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Epilogue: Paul McRae was a pioneer, but you didn’t hear that from him

‘His extraordinary example paved the way for so many others.’

ST. PETERSBURG — Paul McRae rose from a public housing complex to the pinnacle of the local medical field.

To his family, he was part man, part living example. To his city, he was a precocious child, and then later, a man of healing. To his community, he was a pioneer: the first black chief of staff at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.

“His extraordinary example paved the way for so many others,” said Terri Lipsey Scott, a friend of McRae’s and the executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg.

Dr. McRae died last week at 74.

If you asked Dr. McRae his opinion, he’d give it to you. If you wanted to hear about his work in the community, you’d probably have to ask somebody else. He loved seafood, jazz, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his family. But not at all in that order.

In an undated photo, left to right: Earl Cotman, Keith Brady, Paul McRae, Kenneth Bryant and Frederic Guerrier enjoy each other’s company. Guerrier said he considered McRae, a decorated local doctor at Bayfront Health, a mentor. Credit: Frederic Guerrier. [Frederic J Guerrier]

Dr. McRae was born on May 6, 1945 in New York City. As a child, he moved to St. Petersburg to live with his grandfather, Monroe McRae, who ran a funeral home, and his great-aunt, Ruth McRae.

He spent some of his childhood years in the Jordan Park public housing complex, in apartment 518. In the 1950s, McRae once told the then-St. Petersburg Times, that the complex was a haven for working-class families in a segregated city. He learned to roller skate there, and he sold his comic books to neighbors to make some extra money.

His son, Paul McRae Jr., said his father’s intellect and work ethic stood out from an early age.

“Everybody always knew he was that guy,” said the younger McRae, now an executive at the health care technology firm ServiceNow.

Dr. McRae graduated from the still-segregated Gibbs High School in 1962. He had done well enough in school to gain acceptance to Michigan State University.

After graduating, Dr. McRae fathered a daughter, Pam Roberts, with a young woman, Harriet Rogers.

During Dr. McRae’s junior year at Michigan State, he met the woman who would become his wife, Donna, in the school’s dining hall. Although theirs was a “gradual” attraction, Mrs. McRae remembered, some aspects of Dr. McCrae’s personality immediately drew her to him.

“He was a good dancer,” Mrs. McRae said with a laugh. “And I like dancing.”

Donna and Paul McRae married while Donna was still enrolled at Michigan State. After his own graduation, Dr. McRae moved to Tennessee to enroll in the Meharry Medical College School of Medicine. His specialty was Gastroenterology, the study of the digestive system.

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In 1969, the couple had a son, Paul Jr. Over the next decade, Dr. and Mrs. McRae bounced around, living the hectic life imposed on any family by the medical profession. Dr. McRae followed his job to Detroit; Boston; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and finally, Columbus, Ohio.

In 1973, the couple’s first daughter, Leah, was born. In 1977 came their second daughter, Deana.

In 1980, with Dr. McRae’s internship, externship, residency military service and fellowship finally complete, the family moved back to the father’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

They quickly took up roots. Paul Jr. became a young football star. Leah and Deana didn’t stray far from their father’s favorite game either: at Lakewood High School, the older sister played in the marching band, and the younger was a cheerleader.

Central to Dr. McRae’s parenting style was the example he set of community service, his family remembers. He mentored local youth, and in the 1990s, he served on a civic board that made recommendations about how to improve local schools.

His profession itself was a manifestation of his investment in St. Petersburg, and he won great acclaim in the medical community. His friend, Dr. Frederic Guerrier, said Dr. McRae’s reputation as a teacher was beyond reproach.

“He was a physician’s physician,” Guerrier said. “Dr. McRae was so smart, even though he was a specialist in gastroenterology, he could talk about any branch of medicine.”

In 2006, Dr. McRae was named the first black chief of staff at what was then called Bayfront Medical Center. He served three consecutive terms.

All of Dr. McRae’s children said their father’s legacy imbued them with a sense of responsibility.

“There was a great deal of pressure to live up to his legacy, whether it be academically or giving to the community,” said Leah McRae, who is now St. Petersburg’s director of education and community engagement.

But the pressure didn’t come from their father’s words, it came from his example.

Roberts, who is now an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, said her father taught her to “love your family and always try to help others.”

“My father was extremely patient with us,” said Deana, now a lobbyist for the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, D.C. “He didn’t want to mold us into replicating his life.”

Editor’s note: This article has been changed to reflect the following correction — Dr. Paul McRae graduated from Gibbs High School in 1962. An article on his life that ran Sept. 19 listed another year.

Dr. Paul McRae

Born: May 6, 1945

Died: September 13, 2019

Survived by: His wife, Donna; his children, Paul Jr. (Patricia), Deana, Leah and Pam Roberts (Lance); his cousin, Annetta Darke and his grandchildren, Symone and Juliet.

A reflection and celebration of Dr. McRae’s life will be held from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg, and a funeral service will be held at 11 a.m., Oct. 5, at the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg at 1900 Gandy Blvd. N.