Jack Allison earns prestigious award from governor

Fred McCormick

For nearly three decades, “The Geezers” have met over breakfast to discuss current events and whatever else comes up while an hourglass egg timer keeps the conversation moving.

The informal gatherings, which have been held at Cragmont Assembly in recent years, are lighthearted affairs in which topics of discussion are brief. But as The Geezers settled in last week for one of their normal, bi-weekly gatherings, most were surprised to learn that one of them was being presented with North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.

In fact, of the regular attendees of the breakfast, only Danny Starnes knew that fellow member Dr. Jack Allison was being presented with The Order of the Long Leaf Pine award. That’s because Starnes nominated his longtime friend.

“I’ve known Jack for years,” Starnes said. “We’re both distinguished alumni of Warren Wilson (College), and as I’ve gotten to know him through the years, playing golf together and so forth, I really felt like he was someone who deserved this recognition.”

Allison is the second person nominated by Starnes to receive The Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, which requires the governor’s approval. The first was famed songwriter and another Warren Wilson College alumnus Billy Edd Wheeler in 2014. And as significant as Wheeler’s contributions have been to North Carolina’s culture, Allison’s have literally saved lives around the world.

His passion for emergency medicine has been consistent throughout the years.

“I love the juice,” he said. “When you’re in the emergency department, you don’t know what’s coming in through that door. You see anything and everything, and you have to be prepared to deal with it.”

In 1980, just five years after graduating from the school of medicine at UNC Chapel Hill, Allison founded the department of emergency medicine at Brody School of Medicine, the school of medicine at Eastern Carolina University.

“When I came along, I was sort of in that second wave,” he said. “I wasn’t a pioneer, but it was still early enough that we were pioneering.”

Allison said that the award was a “tremendous honor,” for which he was grateful. Describing the feeling as “humbling,” Allison was proud that the presentation was made at the group’s breakfast.

“It’s a nice reflection on our group, because this is the greatest group of guys,” he said. “We get together and we share.”

Allison’s impact in the world of emergency medicine has extended well beyond the borders of the United States. He treated hundreds of people in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Two years later Allison provided medical care for Somali refugees in Kenya and Somalia, and later in 2012 he assisted with the installation of wells in Zambia and Malawi.

He has also had a significant impact in Africa through his music. Allison has written over 100 songs. His fluency in Chichewa, a language used in Zambia and Malawi, helped him reach an audience with messages of public health. His first song was inspired by a poster he created with a fellow volunteer while spending time overseas.

“We had made posters for our local clinic, and on one we had a great big fly,” he recalled. “It said ‘Brush the flies out of your baby’s eyes to prevent eye disease.’ Women would carry the babies on their back and when they walked by their babies’ eyes would be black with flies. Well, if one person gets pink eye, then the whole village gets pink eye. I was thinking about this, and all of the sudden I wrote my first song. It was called ‘Brush the Flies Out of Your Baby’s Eyes.’”

Allison’s second song focused on healthy eating for children.

“In today’s parlance, that song went viral,” he said.

Allison went on to raise over $150,000 through his music and chose to donate that money to various charities. He raised $30,000 specifically for the purpose of feeding Malawian children who had been orphaned after losing parents to AIDS.

He credits a career that has impacted the lives of many to his alma mater in the Swannanoa Valley.

“If it weren’t for Warren Wilson College I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “I came from a trailer in Florida and went to Warren Wilson, and that school gave me the start that I really needed.”