Oct. 23, 2015 – Dr. Steve Waters lived a life with an abundance of love. And it was his love for his profession, his patients and for the institution that helped him achieve success as a doctor that will have the most meaningful and lasting impact on the UF College of Medicine.
When John Stephen Waters, a College of Medicine graduate from the class of 1975, died unexpectedly in May at the age of 67, his family, friends and the community he served for more than 30 years as one of its most trusted and beloved orthopaedic surgeons, were shocked and saddened.
“He was always energetic, had a passion for work and for life, and he could always be counted on to do the right thing,” said Shelley Waters, his wife of nearly 30 years and his No. 1 love.
Staying true to the life the couple led together, Shelley turned her loss and sorrow into a tribute to her late husband by helping others attend medical school. She established the J. Stephen Waters, M.D., Scholarship shortly after her husband’s untimely death. The $1 million endowed scholarship for second-chance students seemed like the perfect honor for a generous and humble man who took joy in providing access to higher education for those in need.
An adventurous life
Born in Pensacola, Florida, Steve lived in many interesting places and with a thirst for adventure. His fervor for sailing took him to many tropical locations with family and friends. He enjoyed scuba diving and snow skiing, spent one summer white water rafting through the Grand Canyon, and he took up flying drones shortly before he died.
“He was a very active guy, very humorous and was loved by everybody,” said Dr. Scott Medley, a friend and colleague.
As an undergraduate at Virginia Military Institute, Steve participated in a number of sports, including gymnastics and soccer. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in biology and applied to the UF College of Medicine, but was turned down. He didn’t let the rejection stop him, however, from reaching his goal of becoming a physician.
A Gator for life
Steve enrolled at UF and completed a year of post-baccalaureate work, earning a 4.0 GPA as well as acceptance to the College of Medicine.
Guided by his mentors from the College of Medicine — Dr. Hugh “Smiley” Hill during his medical school days, then Dr. William Enneking while he was a resident in the department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation — Steve became a physician with a strong devotion to his patients, their families and to his colleagues.
“He listened to his patients. They loved him,” Shelley said. “He truly enjoyed being a physician and a surgeon.”
Steve was also loved and respected by his employees and members of the medical community. His reputation for integrity, loyalty and fairness was why he was so successful as a physician, said Dr. Rodger Powell, a 1978 graduate of the College of Medicine.
After an internship in general surgery at Vanderbilt University, Steve returned to UF for a residency in orthopaedic surgery. He and fellow surgeon, Dr. Clinton Bush, started The Orthopaedic Center of Gainesville, which has since grown into The Orthopaedic Institute, which now includes more than 25 surgeons and five locations throughout North Central Florida.
“Steve chose to stay in Gainesville to set up practice,” said Shelley, who earned a master’s degree from the UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a specialist in education degree from the UF College of Education. “He never dreamed that his desire to be a good physician would lead to The Orthopaedic Institute as it exists today.”
Steve’s connection to the medical school was important to him, and he maintained his friendships with the physicians he trained with who are now at the UF Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute. The two orthopaedic groups have a very collegial relationship and consulted on many cases over the years, Shelley said.
The Waters were longtime avid supporters of education and the arts in the community, funding a UF medical student and a student in the Take Stock in Children program through the Education Foundation of Alachua County, establishing a scholarship in the UF School of Theatre and Dance and serving as sustaining members of the Harn Museum of Art.
In 2010, he and Shelley were watching news of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that impacted Haiti when he realized he needed to do something to help. After making a few phone calls to former classmates, Steve and a group of College of Medicine alumni embarked on a weeklong trip to Haiti to provide medical care to patients 1,000 miles from Gainesville.
When Steve retired in 2012 after 32 years of practice, he became involved with the College of Medicine as a member of its admissions committee and the Medical Alumni Affairs Board of Directors.
“He took his responsibility with the admissions committee extremely seriously,” Shelley said. “He meticulously studied each candidate’s resume before the interview. The committee assigned him some of the nontraditional candidates — those applying for the second or third time, or those who had a job or career before applying.
“He was looking for people who were driven, determined and who had a strong desire to become a physician. Just like he did.”
This was why the decision to establish the scholarship at the medical school he regarded so fondly came easily to Shelley, and to the couple’s four children, Kelly, Art, Stephanie and Brandy.
“Steve was a very humble person with great humility,” Shelley explained. “He was always generous when it came to education, but he would never have singled himself out for recognition.”
Future UF medical students who don’t make the cut on their first try but don’t give up on their dream will have Steve Waters’ example of determination, hard work and insatiable passion for life as an inspiration.
“Steve accomplished so much as a physician, surgeon, husband, father and friend,” Shelley said. “All this from a doctor who was turned down the first time he applied.”