Willie Joel Sanders, a legendary teacher in the College of Medicine, died Saturday, March 27. He was 81.
After a career that spanned more than three decades, Sanders retired from UF in 1989 as a tenured associate professor of anatomy and cell biology. He was the first African-American faculty member in the College of Medicine. Recently, more than 200 family members, friends, colleagues and former students shared their memories with Sanders at a celebration of his life at the Health Science Center.
“We were fortunate to have that moment to let him know how much he really meant to us,” wrote Dr. Michael L. Good, dean of the College of Medicine, in an announcement to faculty.
Sanders was one of the first six black students to be accepted into UF as an undergraduate. He first began working for the Health Science Center in 1957 as an anatomy lab technician, 13 years before the first two African-American physicians graduated from the College of Medicine.
Because of his love for the study of anatomy, he advanced from the role of preparing materials used to instruct medical students to faculty ranks, becoming an associate professor of gross anatomy. He later became the director of the Office of Minority Affairs.
He lived his life committed to helping other people. He played a huge role in positively shaping many lives and careers. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Pauletta, and their five children, Paula Pringle, Willie Joel Sanders Jr., Tonnya Sanders, Rhonda Sanders and Chada Sanders.
“His College of Medicine family will miss him, but his spirit and legacy will never leave us,” said Good.
Arrangements are being handled by Duncan Brothers Funeral Home. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 3, at Faith Missionary Baptist Church, 2905 Southeast 21st Ave., Gainesville.
Below is the story that was written following the February event held in Sanders’ honor. Sanders attended the event along with 200 admirers who showed him their appreciation for his guidance and good nature.
Honoring a College of Medicine legend
By Priscilla Santos
March 10, 2010
It is not often that people get an opportunity to thank their heroes. But on a chilly afternoon in February, a former faculty member and mentor who influenced thousands of students at the UF College of Medicine came home to a hero’s welcome.
More than 200 families, friends, former students and current College of Medicine leaders gathered to honor Willie Joel Sanders, a legendary teacher and agent for change.
His influence was even acknowledged by Grammy award-winning recording artist Lionel Richie.
“When I spoke to Lionel Richie about Willie Sanders, he (Richie) was moved to send him a gift and dedicate one of his songs to him,” said Dr. John Jernigan, a former student and current professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Jernigan continued by reading the lyrics of “Hero,” and by handing Sanders a framed autographed photograph of Richie.
Sanders, one of the first six black students to be accepted into UF as an undergraduate student, first began working for the Health Science Center in 1957 as an anatomy lab technician, 13 years before the first two African-American physicians graduated from the College of Medicine.
Because of his love for the study of anatomy, he advanced from the role of preparing the cadavers used to instruct medical students to faculty ranks, becoming an associate professor of gross anatomy. He later became the director of the Office of Minority Affairs.
The ceremony honoring Sanders began with opening remarks by Donna M. Parker, M.D., assistant dean of the Office of Minority of Affairs. It progressed with musical dedications, a photo slide show of his life and thousands of words of encouragement as former students and friends spoke about how he changed their lives.
“Based on the attendance in this room, you’ve left a legacy in each of our lives,” said Dr. Alice Rhoton, M.D., a former student who shared memories of Sanders helping her in the anatomy lab. “He’s passed on who he is to the next generation.”
Sanders — husband to his wife of 48 years, Pauletta, and father of five children — listened quietly on the stage to his admirers.
“A lot of sermons are preached, but Will is a living sermon,” said Jernigan. “Even if it was midnight, he was there for us.”
And on this sunny Saturday, Sanders — a legend who broke racial barriers for the College of Medicine — showed that he never left, gifting UF medical students with a legacy that will never fade.