Published Feb. 22, 2004|Updated Aug. 27, 2005

Paul Farmer's former teachers and classmates at Hernando High School remember him as unusually smart, funny and kind.

But family friend Sam Griffin saw something that distinguished Farmer even more, something that foreshadowed his life's work as a doctor for poor people.

Griffin's mother, Voncile, was bedridden with a chronic illness, Griffin said. Farmer "would just stop by to chat with her all the time, because he's a real talker, you know, and a very compassionate-type guy."

"It might have seemed strange if it was anybody else, but it was him. And it was out of real deep concern. It wasn't like he was trying to make points."

Dr. Paul Farmer has changed since high school in some expected ways.

As a boy, he pulled pranks he now regards as silly. His belief in the rights of poor people had not yet taken shape. And he never had to show the kind of courage he has in recent weeks, by continuing to treat patients in Cange, the town in Haiti where he has worked for 21 years, even as political violence in the country closes in.

But in many ways Farmer is the same.

He was an outsider in Hernando County _ originally from Massachusetts and living with his large family in a converted school bus and on a boat. Yet he was smart enough to be valedictorian of the Class of 1978 and well-liked enough to be elected class president and to be named "most popular" senior.

In Haiti _ where, as a white American, he is even more of an outsider _ he is so highly regarded that every drive with him takes on the feel of a parade in his honor; people call out his nickname, "Polo," from the side of the road and wave as he passes.

The methods used by his organization, Partners in Health, have been copied internationally. His work was profiled in a bestselling book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder, and Farmer is sometimes mentioned as a future Nobel Prize winner.

Though he is not as famous locally as, for example, banker Alfred McKethan or football star Jerome Brown, supporters say he has been more influential.

"If you look at the big picture, Paul has definitely been more successful," said Skip Samples, a high school friend of Farmer's. "Paul is making a difference globally."

That is at least partly because of the way he was raised here.

When Farmer was 10, his father moved his wife and their six children to Hernando County with the idea of living on a boat, said Katy Farmer, Paul Farmer's older sister, a high school art teacher in Casselberry.

"There was this side of him that wanted to have what was considered at the time a very radical lifestyle choice," she said.

In the five years it took to find the right vessel and fix it up, the family lived in a bus parked at Brentwood Lake Campground north of Brooksville.

Their father, Paul Sr., worked at Hernando High and taught developmentally disabled adults. Their mother, Ginny, was a cashier at Winn-Dixie.

So they weren't really poor, Katy Farmer said.

"There wasn't much we went without, especially for school," she said.

"We always had access to books. Both my parents were really big on reading, and between them they could cover just about any subject."

But the living conditions were cramped and sometimes uncomfortable, she said. Electricity worked sporadically. They had no running water. And, once they moved to the boat, they bathed where it was docked, in Jenkins Creek.

None of this excused poor schoolwork.

"My dad always had such high expectations. .


. It didn't matter that we didn't have a desk," she said.

Their mother, who later graduated from Smith College, also influenced Paul Farmer, said Mary Ann Hogan, whose daughter, Laurie, was a classmate of Farmer's at Hernando High.

"She was very nice, and she was a smart person, though she was a cashier at Winn-Dixie."

Whatever shaped the younger Paul's personality, it was, by the recollection of his teachers and classmates, remarkable.

He received A's on term papers he wrote during lunch hour. In the televised High-Q quiz games, he would sound the buzzer before he knew the answer because he was confident it would come to him, said Jan Mazourek, one of his teachers.

"He had a near photographic memory," said a classmate, Denise (Rider) McFall. "He would recall the most minute detail from a conversation you had months ago."

Farmer and his closest friends, most of them girls who were in his advanced classes, developed a language they called "Languahedge," McFall said.

He and his friends sometimes bought cases of cherry tomatoes and drove into the country during lunch hour for elaborately staged food fights. Farmer once rearranged the school library according to his own decimal system. And when he was assigned to put up the school's Christmas tree in the cafeteria, he erected it upside down.

For that he received a reprimand from principal Martin Yungmann, who seemed, by turns, frustrated by Farmer and in awe of his intelligence, said Laurie (Hogan) Locke.

"(Yungmann) would call us in for secret meetings and look to us for advice on how to handle things," she said.

"Paul was just so beyond his years with the way he dealt with people, the way he could charm adults," said another classmate, Tammy Young-Evans. "He could wrap all the teachers straight around his finger."

Despite that, he never seemed manipulative with his friends, she said.

"You always felt like you could go to him with a problem," Young-Evans said. "He was very open with his feelings, very expressive. If he felt close to you, it was never an awkward thing."

Like a lot of Farmer's former classmates and teachers, Young-Evans has followed his career and is moved almost to tears by what he has accomplished.

Mary Ann Hogan, a longtime Hernando Republican activist, feels the same way. But she is also disturbed by some of his political comments in Mountains, especially his praise of Cuba.

"I'm very proud of him," she said. "But I'd love to see Paul and talk politics with him."

Farmer said his memories of Brooksville are almost all good ones. His tiny cottage in Cange is filled with family pictures, including one of the houseboat, the Lady Gin, docked among the cabbage palms at Jenkins Creek.

He said key influences in his life include his parents and several good teachers at Hernando High, including current school superintendent Wendy Tellone, who encouraged him to apply to Duke University.

Without that push, he said, he probably never would have gone on to Harvard Medical School, where he graduated and where he is now a professor. He probably never would have ended up caring for poor people in Haiti.

"That's what set this in motion," Farmer said.

But it is also clear how far removed he is from Brooksville. Surrounded by so much suffering, his old friends' pride in his accomplishments seems irrelevant, he said. And he shakes his head at what he considers his former political ignorance.

"I wrote a thesis on why socialized medicine is bad," he said. "How stupid was that?"

He has since seen countless people die because they didn't have the money to pay for medical care, he said. He has since worked with doctors such as Pedro Ung, a Cuban surgeon who is paid by his government to work in Haiti.

One day last month, Ung performed four consecutive lifesaving operations, working from 4 p.m to past midnight.

"Don't tell Mary Ann Hogan about this," Farmer said as he gave Ung a warm hug.

"On second thought, do tell Mary Ann Hogan about this."

WATER WALK: Dr. Paul Farmer hikes up a hillside near Boucan Carre, Haiti, to check on a water project funded by Partners In Health, an organization he co-founded. Farmer, once an outsider in Hernando County who moved here from Massachusetts, lived with his large family in a converted school bus and on a boat and was Hernando High's valedictorian for the Class of 1978.

THE DOCTOR IS IN: Farmer examines AIDS patient Thelemaque Innocent at the Partners In Health hospital in Cange, Haiti, in January. Farmer spends about eight months a year in Haiti.

REACHING OUT: Malnourished 2-year-old Neika Almanor holds Dr. Paul Farmer's hand during one of his late-night visits to the pediatric ward of the Partners In Health hospital in Cange, Haiti. Farmer is so highly regarded in Haiti that a drive with him takes on the feel of a parade in his honor as people call out his nickname, "Polo," from roadsides as he passes.

Farmer has fond memories of life with his large family in Hernando County on a houseboat, the Lady Gin. He is recalled by classmates as an intelligent, charming prankster who was a considerate friend.

HOME, FOR NOW: Rebecca Jean-Louis, 6, stands near her home in Haiti as her mother, Marie Yolene, washes clothes. Partners In Health is building them a home with a tin roof and concrete walls.