by John Walters
“Is this the new Wally Mulligan?” I would ask by way of salutation every time I phoned.
“Oh, John,” Wally would often reply with an infectious chuckle. “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
The “new Wally Mulligan” was a term my physician friend had made up not long after we met, a riff on how he was setting forth on a self-improvement program. The joke was that he’d ever need to.
As a medical student in Philadelphia, Wally had chosen internal medicine (like Dr. House in the CBS progam) because “it was the most difficult specialty I could find.” He’d served in the Marine Corps as a battalion surgeon stateside in the early 1960s, then in 1969 served a tour in Vietnam as a civilian doctor. For 30 years, whenever I’d lamely say to him, “I’ll try,” he’d quickly interrupt me with, “Marines don’t try.”
We met quite by chance in April of 1989. In my first year out of college, trying to decide whether or not to attend the medical school I had been accepted to or take another path, I bought myself a year of procrastination by volunteering at a high school for Native Americans in Santa Fe. I taught chemistry (this white Walters was teaching high school chemistry in New Mexico long before Walter White). It was a boarding school, and on a weeknight I drew the duty to drive a few students to the Public Health Indian Hospital.
There I was, a clean-cut kid festooned in a Notre Dame Crew sweatshirt when a tall, handsome man in a lab coat with a full mane of white hair happened upon me. “Did you go to Notre Dame?” he asked, wide-eyed. You have to understand: To come across a 21 year-old such as myself in Santa Fe at the time—there was a bearded man who walked around the plaza daily in a wedding dress—was like finding Wally Cleaver in Haight-Ashbury during the summer of love.
Wally was intrigued.
A conversation led to lunch that led to Wally and his wife, Alma, inviting me and my roommate, Marty, to dinner at their house in Pecos, about 25 miles east of Santa Fe. I quickly diagnosed Wally as chronically, no terminally, Irish: he loved to laugh and he was a gifted raconteur. I’d only learn later that he was a member of Mensa and had authored 12 books of his own.
That night the four of us walked down to the Pecos River and stared up at the gallery of stars above us. As we reentered the house, we were talking constellations (Wally had also taught a course in astronomy) and Alma asked, “Did you see Scorpio?” and I’m not sure what possessed me other than the fact that being around Wally just inspired me, but I replied matter-of-factly, “No, but I loved Dog Day Afternoon.”
“Ohhhhh!” Wally chortled, surprised and charmed. “Alma, what happens to them? Why can’t they stay like this?”
“They get married,” Alma replied, “and then they get careers and they slowly die inside.”
Wally had been on the career track. He had gotten married—he was quite the handsome devil in his youth, a veritable daytime soap opera doc—, had two children, Michael and Rebecca, and opened a private practice in Cleveland. But he must’ve been miserable—anyone who met Wally never saw him within two time zones of unhappy, much less miserable. He divorced the eastern half of the United States and moved his family to an Indian reservation in northeast Arizona, where he served as medical director for the country’s first Native-American run health-care organization.
Two Mulligan anecdotes from that era stand out for me: the first, when he was audited by the I.R.S. because they simply could not believe a medical doctor only earned $23,000 in one year. The second, when a pair of German tourists were trying to purchase something at a local Native American goods boutique. Because Wally spoke both German and the Pueblo language of Keresan, he was able to serve as translator.
Brilliant, funny and utterly without pretense, that was Wally. You’d tell him about some misfortune that you had run into and he’d reply, “Second prize was two nights in Tucumcari (an unappealing, barren, eastern New Mexican fuel stop disguised as a town).” Wally was once invited to a swank Santa Fe party, the kind to which the odd celebrity is invited and the other attendees try hard to act unimpressed. So there stood Robert Redford, nursing a drink and not particularly talking to anyone. Wally approached. “The name’s Mulligan,” Wally said, extending an arm from his 6’2″ frame and flashing that winning smile. “I’m the local doc. What do you do?”
The Sundance Kid smiled, clearly charmed. “Bob,” he answered. “I’m in pictures.”
That was Wally Mulligan. In the seeds of our friendship was the hope, by Wally, that I would follow his path into medicine. And truly, I almost did. Before I’d met Wally, I had yet to meet anyone in my pre-med program or in the hospitals where I interned who flashed a sense of humor, who did not fail to take themselves too seriously. Suddenly, here was this guy who was both Dr. Kildare and Roger Rabbit. It could be done.
The nearest character I can summon who is redolent to Wally Mulligan is Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H, particularly in the early years of the show: brilliant, witty, lanky, uninhibited, flirtatious, mischievous and, above all, caring. It’s important to remind you that with all of the gifts that God had given him, with all of the talent he had and the work he put in to develop that talent, Wally devoted his life to easing people’s pain. Not to making money; he was never wealthy. Not to rising up the ladder; he had a far more prestigious job at the age of 30 than he did at the age of 55, and by choice. He became a doctor and he took care of what he liked to call “the great unwashed.” With ardor. And they LOVED him for it.
For one of our first lunches, Wally asked me to meet him at the hospital. When I arrived, a nurse ushered me into a changing room and tossed me a pair of scrubs. Next thing I know, I was shoved into a delivery room where I stood next to Wally as he delivered a baby (I cut the umbilical cord). Clearly, he was trying to show me that medicine was not miserable, that the wonders of life made it more than worthwhile.
It was a turbulent time for someone like myself who can sometimes too easily let outside influences steer a decision. Dead Poets’ Society had just come out (“Carpe diem!”) but then so had Field of Dreams (Moonlight Graham) and now here was Wally Mulligan, who sort of resembled Burt Lancaster. What to do?
I chose journalism, of course, a decision that must have greatly disappointed him, though it never affected our friendship. He was more upset about where I was moving—”New York isn’t living, it’s existing”—than what I was doing. Wally had long ago abandoned the East Coast and Midwest and that entire mentality. He’d promised he’d never travel east of Tucumcari again. He didn’t, with the exception of one college reunion, in all the years I knew him.
Still, we’d talk on the phone frequently. He’d always ask what book I was reading and then tell me what he was reading. Once he shared that he had just devoured Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, the autobiography of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who’d helped build the atomic bomb and was one of the more eccentric characters you’d ever come across. It dawned on me that both Richard Feynman and Wally Mulligan did or had inhabited northern New Mexico, and I thought, kindred spirits.
Wally knew every movie reference. Every literary character. Every Shakespearean quote. And he’d invoke each of them without ever coming off as pompous. He was a repository of aphorisms. “John, to live well is to eat well,” he’d say, “and to eat well is to eat Italian.” With every conversation came a bon mot or an insightful, often hilarious, anecdote, free of charge.
I spoke to Wally in April. Phoned him specifically to admonish him. It had dawned on me that though I’ve spent three decades meeting or interviewing some big names (Kurt Cobain, Hugh Hefner, Clay Travis!), I’d still never come across anyone quite as brilliant and warm and funny as Wally Mulligan (An aside in an essay that’s been riddled with them: In his seventies Wally volunteered in an after-school reading program for elementary school kids, where they called him “Mr. Mulligan.” None of the kids knew he was a doctor because he never felt any reason to tell them). Thirty years of criss-crossing the country and meeting millionaires and Hall of Famers all to come to the epiphany that Wally Mulligan, new or original recipe, is ultimately inimitable.
“Mulligan, you should have warned me,” I told him. “I thought I was heading out into that big city, into that big world, and that I’d be meeting dozens of Wally Mulligans. I still haven’t met a single soul that’s measured up to you.”
“Why, thank you, John,” he said warmly, then launched into a funny story about taking his board exams and how the instructor told him to quit with the pretentious terms and just tell him the seven ways fluids can leave the body (I think it was seven, Wally; I was listening, I promise).
Last weekend my college friend Dean and I were driving through southwestern Pennsylvania. We passed a sign for St. Vincent College, where Mulligan had attended both prep school and college (an experience that permanently cured him of Catholicism and religion in general). “I have a good friend who went there!” I exclaimed to Dean and then picked up my phone to dial Wally.
The call went straight to voicemail. I felt a tinge of dread. Two days later, I spoke to Wally’s daughter. He left this world last Friday. Wally wanted his headstone to read, “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad,” which is taken from the novel Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini (yet another book Wally read that I will put on my to-do list). The former is certainly true and as for the latter, well, you watch the news, no?
It’s incalculable, the randomness of life. The cast of characters who randomly appear on our stage and those who don’t. The effects those characters, or the absence of such, will have on the rest of our lives. On an otherwise forgettable weeknight in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I walked down the corridor of a hospital and met the finest man I’ve ever known. Thank you, Wally.