When I read about C. Everett Koop’s death I couldn’t help but smile. Not because he had passed on (at the age of 96), but because of the unique memory I have of the one time we met.
I was a trade reporter and Koop a retired U.S. Surgeon General on the speaking circuit when I ran into him at a corporate cocktail party over a decade ago. He was already in his 80s but looked about 20 years younger, unlined and sturdily built.
I knew that Dr. Koop was the first to alert the American public about the dangers of smoking, to the chagrin and fury of the tobacco industry. His campaign inspired millions of people to quit, saving thousands of lives annually. I wanted to meet this man.
When I strolled over to introduce myself, Koop grasped my hand with two of his and asked where I was from. When I responded “Brooklyn,” he grinned and said “I’m a Brooklyn boy too” and we were off and running.
We talked about Coney Island, Nathan’s Famous, Prospect Park and other Brooklyn landmarks, and the fun each of our generations had at these borough treasures. Koop believed Coney Island’s Steeplechase (purchased then demolished by Donald Trump’s father Fred in the mid-60s) was “the best amusement park in history” and told of his fascination with a particular, notorious exhibit.
As each unsuspecting young woman would exit one Steeplechase attraction, a mischievous dwarf in a sailor suit would shoot a stream of air up her dress, sending it billowing over her head, Marilyn Monroe style. This beguiled young C. Everett, who pinpointed this as the moment he became fascinated with anatomy.
We talked on, about Sheepshead Bay and Flatbush (where we both lived) until we went our separate ways. My boss immediately came up to me. “What were you guys talking about for half an hour?” he demanded to know.
I responded with the truthful, single word answer: Brooklyn.
I just read The New York Times obituary of Koop. They solemnly reported that young C. Everett first became interested in anatomy and medicine by “watching his family doctor at work as a child.”
Rest in peace, Brooklyn boy.