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Grand Rapids in 1856

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Robert W. Claytor, Obituary

Dr. Robert W. Claytor is remembered as a ‘community treasure’ who continually touched the lives of blacks in Grand Rapids. As a pioneer, he was the first black doctor on the staffs of Saint Mary’s and Butterworth hospitals. As a leader, he founded the Urban League here, and as a man he sought neither riches nor accolades. 

There was something about Dr. Claytor that transcended being a friend or physician, said the Rev. Tom Smith, retired rector of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church and Claytor’s priest for 10 years. “He was more than a role model,” he said, “He was the epitome of kindness and love, and he didn’t vacillate.” 

Claytor, 91, died Monday at Kent Community Hospital after a long illness. Service will be 1 p.m. Friday, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 134 N. Division Ave. Officiating will be the Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, bishop of the church’s Washington, D.C. diocese. 

Urban League President Walter Brame said, “Claytor was the first chairman of the board of the Grand Rapids Urban League, and we are saddened by his death but proud of the contributions he made in his full life.” Brame described Claytor as a ‘community treasure.’ “He knew so much, and he had so much to offer. The story of so many black people in this town is that he delivered then or they referenced him at key points in their lives,” said Brame, who last year helped organize a communitywide birthday celebration for the physician. “When I learned of his death, so many people were telling how he gave them a free physical or delivered them.” 

 Michael Johnson, owner of Brown’s Funeral Home, was one of the hundreds of children delivered by Claytor. He viewed the retired doctor as a ‘godfather.’ “Dr. Claytor was like a steering force behind me, and I appreciated all of his help. He used to tell me it’s amazing to see someone he brought into the world come along in the manner I did. Then he’d tell me to work on the rough edges. He would say, ‘I don’t want to hear of you in the Caribbean or Hawaii or Mexico, instead of taking care of business. Take care of business and the others will come.’ That was how he lived,” said Johnson. 

When Claytor moved to Grand Rapids, he became the area’s third black doctor. A few months after his arrival in 1936, he joined Saint Mary’s Hospital staff. His acceptance at Butterworth took another 10 years and the intervention of Bishop Lewis Bliss, a member of the hospital’s governing board and former head of what is now St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Bliss threatened to resign from the board if Claytor was not accepted to the hospital’s staff. 

Bliss and Claytor co-founded the Brough Community Association, which evolved into the Grand Rapids Urban League. Claytor served as president from 1946-1949 and remained active in the organization. He was a life member of the Grand Rapids chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, and was a member of the Grand Rapids South Rotary and the Madison Square Business Association. 

“He had a tremendous philosophy of caring for people and not expecting great rewards or accolades,” said Dr. Edward Allen Jones, an internist whose family was treated by Claytor and who later served as Claytor’s physician. Claytor was a member of the Kent County Medical Society, the American and National Medical Associations, and the American Academy of Family Physicians. He received the Michigan Family Physician of the Year Award in 1976 and was honored in 1984 for 50 years of family practice. 

Claytor is survived by his wife, Helen, who is a member of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. She was the first black YWCA board president and was a member of the national board for 30 years, serving 5 years as president. She also is known for her work in civil rights, through the Urban League and the NAACP, and was a founding member of the city of Grand Rapids’ Human Relations Commission. Other survivors are a stepson, Roger W. Wilkins of Washington, D.C., daughters, Judith A. Claytor, and Sharon Claytor Peters.

From the Grand Rapids Press, March 1, 1989

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