institute in 1951 after getting out of the Navy and doing well in courses he took to get his high school diploma.

At Hampton, a private black college in Virginia, he joined the Army ROTC and was commissioned in 1953.

After a stint in the Army as an anti-aircraft and guided missiles ammunition training commander, he moved to Gainesville in 1955 after a tour in Japan.

He went to Chicago to become an embalmer and moved back to Gainesville in 1957, where he landed a job at the UF Health Science Center as an anatomy lab technician. In 1959, Sanders applied to UF, but was denied because he was black.

He became fascinated with anatomy and began studying cadavers on his own time while working as an anatomy lab technician.

He became so knowledgeable about the human body and was excellent at teaching what he knew to medical students that students pressured UF administrators to hire him as a professor. He became a faculty member in the College of Medicine on Feb. 2, 1968, his birthday.

"The students realized I was teaching them more than faculty members were, and they put pressure on the dean and chairman of the department," Sanders told the Guardian in February. "The dean and chairman met with the president, and I became a faculty member."

Sanders eventually earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1970 from UF.

Former students from as far away as Miami and Birmingham returned to Gainesville on Feb. 27 to be a part of a tribute to Sanders that was held at the Shands at UF Medical Center Auditorium.

Some of his former students talked about how Sanders invited them to his home for cookouts and to watch the Super Bowl, and they also talked about how dedicated he was to helping them succeed in their professions and in life.

"Mr. Sanders, I wouldn't be a doctor today if it wasn't for you," said Dr. Jim Daniels, one of Sanders' former students who is a gynecologist in Alabama, as tears rolled down his cheeks.

Sanders is survived by his wife and five children - Sanders-Pringle and Willie Joe Sanders Jr., both of Gainesville; Tannya Sanders-Hilbert of Fort Myers; Rannya Sanders-Cobb of Atlanta and Chada Sanders-Williams of Tallahassee - 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and a host of other family members and friends.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top