William J. King, 88, of Deptford, a South Jersey physician for four decades who made house calls and broke the color barrier at Underwood-Memorial Hospital in Woodbury during the civil rights movement, died Tuesday, July 16, at his home from complications from heart disease and diabetes.
A year after earning a D.O. degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. King opened a family practice in Woodbury in 1964. It would take four years for Dr. King to get staff privileges at Underwood, now Inspira Medical Center.
The local NAACP chapter intervened after the hospital refused to allow Dr. King to practice there. In 1968, he became the hospital’s first African American physician. He later became chairman of its family medicine practice and medical director of its residency program.
“He broke through so many barriers,” Anthony DiMarino, a gastroenterologist on staff, said Monday. “He was one of the most outstanding individuals I’ve ever known.”
A revered doctor turned pastor and military officer, Dr. King was well-known in the community as a leader and humanitarian. An athlete, he played basketball with future NBA great Wilt Chamberlain for the YMCA in Philadelphia to pay his way through physical therapy school and later medical school.
In 2014, Inspira honored him at “Bill King Day” and applauded his ability to apply new research into clinical methods. A photo and plaque were unveiled to memorialize him. A plaque was erected several years later on the sidewalk outside his former practice.
“It’s going to be tough to fill the void for the work that he did,” said Gloucester County Clerk James Hogan. The two met in 1989, when Dr. King asked to minister to inmates in the county jail. He later served on the county’s first human relations council.
“I lost a true friend,” Hogan said.
Dr. King was known for his personal touch. Patients from across the region visited his office, sitting in the crowded waiting room, said Kathleen Rose, a nurse who joined his practice shortly after it opened. He would see patients until midnight if needed and regardless of their ability to pay, she said.
“He was just a dedicated doctor. People would flock to his office,” said Rose, 77, who now lives in Amherst, Va.
Rose recalled a snowy winter night when Dr. King grabbed his black bag and told her they were making a house call to deliver a baby. He made house visits between seeing patients at the office, she said.
“He delivered the baby — a girl — and handed it to me,” she recalled with a laugh. “I was a nervous wreck.”
There was an outpouring of similar remembrances for Dr. King on social media. Glenna Hope Nichols recalled going into labor in 1976 and waiting for him to arrive from a social event.
“At that moment, in walks Dr. King in a full tuxedo,” she wrote. Minutes later, her daughter was born.
For his two children, Dr. King was “just Dad,” a quiet, humble man, said son Chad. His father rarely talked about his accomplishments and focused on encouraging them to get an education, he said.
“My hero has always been my Dad,” Chad King said.
Dr. King grew up poor in Coatesville, where there were only two black doctors and he wanted to be like them. He attended Virginia Union University on a basketball scholarship and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s of science degree in biochemistry in 1952.
He had to postpone attending medical school because he didn’t have the money, his family said. Instead, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania School of Therapy, thinking that might be the closest he would get to becoming a doctor.
He was offered a place to stay at the YMCA in West Philadelphia and played on the basketball team to help pay for his lodging. Dr. King was the team captain when Chamberlain was on the squad.
After obtaining a physical therapy degree, Dr. King enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, graduating summa cum laude in 1963. He started his private practice the following year and operated it until he sold it in 1989.
In 1977, Dr. King was commissioned as a major in the Air Force and was assigned to Dover Air Force Base, Del. He was among the medical personnel who helped identify the remains transported there of more than 900 people who died in Jonestown, Guyana, after they were compelled by cult leader Jim Jones to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
Dr. King was promoted to colonel and served as the commander of the 514th Medical Air Wing at then-McGuire Air Force Base. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and retired in 1997.
Then-Gov. Christie Whitman appointed Dr. King to the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education in 1994. He was a member of the NAACP and Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He served as a police chaplain for the Deptford and Gloucester Township Police Departments, and the county Chiefs of Police Association.
“He’s been an amazing person to everyone,” said Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP.
Deeply spiritual, Dr. King became an ordained pastor, and in 1988 founded the Living Word Bible Fellowship Church in Blackwood. One of his favorite Scriptures was 2: Timothy 2:1-2, which speaks about teaching.
In addition to his son, Dr. King is survived by his wife of 57 years, Colletta; a daughter, Miah Collett Crosby; and five grandchildren.
A viewing will be held Friday, July 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bethel Church Blackwood, 1583 Blackwood-Clementon Rd., Blackwood, and again from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturday, July 27, followed by funeral services. Interment will be at Gloucester County Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Williamstown.