When Dr. William Jenkins Jr.’s home was threatened by the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, the last thing on his mind was saving his house.
“All he cared about was saving one suit so he could go to work,” said Dr. Brian Blaisch, Jenkins’ former colleague and friend. “And that was literally the real meaning in his life – making sure that he could get to work the next day.”
Superhuman, perfectionist, giver, father: These were the words friends and family used to describe the late Jenkins, a beloved East Bay physician and 2001 National Medical Association Doctor of the Year who served some 1 million children in need during his lifetime.
“His number one thing in his world was his patients,” said Guillermina “Memo” Flores, Jenkins’ office manager and a former patient who knew Jenkins for 38 years. “It’s a great loss. I miss him – everybody misses him. In my opinion, there’s not going to be another Dr. Jenkins.”
Jenkins passed away Aug. 15 at the age of 83 at his home in Piedmont after months of deteriorating health, leaving behind a lasting impression on the local community after practicing medicine in Oakland and Richmond for more than 50 years. Colleagues said he would see between 80-160 patients a day— two to three times the number of patients a doctor typically sees.
Despite the constant stream of people, friends and former patients said the doctor made a personal connection with all the children he saw, rewarding them with toys from a treasure chest and a few dollars from his pocket for good report cards. Most of his patients were low-income and on MediCal, Flores said.
“The way we thought about it, he had his family at home and he had his family at the office,” said his son, John Jenkins. “His patients were his thousands of kids and grandkids.”
John estimated that around 70 percent of African-American children between Hayward and Vallejo along the East Shore and Nimitz Freeway, and the vast majority of Hispanic children between Albany and Rodeo, were Jenkins’ patients at some point during his lifetime.
“Hanging out with Dad in the East Bay was like hanging out with the mayor,” said his other son, Bill Jenkins Jr. “He would go to the Costco over in Richmond and invariably he would run into some former patients, whether they were shopping or at the register.”
“He remembered every patient’s name,” said Dr. Barbara Staggers, director of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital Oakland. Staggers trained under Jenkins, who then hired her as a doctor when she was a fellow struggling to pay the bills. As a young girl, she was a patient of his, too, and years later, all three of her children were.
Jenkins never turned away a patient. If one of his patients was in the emergency room, many times, he would be there too.
“He didn’t care what time of day it was,” Flores said. “If he could help, he would.”
But most of Jenkins’ patients never ended up in the emergency room because Jenkins was an expert in preventative medicine, providing the “ultimate level of what we call ’continuity of care,’” Blaisch said.
“He was saving the system really a lot of money because in the end, many patients would never go to the ER that in a different practice might have,” he said. “He saved the local health care system.”
“His skill at being able to read and know illness and disease was phenomenal,” Staggers said, explaining that he could often make a diagnosis just by looking at a patient. “I remember thinking, ‘How come I can’t do that?’”
Staggers said she will never forget Jenkins’ guiding words. “He said, ‘I expect you to do better and greater things than I did. That’s why you’re here,’” she recalled. “That empowers the work that I do.”
Blaisch, who also trained under Jenkins, echoed that sentiment. “His reputation was that he didn’t make mistakes,” he said.
Jenkins was also known for pushing boundaries. He was likely the first African-American resident at Children’s Hospital Oakland, as well as the first African-American pediatrician in Richmond. Blaisch said Jenkins did three specialty residency programs instead of one, which was very unusual.
“He had an insatiable desire for knowledge and he wanted to be the best,” Blaisch said. “He was doing things that no one else had done.”
But serving the community was always his number one priority, and he loved his work until the end.
“Dad had hoped to die at the office,” Bill Jenkins said. “Presumably at the end of the day and he could just sit at his desk and just quietly fade away… That wasn’t the case but it was certainly close.”