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Grand Rapids in 1856

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Dr. Robert W. Claytor Remembered

90th Birthday Tribute, 1987

Dr. Robert Claytor is a quiet man. But don’t mistake this retired physician’s soft-spoken style for a lack of accomplishment. He’ll be feted for his caring and contributions to the community at a birthday tribute Saturday evening at the Amway Grand Plaza Atrium Room. Claytor will be 90. 

He’s a very quiet and reserved person, the strongest person I know,” said his daughter, Sharon Peters, Michigan’s assistant secretary of state in Lansing. “He’s just a strong, well-principled person. In his quiet way, he has done so much for people.” Peters said her father was “a one-man Medicaid program” in Grand Rapids, where he maintained a practice for about 43 years. He retired more than eight years ago. 

 Noah Seifullah agrees. “He was the doctor of the poor people. Many times patients could not afford to pay Claytor, so the M.D. set up long-term payment plans,” said Seifullah, president and chief executive officer of Madison Square Co-op. Seifullah, attorney John Johnson, Urban League President Walter Brame, Dr. Ralph Mathis, school administrator Melvin Atkins, and Peters are among those planning the tribute. Seifullah, 39, added that Claytor was the doctor who delivered him. 

Claytor figures he delivered 'well over a thousand' babies; many of them in homes. Claytor was named Family Physician of the Year in 1976 by the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians. At that time, he was semi-retired, putting in half-days at this office at 1424 Madison Ave. SE. He moved his practice there in the 1950’s. 

After interning at Chicago’s Provident Hospital, Claytor came to Grand Rapids in 1936 and set up practice at the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue. Getting there was not easy. The youngest of 13 children born to a farming couple in western Virginia worked his way through college and medical school. As youths, Claytor’s parents were slaves in the pre-Civil War South. Claytor is the only surviving member of that family. After eighth grade, Claytor could not attend the nearby white high school. So he went to Virginia Normal Institute for Blacks. After studying business at the University of Pennsylvania and gaining a bachelor’s degree in science at Northwestern University, he eventually wound up at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN where he graduated in 1934. 

“Job opportunities were limited in the South,” he said, so Claytor settled in Michigan where his brother, Archer, had gone to start a medical practice. Archer’s practice was in Saginaw. “I came here to practice medicine and I got caught up in civic affairs for a while,” Claytor said simply. 

For example, he was the first president of the Urban League here and also was a member of the Community Chest board. “I was glad I was able to contribute.” So how is Claytor spending his time these days? “I help my wife wash the dishes and stuff,” he quipped. 

His wife, Helen, 80, who is known for her volunteer work, said, “We have laughed about that (how to spend retirement). Now that we are free, we do as much as we want to do.” The Claytors will have been married 44 years next month. “It’s just nice to be growing old together,” said Helen. “He’s a wonderful person.” 

The slender Claytor said his health “is about as good as can be expected, certainly not what it was 50 years ago.” He does admit to some arthritis, but says a health diagnosis ‘should be between doctor and patient.’ These days, Claytor is keeping things low-key. “I just take it quietly.” About 200-225 friends and relatives are expected to attend the birthday tribute at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Dinner and entertainment will be included.

From the Grand Rapids Press, September 24, 1987


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