2006 Honoree - Dr. Rolland C. Lowe

[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented by Board member and journalist Emerald Yeh at the 10th Annual Asian Pacific Fund Gala.]

Dr. Rolland Lowe is a community doctor in the truest sense. He has cared for some 20 thousand patients in more than four decades of practicing medicine in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Dr. Rolland C. Lowe

At the same time, he has tended to a much larger community, not only re-defining and improving health care for low-income patients in Chinatown, but serving as a role model for minority doctors statewide to advocate for their patients’ needs, starting a youth center in Chinatown to address gang violence, helping get affordable housing for the elderly built, and giving voice to Asian Pacific Islander health issues on a national level. And that is just a very small sampling of how Dr. Rolland Lowe has provided care for us all.

As many of you know, Dr. Lowe retired from medical practice after 43 years of service earlier this year, partly due to health issues. As is characteristic of Dr. Lowe, he tried to use his retirement as an opportunity to throw a party to show HIS gratitude to his patients for the trust and confidence they have given him. Instead, some 800 people turned out to honor and celebrate his tireless devotion.

Retiring from a profession is a life event that leads to a wrapping up or summation of one’s accomplishments, but for Dr. Lowe, it is but a pause as he continues to cast his eye, ear and heart toward the needs of his community and the issues challenging the next generation of leaders.

Rolland Lowe came into this world with activism in his blood, born as the only child of parents who were willing to take risks to speak out against the suffering of others. His father, Lawrence, was born in China and joined the Communist Party in the 1920s at the age of 22.

“He was very idealistic and concerned about the plight of the Chinese people and thought that the Communist Party offered the best answer,” Dr. Lowe said. “In those days, if you were arrested for being a Communist, there was no trial. They just killed you. So you could call my Dad a radical, but he was willing to pay the price of his own life for others. It is an example that inspires me to this day, in which you sacrifice the 'me' for the greater 'we.'"

Rolland Lowe’s father escaped persecution in China and came to the U.S. under false papers, using the name "Lowe," while his actual surname was Choy.

Rolland’s mother, Eva, was born in California and used to stand on a soap box in Chinatown to decry the imperialists, referring to the Japanese who had invaded China. And even recently, at the age of 94, Eva Lowe was raising money for the elementary school in the family village in China.

To these two parents, Rolland Lowe was born… in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1932. He went to nursery school at the YWCA on Clay Street across from the family apartment.

His first exposure to the cruelties of history and circumstances came just a few years later when his family moved to Hong Kong. His father was teaching Chinese and his mother taught English. But World War II broke out, and Rolland recalls watching from their second floor balcony as dump trucks came down the street every morning to pick up the bodies of the many villagers who fled to Hong Kong during the war, only to perish in the streets.

The family made it out of Hong Kong in 1941 on the last U.S.-bound ship. Arriving back in San Francisco, his father took a job at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, working at the bar overnight, washing glasses and restocking the refrigerator.

Rolland’s father then used $500 in savings and borrowed $2,000 to buy a grocery store in West Oakland.

Rolland recalls with sad irony how it was his family got its start in the grocery business. The store his father bought had been owned by a Japanese American family. But with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were being rounded up and shipped off to internment camps, given only 72 hours to terminate their affairs. Just a few days before that grocer family was interned, their son committed suicide by jumping off the Bay Bridge.

Between that tragedy and the injustice of the internment camps, and growing up in a black community where Rolland used to deliver groceries to Ron Dellums’s mother, he was already developing a strong sense of the need for minorities to work together to secure their rights and open up opportunities for themselves.

It was during high school that he joined a progressive youth organization, Mun Ching, or the Chinese-American Democratic League, that met in a basement on Stockton Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They organized picnics and singing groups, published a newsletter, and studied the teachings of Mao.

“We never advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government or renounced our allegiance to America,” Rolland Lowe said. But it was the 1950s and Dr. Lowe was later to be investigated by the U.S. government for his association with progressive activities.

“At that time, I didn’t quite understand the civil rights I was entitled to,” he said. But that experience was to form the bedrock for his later years of involvement and dedication to the organization, Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Dr. Lowe’s experience with Mun Ching also shaped him in another way. “I learned to see major contradictions in situations and to analyze the main forces pushing one way or another, as well as how opposing forces can be balanced and how to work as a group and come to a consensus.:

At this point of his life, Rolland was only in his early teens. But, as a recent San Francisco Chronicle article said, “Rolland Lowe has always been ahead of his time.”

He finished high school at the age of 15, college at UC Berkeley at 18… and medical school at UCSF at the age of 22. He confesses, though, that learning by rote memory was not his strength, so the first two years of medical school were especially difficult for him. He still recalls getting a C for anatomy. His parents were shocked, he said, and blamed his girlfriend Kathy for distracting him. She might have distracted him, but she has certainly kept his attention as they later went on to get married and recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.

It was during the clinical years of medical school which involved actual practice of medicine that Rolland Lowe excelled. That was when he decided to specialize in general surgery. “I wanted to be a complete doctor,” he said, “And I find that if you don’t do surgery, you miss out on a lot in terms of being a complete doctor.”

It was right after medical school and before shipping out to Korea as an Army Captain, that Dr. Lowe married Kathy. Their lifelong partnership in community involvement and philanthropy had a simple beginning--no honeymoon and just two tables at a dinner for close family members.

After completing his military service, Rolland Lowe came back to San Francisco to do his surgical residency at UCSF before opening up his practice in Chinatown, just half a block from where he went to nursery school. In doing so, he turned down lucrative offers from prestigious clinics around the Bay Area. Not only was he getting paid less than he could have been had he worked elsewhere, but as a vascular surgeon, he was also overqualified to take care of the kind of patients he saw routinely, patients with problems like high blood pressure and diabetes. “But that didn’t bother me,” he said. “I got to practice where I wanted to. Chinatown was my home and is my passion.”

Jennie Chin Hansen, longtime executive director of On Lok and now president-elect of AARP, recalls seeing Dr. Lowe at work 35 years ago when she was a community health nurse in Chinatown. “I had accompanied a patient to his office, where I saw a long line of people waiting patiently to be seen by this pied piper physician of our community,” she said. The admiration and respect the patients had for this remarkable and dedicated physician was very apparent.

But Dr. Lowe was not only taking care of all these patients, he was also diligently taking the pulse of the community, assessing things in a way that was to become the hallmark of his leadership style--looking at the big picture and figuring out how to move things to the next level.

As a doctor, Rolland Lowe wanted to do more than heal. “Healing is a restoration to where you were before,” he said. “But I like to move things forward. When I do something or join an organization, it is with the thought of how can I help this situation be better, not merely learn what the tradition is and how to maintain it, but to move it to the next level.”

So not only did Dr. Lowe serve as the Chief of Surgery and Chief of Staff as well as Chair of the Board of Trustees at Chinese Hospital where he helped ensure access to high quality care for low-income immigrants, but he took things a step further, getting Chinese Hospital re-built and pushing for a health plan for his community. He helped form the Chinese Community Health Care Association in order to provide comprehensive, culturally sensitive and affordable, even free care for the Chinese. Today, 172 private practice physicians provide this care to 25,000 people through various health plans and at hospitals including CPMC, UCSF and St. Francis, as well as Chinese Hospital.

In 1982, the year that the Chinese Community Health Care Association was founded, Rolland Lowe became the first Asian American to be elected as president of the San Francisco Medical Society.

In 1997, he became the first Asian American president of the California Medical Association. During his tenure as CMA president, he gave minority physicians a place at the table, creating a voting section for ethnic physicians within the CMA and later helped start the Network of Ethnic Physician Organizations to address disparities in health care.

On the national level, Dr. Lowe helped form the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum which is a recognized national voice of the Asian Pacific Islander community on health issues.

While working to elevate heath care for his community, Dr. Lowe also served a wide range of non-profit organizations, including the Chinese Cultural Foundation, the Chinatown Youth Coordinating Center, Self-Help for the Elderly, Chinese for Affirmative Action, The San Francisco Foundation, Bay Area Social Planning Council, SPUR, and the Council on Foundations.

“You name the board, and I’ll tell you when Kathy or I were there,” he said. He also served as a commissioner on the state board of medical examiners, and on the state insurance commissioner’s health study commission.

All these years he was serving, Dr. Lowe was also practicing philanthropy… long before it became in vogue, especially for someone in the Chinese community. In the 20 years since his family sold World Theater and put the money into the Lawrence Choy Lowe Memorial Fund, named after Rolland’s father, the family has given away $350,000 to the Chinese community with plans to give the rest of its money away in the next 10 years. “There is so much need today,” Dr. Lowe said. “Why should we hold on to what we have?”

The fact that Dr. Lowe’s influence and impact is known far and wide, outside the San Francisco Chinese community, is evidenced by the recognition he received in 1999 from President and Mrs. Clinton as a philanthropic hero. He also received the Chancellor’s Award for Public Service from UCSF as well as the Silver SPUR for Lifetime Achievement Award (the highest award from San Francisco Planning and Urban Research) and most recently, the Champions of Health Professions Diversity Award from the California Wellness Foundation.

Dale Minami, a founder of the Asian Law Caucus and past Asian Pacific Fund honoree says, "I think Dr. Lowe represents the next phase of human evolution - someone so brilliant in his profession, able to excel in both ethnic and majority societies and with a compassion and generosity of spirit which uplifts us all. He is a true hero."

To all this, Dr. Lowe gives credit to others, saying "You are a leader because people give you the chance to be."

There is a Chinese saying: “When drinking water, remember the source.” Dr. Lowe whose Chinese name means “to move the wheel of history,” always remembers the source of his guiding philosophy in life. He says “We all need a moral compass. I was blessed by parents who gave me moral values and the greatest joy is passing on a moral compass, not the profession and not the assets.”

Rolland and Kathy Lowe’s example of activism and generosity are now being passed onto their three children and three grandchildren. Their children are Yvonne, a city health compliance officer, Randy, a bioengineering product manager, and Larry, senior counsel for Apple and, more importantly for us, our first chairman of the Board at the Asian Pacific Fund.

As we honor Dr. Lowe tonight, we too should be guided by the Chinese saying, “When drinking the water, remember the source.” That water we are drinking includes better health care in Chinatown, minority patients throughout California who now have doctors advocating their needs, ethnic physicians having a voice among their professional peers, wayward Chinatown youth having a place to turn to. The list is endless, like a water flow indeed.

An observer noted that Dr. Lowe could have been 10 times richer had he not given away so much of his medical services and so much of his time for non-profit causes. But Dr. Lowe responds by saying, “Wealth is the satisfaction of being able to help your community be a better place. That is priceless.”

And so even in retirement, Dr. Lowe continues to keep his shoulder to that moving wheel of history--- mentoring the next generation of leaders, elevating the agenda, moving the community forward.

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