Wilford “Will” Payne

Photo of Wilford “Will” Payne

Wilford A. Payne, ’73 BA (Posthumously)
Wilford “Will” A. Payne spent his life providing medical care to the less fortunate, those the system left behind. On Saturday, July 2, 2016 when that system could no longer care for him, the man the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the “Johnny Appleseed of Local Health Centers” passed away at the age of 71. He did not leave empty-handed. The fruits of Will’s labor can be seen in the thousands of Western Pennsylvania residents who owe their lives to the clinics he built in the region’s poorest neighborhoods. Will’s Primary Care Health Services Inc. treats more than 20,000 patients a year in Allegheny County and the model he developed as a pioneer in community health is employed in cities across the country.
Will’s commitment to service developed in Youngstown, where he was born on Jan. 4, 1945, to Walter A. Payne and Mildred Gatewood Payne. His parents instilled the value of hard work for Will and his younger brother, also named Walter, but better known as “Be Be.”
Will would go on to a distinguished career at Youngstown’s East High and receive his first experience in the health care field while working as an U.S. Air Force medic from 1966 to 1970.
After Will was honorably discharged from the military, he paid his way through Youngstown State University on the GI Bill and with wages earned working at Youngstown Sheet & Tube, where he also learned to lay brick. Will earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology at YSU before receiving a Master’s Degree in Hospital Administration from The Ohio State University. That training prepared Will for work at a miner’s clinic in West Virginia, where his performance caught the attention of recruiters. In 1977, they lured him to Pittsburgh to run what was then called the Homewood-Brushton Neighborhood Health Center and what is now the Alma Illery Medical Center and the headquarters of the Primary Care Health Services.
One month after his arrival, PCHS ran out of money and Will wondered if he could make payroll, now it’s the largest network of federally qualified health centers in the state of Pennsylvania.
Will’s three decades at the head of Primary Care spanned the period where the federal health center system grew from its infancy to become an integral part of the health care industry, the part oriented toward service for the poor, uninsured and disadvantaged, not toward profit. As hospitals began to reduce care for low income patients, Will and his fellow community health practitioners stepped in to fill the void, often providing an attentiveness and a cultural competency that larger, monolithic institutions couldn’t offer. The patients appreciated the care and soon the mainstream would recognize Will’s efforts as well.
In 1985, Will was one of two recipients of the Human Rights Award from the United Nations Association of Pittsburgh and in 1989, he was named president of the National Association of Community Health Centers. Three years later, Will was awarded the Porter Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health for exemplary performance in health care, an honor he shares with luminaries like Nobel Prize winning virologist Franoise Barré-Sinoussi Ph.D. In 2010, he was awarded a Chair of Health Administration by Ohio State.
As Will’s recognition and responsibility grew, he maintained his commitment to mentoring children and young professionals and to the social life of the city in ways both large and small. Will was a fixture at local charitable events, instantly recognizable due to his tall stature, omnipresent fedora, and selection of colorful, irreverent ties.
He was also a sports enthusiast who played for and managed softball teams, cherished golf outings with his brother, and host of local friends, and made his mark as an avid skier at a time when relatively few black people hit the slopes. Will was a renaissance man who combined a love of cooking, he was renowned for his barbecue ribs, homemade ice cream and strawberry pies, with a passion for the Old West and cowboy novels, fine wine and the arts.
The founder of Aunt Mimi’s Collectibles, a thriving business specializing in paintings by African-American artists, Will was a pillar of the black community who also enjoyed blazing trails into areas where African-Americans were the exception, not the norm. Along the way, he left a path for others to follow, telling the Youngstown State University alumni magazine in 2011 that “My generation owes a lot to those who went before us in the Civil Rights movement, all those who created opportunities for us to go to college and do whatever we wanted to do. I feel like I want to give back and this job lets me do that.”
Source: The Vindicator July 13, 2016