Hasn't anyone tried to psych you? "Absolutely not." Have you tried to psych anyone? "I don't know how," Dr. Meriwether says, adding, "I have my work cut out for me when they say, 'Get into your blocks.' Every remark has been helpful. Charlie Greene has made some favorable comments and given me a number of pointers. He's emphasized ways of getting out of the blocks a little quicker, he's emphasized my arm action. I haven't had a chance to follow up on them. Pender has given me some very good pointers. Again, I haven't had a chance to work on them. Jim Green will point out that I let my knees drop in the last 10 yards, or something on that order. They all fully realize that I will get a chance to follow up on their pointers, but personally I don't want to know every secret they have. However, I certainly appreciate them making comments voluntarily that may be of help to me. It takes a very good spirit to say to me, 'You may beat me, but why not consider this?' "
A couple of hours before a race Dr. Meriwether goes into what approximates a trance, not coming out of it until perhaps 10 minutes after the finals. "I must concentrate," he explains. "Concentration is important to me. I review, perhaps in a very unorganized fashion, some of the things I have picked up. Hopefully, in time I'll be able to do these things automatically. At this stage, to do well in the caliber of competition I'm in, concentration is needed on my part. If the Buffalo Bills had to play the Los Angeles Rams on Friday night and come right back and play the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night, it would be a little taxing."
When Dr. Meriwether lines up for a race, he is a striking figure in his getup of gold swimming trunks, white hospital shirt and white and gold suspenders. "I wore this uniform at my very first indoor meet," he says, "and it has not changed in the slightest since. It will stay this way for the entire indoor season and I will stick with it whether I win or lose. Why the swim trunks? They are reasonably tight fitting, and I think that athletes who are well built should pride themselves on having some part of their body look reasonably well. It's hard for me to believe that the top sprinters in the country don't realize that their legs look really muscular. In an effort to emphasize this strong point, I felt that instead of wearing standard boxer-type, loose-fitting pants, why not put on something that's a little more appealing? As far as the hospital shirt is concerned, this is the only thing I had to run in. The suspenders are afunctional. They don't hold up anything. They're part of the uniform."
And why are the suspenders part of the uniform? Dr. Meriwether smiles and says, "They just happened to be something I wanted to wear. If there were a law passed saying I had to have a reason for the suspenders, I'd say they're to keep my hospital shirt from ballooning out. They're for vanity's sake, I guess. Showmanship? Hmm, obviously that element is there. Conceivably the suspenders could be an identifying mark. Now, the sprinter from Madagascar has a very long name [Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa], and so everyone refers to him as the guy from Madagascar. So runners can refer to me as the guy with the suspenders. For experienced sprinters to say of an upstart like me, 'I was beaten by Meriwether' is having to give something, and so if they say, 'I was beaten by the guy in the suspenders,' it's easier for them."
The suspenders may also be a concession to his age. Dr. Meriwether will be 28 on April 23. He was born in Nashville, and when he was 2 his family moved to Charleston, S.C. His father, W. R. Meriwether, had a degree in education, but when he first arrived in Charleston he worked as a pipe fitter in the naval shipyard. Shortly afterward he began teaching science at Burke High School, where he now is the principal. Mrs. Meriwether, the doctor's mother, is an elementary school teacher, and the only other child, Sue Francis, 23, is also a teacher.
"Perhaps I got my scientific interests from my father," Dr. Meriwether says. "I always have been interested in biology in particular. While I was in high school—no, my father didn't teach me—I wanted to do something with living animals, and there was an opening at a veterinary hospital. I was able to get a job there as a caretaker. This was fun, believe me. In fact, I entered the state science fair with an exhibit entitled Internal Parasites of the Dog. It involved all the numerous kinds of worms a dog can have. I collected them from stools down on my hands and knees with tweezers, and I collected heartworms at surgery or from an autopsy. Heartworms are common in the Charleston area; they are transmitted by a species of mosquito. It's exciting to detect the presence of the filarial form of this particular parasite. This exhibit went on to the National Science Fair and won an award from the American Veterinary Association. It was the first year they ever gave one. The following year I expanded the exhibit to include external parasites, and it went on to the National Science Fair, where it placed in the rankings of exhibits."
Dr. Meriwether received a small academic scholarship to Michigan State, where he took a preveterinary course. He was accepted into veterinary school at the end of two years but, he says, "I changed my mind and thought that perhaps I could contribute something in the field of medicine. I would have liked to have been a veterinarian, but I felt that medicine offered more of a challenge, and this was appealing to me."
At the end of his third year at Michigan State he was accepted for admission to Duke Medical School. He left Michigan without an undergraduate degree; indeed, his only degree is the M.D. he received from Duke in 1967. In his first year there Meriwether decided he would become a hematologist, a specialist in blood diseases. "I was quite fortunate," he says, "in having contact with Dr. Charles Mengel, who not only stimulated my interest in research but who also had a tremendous influence on my ultimately becoming a hematologist. He was very interested in young people."
Being the first black at Duke Medical School was, says Dr. Meriwether, contrary to what one might expect, in fact what he characterizes as "a comfortable situation. Medical school has its trying times regardless of who you are. As far as added stresses were concerned, I could detect very, very few if any. I was more concerned with learning as much as I could about taking care of human beings. I had little time for outside endeavors."
One of the few for which he found time was visiting Bennett, a black women's college 60 miles from Durham, where he would, as he says, "sit around on the lawn and look at girls." At Bennett he met Myrtle Capehart when she happened to be sitting on the hood of his car in the parking lot during a homecoming weekend. Always soft-spoken, Dr. Meriwether inquired, "Young lady, do you make a habit of sitting on someone's car?" They began dating and were married in 1968, two weeks after Myrtle graduated. They have one child, a girl 15 months old, also named Myrtle but called Mitzi.