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A reporter's note on meeting Stan Brock

As someone who grew up thrilling to his Sunday night derring-do on TV's Wild Kingdom, I was intrigued by the prospect of getting to know Stan Brock, and of pulling aside the mask of dragon-slaying invincibility perpetually worn by this man who, to many Generation X-ers, was something of a real-life superhero.

After several weeks of personal meetings and conversations, I'm more in awe of his exploits, yet even less certain about what makes him tick. He is a rare specimen, one of the very few people of renown in this world who is actually larger than the myth that surrounds him.

In many ways, Brock is a paradox on two legs; a former cowboy and big-game hunter who is now a strict vegetarian; a pacifist with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do karate, and who once gave serious thought to a career in professional boxing. He's also a lifelong exercise fanatic, who at age 67 or thereabouts spends the first two hours of each day—beginning no later than 5 a.m.—practicing a rigorous and somewhat idiosyncratic personal fitness regimen of running, stretching and high-intensity calisthenics; his still-rugged physique offers compelling testimony of the efficacy of the routine.

"He's a tough cookie, strong like you wouldn't believe," says one associate, a frequent Remote Area Medical Volunteer. "And he's a little vain; he doesn't like to tell you his age. But he's one of the most dedicated people I've ever met."

Having never married, and having no children, Brock lives alone, sometimes sleeping in the old schoolhouse that is home to RAM, a building serviced by neither heat nor air conditioning. The austerity of his lifestyle is one of the things that has enabled him to keep the medical relief organization afloat for so many years without any constancy of funding.

"Someone said the other day that I'm a really low-maintenance person," Brock says. "I suppose that's true. I don't go out to dinner. I don't go out to the movies or anything like that, so I don't require very much. I don't have time for an unusual amount of social activities."

To a man, Brock's fellow RAM volunteers can recite in nearly identical phraseology his stated reasons for founding the organization, the story of his cowboy days in British Guiana, and of the pathos of witnessing an isolated people suffer for want of basic health care. Somehow I felt there had to be more to his story, perhaps some hidden portion of his psyche whence came his altruism and his uncanny work ethic. But if there is some other secret wellspring inside him, four weeks wasn't enough time for me to find it.

"His motivation is genetic," says Karen Wilson, executive director of the RAM Foundation. "We have sometimes used the word 'inhuman.' There is nothing typical about his commitment or his energy or his drive."

But while the source of Brock's inspiration remains a puzzle, I was left with no doubts as to the sincerity of it. He lives what he speaks, without accolade or fanfare. (It should be noted that it was a Metro Pulse editor who conceived this story, and that Brock participated only because he believed it would further the interests of RAM.)

"You have to decide what your priorities in life are, and my priorities now are doing the work of Remote Area Medical," Brock told me. "That means first that I have to stay fit. That means getting up every morning and taking care of myself, and then spending the rest of the day working on the project. And that's the way it's been."


  Still a Cowboy

Wild Kingdom legend and former ranch hand Stan Brock brings medical relief to indigent peoples the world over.

by Mike Gibson

For those of us who grew up in 1970s, Sunday evenings were once given over to a little half-hour TV show entitled Wild Kingdom, a sort of Extreme-nature program back in the days before Extreme-ness was even fashionable. The show featured host Marlin Perkins, a frail, grey-headed St. Louis Zoo director, and a couple of brawny younger compatriots as they traversed exotic locales, observing, chasing, sometimes catching and tagging for further study all manner of slavering wild beasts.

Fragile Perkins was always narrator and bystander, describing the action with a certain detached erudition as his right-hand men handled the light-work of capturing alligators, tangling with huge snakes, and playing rodeo-clown to charging bull elephants. Jim Fowler, an apple-cheeked former Georgia farmboy, was Perkins' original hired muscle, but to many, latecomer Stan Brock was the show's most memorable element.

Muscular and mutton-chopped, with matinee-idol looks offset only a little by a stately Roman nose, Brock was an Englishman who spent his young-adult years in the jungle wilds and yawning savannas of what was once British Guiana in South America. As a barefoot cowboy on the world's largest cattle ranch—the Dadanawa, a 4,000-square-mile spread along the Brazilian border—Brock had learned the finer points of woodcraft and wild horses, tracking and hunting under the rough tutelage of Guiana's Wapishana Indians. His epic on-screen battles with big cats and sinuous 12-foot anacondas are still writ large in the memories of the program's 30-some-odd million viewers.

His TV days and a brief subsequent B-movie film career long since past, Brock lives in Knoxville now, having moved here in the late 1970s after a promotional appearance for the Appalachian Zoological Society introduced him to the area and its strangely familiar terrain.

"I saw Cades Cove when I first came here, and it looked just like Guiana's Rupununi savannas," Brock tells a reporter who visits his modest South Knox digs on a breezy fall afternoon. His once-jet hair is grayer now, but still voluminously wavy; his patrician features a little craggier, but his physique possessed of the trim hard outline of an athletic, much-younger man.

"The Smoky Mountains looked just like the Kanaku Mountains, and the meadows and woodland in between were very similar to the terrain in Guiana, except that Cades Cove doesn't have any palm trees," Brock continues in a genteel British accent, softened perhaps by years of speaking other tongues in other lands. "So I felt somewhat at home here."

And Brock is still an adventurer, albeit a somewhat less heralded one; he considers his lower-profile work in Knoxville the most important endeavor of his life (he often wryly refers to his 17-year pursuit of a television and movie career as "the Frivolous Years.") As founder in 1985 of the Remote Area Medical non-profit medical relief corps, Brock with the help of other RAM volunteers has brought free medical care—including everything from basic dentistry to critical surgical procedures—to more than a quarter-million people the world over, in locales ranging from prosaic Cleveland, Tenn., to the primitive outlying villages of what is now the Independent Republic of Guyana.

"No other organization I know of is willing to go out there and perform real medical care free of charge in the conditions we do," Brock says. "You can go to free health screenings and they'll check your blood pressure, and maybe if you're lucky a dentist will look in your mouth and say you've got a bad tooth. But we'll tell you what's wrong with you and we'll fix it, pull those teeth out and make you a new pair of eyeglasses on the spot."

What the organization lacks in funding—it subsists almost entirely on the good offices of volunteers and donations from the general public—is largely compensated for by the sheer will and determination of Stan Brock. Charismatic, proselytizing, and boundlessly energetic, he enlists volunteers when none are willing, conjures resources where none exist; RAM is headquartered in an old South Knoxville school building, leased through Knox County for $1 year; the organization's DC3 transport airplane stationed at Island Home Airport is leased from an Ohio-based philanthropist for the same price.

And other than RAM Foundation Director Karen Wilson (responsible for the organization's fund raising efforts) and a part-time bookkeeper, RAM has no paid employees, not even Brock himself.

"One of the disappointments is that after all these years, nobody knows about us," Brock says a little wistfully. "We don't have a PR department, and we don't go looking for publicity. We're a well-kept secret. There are a lot of white-knuckle aspects to keeping it going; we have to be careful what we do that we don't find ourselves out of money."

By 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning at Bradley Central High School on the outskirts of Cleveland, Tenn., cars are lined up two-deep for the entire length of the winding drive that leads to the gated entrance of the school. "When I opened the gates, it was like NASCAR," Brock chuckles later. "Everyone cranked up their cars, turned on their headlights and damn near knocked me over. Then they raced like hell to get up here."

It's the second day of a two-day optical and dental clinic set up by RAM at the school on Friday evening. More than 200 people came through the doors for treatment on Saturday, and a total of 239 will have passed through by today's end, all of them receiving either eye or dental examinations, and maybe both. Saturday's count includes 126 pulled teeth, 64 fillings, and 91 pairs of free eye glasses manufactured in a RAM tractor-trailer equipped for measuring and fitting lenses.

To Brock, whose high standards and even higher thresholds dwarf those of normal human beings, the Bradley County clinic is "a small operation," although he adds almost apologetically that "even so, you can get a little bit of an idea of the kind of thing we do."

By way of comparison, he notes that at a similar weekend clinic in Wise County, Va. recently, some 5,000 poor and indigent patients were attended by nearly 1,000 RAM volunteers. "We see people who have never been to a dentist, who have a mouth full of bad teeth," Brock says. "And we'll pull them all out, if it's medically advisable to do so."

At one end of the school's large common room is a line of tables surrounded by a dozen fold-out dental chairs, and another cluster of tables filled with clamps and forceps and prods, disinfectant chemicals and sterilizing equipment. At the other is a succession of optical work stations, eye charts and viewing machines.

In the center is a table full of sample eyeglass frames, for which lenses will be cut in the 53-foot trailer outside, as well as a promiscuous array of chairs where the anxious patients sit, awaiting services.

The weekend sees 131 volunteers join in the work of moving patients through the makeshift clinic, although only a small handful of them are actual medical professionals. Among the volunteers are Boyd Rutherford, a retired Knoxville machinist who has acted as an intake coordinator at a number of regional RAM operations over the last 10 years; Ben and Bob Birdwell, twin Knoxville dentists, RAM regulars who joined the Bradley County operation at the last minute when two other volunteers backed out; and Larry Harris, a Maryville truck driver originally tapped to drive RAM's rolling optical laboratory to Knoxville from Colorado several years ago, and who now helps coordinate the technicians who cut and calibrate lenses inside.

"If you don't have something you like to do, he'll find you something," Harris says of Brock's gift for putting to good use every volunteer. "He's a great humanitarian; when you get to know him you know even more so that doing this work is his life."

Like nearly every Stan Brock associate, Harris almost reflexively spills the oft-heard tale of how and why the medical relief outreach became the abiding passion of its founder; how he drew impetus from his experience in the wilds of Guiana, where isolated villages of native Amerindians suffered for lack of accessible medicine; it's an integral component of Brock's sales pitch in seeking new RAM volunteers.

Stan Brock is a great believer in the fulcrums of Providence, or as he puts it "the little things that crop up unexpected and change the whole direction of your life."

One of the fateful pivots in Brock's own life came in his mid-teens, when the British government afforded him the opportunity to visit his parents, who were working for the colonial office in British Guiana.

On the week-long voyage across the Atlantic to Guiana, the wide-eyed British lad was held rapt by stories told by fellow passengers, "great stories about this wild area down on the Brazilian border called the Rupununi, inhabited by these Indian tribes, and thousands and thousands of wild longhorn cattle and wild horses and wild animals, jaguars and anacondas and all that stuff."

Says Brock: "I became totally enthralled by the whole prospect of absconding to the Rupununi savannas and forgetting about my career in school."

Never a dedicated student back home in the English boarding schools he had attended, Brock was encouraged by his parents to pursue this new course. In Georgetown, Guiana, he found a job with the Rupununi Development Company, which needed an English-speaking "vaquero" (cowboy) on its Dadanawa ranch along the Brazilian border, an operation run primarily by the indigenous Wapishana Amerindians. He signed on for bed, board and $20 per month.

It was harsh passage into the life of a cowboy, even for a particularly resilient and athletic young man (Brock had been a schoolboy boxing champion during his years at the prestigious Canford private institution in England.)

His job description included watching over 50,000 head of wild longhorn cattle, tracking and shooting the wild carnivores that would occasionally diminish their numbers, and driving them by the thousand several times a year from the Brazilian border to coastal Georgetown, a 350-mile trek that took about a month on horseback. It was also required of him to corral and tame wild horses, which were the vaquero's only mode of transportation.

"I always slept with my clothes on, because we were always having things like stampedes in the middle of the night," Brock remembers. "A thousand head of cattle might wreck the corral, and we'd have to dash out and find our horses in the dark and gallop off in pursuit, colliding with trees and all sorts of things."

A misadventure with a horse would prove to be one of the aforementioned pivotal events for Brock; early in his tenure at the Dadanawa, he took it upon himself to mount Cang ("Devil"), an enormous grey mustang with a brutish disposition, a monster of a horse that already killed one would-be rider the year before. (It's worth noting, says Brock, that the romance that surrounds a cowboy and his horse is largely a fiction. "It was a real drama catching your horse in the first place," he chuckles. "Then you run the poor buggers all day, in all these terrible situations. And then maybe the cowboy gets off and his horse kicks him and escapes. All of this bred a certain contempt between the cowboy and the horse.")

Endeavoring to master Cang was in part a means for the young outsider to gain purchase in the insular world of his Wapishana brethren, who in those early days had nicknamed Brock "Meu-tirryan," or "the useless one."

Brock tied the horse to a tree, saddled, blindfolded and mounted him without incident. But when Cang was loosed, his bestial rampage proved too much for the inexperienced rider to contain.

"He went bucking across the countryside and collided with a corral," Brock relates. "I found myself underneath Cang, the horse upside down and rather tangled up. And I was rather smashed up, with some broken ribs and other injuries.

"I heard one of the other cowboys say that the nearest doctor was 26 days away, so it occurred to me at the time that if I survived this, it would be nice to bring the doctors a little bit closer to this area."

Brock's proficiency as a cowboy would improve—Cang became one of his regular mounts—as would his stature among the Wapishana; in his 20s, he succeeded long-time Dadanawa leader Charlie as ranch foreman.

But he grew ever more keenly aware of the need for accessible, reliable health services for the native people. Brock himself would suffer a litany of injuries that included a crushed shoulder blade in another mishap with Cang, sting-ray barbs that lodged in his feet at river crossings (none of the Dadanawa vaqueros wore shoes), and in at least one instance, a thorn that became "implanted in that area one has great difficulty in seeing without a complicated system of mirrors."

As foreman, Brock eventually salted away some of the profits from cattle sales in Georgetown and bought a small used single-engine aircraft for the Dadanawa. He learned to pilot it himself, and began flying in medicines and other supplies from Georgetown; he often served as paramedic and chief nurse to sick and needy Amerindians who lived in the vicinity of the ranch.

"I used to bug the officials in Georgetown that we really needed some help with health care," Brock says. "There were some weak attempts, but nothing was ever done. So when I left to come to this country, it was my plan that at some point I would organize groups of doctors and dentists and vets to go down to this vast area and provide care for these isolated people."

Brock wouldn't leave British Guiana until his early 30s, after a Chicago wildlife photographer named Warrent Garst came to South America on behalf of the American television show Wild Kingdom. In need of a guide, one that was conversant in the ways of indigenous wildlife as well as handy with a lasso and a horse, Garst sought out the English-speaking Dadanawa foreman on the advice of locals.

Over the course of a few years, Garst returned to Guiana time and again, making ever greater use of Brock's services, to the point where the Englishman became an on-camera presence with Wild Kingdom. Eventually, the show's producers offered him a job, and a chance to move to the United States.

"When you don't do anything else day after day after day but wrangle wild cattle and wild horses and hunt jaguars and run up and down the cattle trail in your bare feet, you do accumulate a certain knowledge of the ways of the wild," Brock says.

"They wanted to use the skills I had learned down there on the show—'Brock pursuing wildebeests across the plains of Africa on horseback' or whatever. At that I point, I was ready to take on another challenge: 'OK, let's go to Africa and lasso big game.' That was the impetus for another change in the direction of my life."

Brock moved to Chicago in 1968 and worked as a producer and principal on Wild Kingdom for another four years, creating dozens of episodes that would run in syndication well into the 1980s.

Though he terms this period the beginning of his "Frivolous Years," Brock has fond memories of his time on Wild Kingdom, as evidenced by sundry photos and memorabilia adorning the yellowed walls of the old classroom that serves as his Remote Area Medical office today.

He says he grew close to both Jim Fowler and the since-deceased Perkins, whom he describes as "extremely knowledgeable about wildlife, and pretty much as people remember him on television. Like the rest of us, he wasn't an actor, so what you see was what you got."

The years that followed those Wild Kingdom adventures saw Brock pursue a number of television and film projects, including a series of B-rate action movies with such fanciful titles as Escape from Angola and Galleon: The Indestructible Man, many of them under the directorial auspices of Flipper television producer Ivan Torso, and all of them featuring Brock playing some variation of the bare-footed, preternaturally capable jungle hero.

"We're really getting into frivolity there," Brock says with considerable embarrassment when he remembers those projects today.

In the 1980s, he was asked by the Metro Media production company to produce along with Torso a TV show dubbed Stan Brock's Expedition Danger, which he describes as "a sort of dramatized version of a Wild Kingdom scenario, with villains and fight scenes and all the rest of it."

But in another hiccough of fate, the show was cancelled after two years, despite good ratings, when Metro Media was purchased and reorganized by another corporation.

"I'm so glad now that that happened," Brock says. "I had always wanted to create this organization, and I was in development stages when I got involved with Expedition Danger. Its cancellation opened the way, otherwise I would have continued producing and doing films, I feel sure. It was providential."

Finally, in the mid-80s, Brock says he found himself with the time, inclination and lack of distraction needed to start what would become Remote Area Medical, the medical relief corps he had envisioned since that day in the mid-1950s when he lay flat in the dust, thwarted and broken under the weight of an enormous grey Devil.

Progress was slow in the early days; Brock's first mission to the South American continent didn't happen until 1991, delayed by political uncertainties there as well as a dearth of resources here. But during his travels with Wild Kingdom, Brock had seen poverty and need in the United States that mirrored that which he'd seen as a young cowboy in Guiana. Many of the organization's early missions were in the United States, especially in rural Appalachia, where RAM staged weekend clinics in places like Scott County, Tenn., and Wise and Grundy counties in Virginia. Today, around 60 percent of RAM's work takes place here in the United States.

"There are large numbers of people in the U.S. not totally without health care, but who don't have much access to it," Brock says. "Which puts them in the same category as the Wapishana Indians. In other words, there are Wapishanas everywhere."

Perhaps Brock's proudest moment with RAM came in 1994, when, after years of political unrest, he was at last permitted to fly a mission into Wapishana territory in what had become the Independent Republic of Guyana.

Now RAM has a full-time presence there, with a free air ambulance service in the form of an old single-engine plane, covering a 15,000-square-mile area, flying in and out of 28 different makeshift airfields. All of the airstrips were cleared by machete-wielding RAM volunteers.

"About every second day, the plane gets called out," Brock says. "We fly into isolated villages, some of them flooded much of the year. Most often, it's for Amerindian kiddies who have fallen out of trees, especially during mango season. They're reaching out for that last mango and they fall out 40 feet above the ground and break their little legs and arms."

But RAM's accomplishments, which include 372 missions to date, haven't come without perspiration. A tireless apostle, Brock created the Remote Area Medical Foundation in 1997 to augment fund raising efforts. But he has undertaken as his own the daunting burden of finding volunteers, especially medical professionals, willing to expend free time and personal resources in the cause of indigent medical relief. Says one frequent RAM volunteer, "Stan has the kind of personality that makes you want to pitch in."

"We might have 100 dentists in some places, but mostly we rely on just a handful of people here in Knoxville," Brock says, noting that on the first day of the Bradley County clinic, the Birdwell twins made the trek on two hours' notice when two dentists originally committed to the project decided to attend a UT football game instead. "It's a small group, the main body of them, a dozen or so that we count on to run this whole organization."

Typical of RAM's regular volunteers are internal medicine specialist Dr. Dale Betterton and nurse practitioner Dorothy Davison, Knoxville professionals who return from a mission in Nairobi, capital city of Kenya, on the morning of Brock's first audience with a reporter.

Though still jet-lagged, the duo are almost effervescent in their enthusiasm, recounting with earnest pleasure their experiences ministering to Nairobi's Maasai, a nomadic tribe of cattle herders. Sleeping in wooden huts for the duration of their mission, they and the four other professionals in their traveling group saw 400 adult tribesmen in one day alone, plus an additional 110 children who marched into camp single file under the direction of a local school teacher.

"He told us he asked the children how many of them were sick," Davison says. "That's how many raised their hands. We had no idea that many would come."

"That's a good example of how self-funded we are," Brock says after they leave. "They paid for their own airline tickets, their own medical supplies. We have one or two corporations who contribute, but other than individual donations we have no dependable source of funds. We can't say 'This is the budget for 2004.' We're too busy worrying about this month."

Inherent to the work of Remote Area Medical is a certain level of adventure, unless your name is Stan Brock, in which case you likely have a much narrower definition of the word "adventure" than most. Brock is dismissive of the notion that his work is any more exciting than that of the average bloke.

"I do remember in Haiti once, they threw rocks at our vehicle and smashed our windows, some naughty people," he says. "That spooked out some of the volunteers. We've had shots fired in our proximity, but most of the time there is no danger whatsoever.

"We put people on jeeps and horseback and on dugout canoes sometimes. We have a clause in our application form that says you will be subject to riots and wild animals and insects and disease, etc. etc. You jump over the occasional snake. But you don't worry about it. It's not a problem in what we do. And we haven't yet lost any volunteers....Touch wood."

Indeed, since founding RAM, Brock says he's reordered his own priorities; his pleasures no longer derive from grappling with anacondas or facing off with charging buffalo. "The thing that keeps you going is you're always sort of helping to expand the level and the amount of care," he says.

At such moments, this typically breezy and nonchalant English gentleman grows uncharacteristically solemn, remembering not so much the faces of the patients Remote Area Medical has helped over the years, but rather those of the ones whom they've had to turn away.

"Unfortunately, it's often rather depressing," he says. "You're in India or Guatemala or one of these places where the need is so immense. There's always somebody who shows up late, who obviously has serious problems, women coming forward holding up their kids. And you have to tell that person that unfortunately we can't do any more. And of course they don't understand. It's a very depressing thing that we do. It's never enough. What heartens me is that hopefully next time we go, we won't have to turn them away."

October 9, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 41
© 2003 Metro Pulse