My maternal grandmother's older brother, Great-Uncle Bill, was my hero. He was a brilliant, self-educated man and the family black sheep.
He smoked. Nobody in the family smoked.
He swore. Nobody in the family swore.
He drove a blue Plymouth with massive tail fins like a bat out of you know where. Nobody in the family drove like that.
He never went to church, which broke Grandma's heart.
He knocked about his whole life - as a laborer on the Panama Canal, as a chauffeur in Louisiana, as a hospital orderly in Michigan.
He loved me.
"You'd think Carol was the only niece Bill had," groused Great-Aunt Pearl, wife of Bill's younger brother, Jake.
Bill, Jake and Pearl retired to Fredericksburg, Texas. I was in my late teens when Jake wrote Grandma that Bill was "poorly." In hindsight, and with the aid of a medical degree, I now realize he had congestive heart failure (from all that smoking).
My parents and I went to Texas to see how Bill was doing. He still drove like you know what. The big blue car was dented and scraped, mostly from sideswiping a huge oak tree on Uncle Jake's property that had grown so close to a concrete cattle guard that it was difficult to maneuver a car between them. ("I don't know why Jake doesn't cut down that dd tree.")
He was thin, though, and short of breath, and had a strange, faraway look in his eyes that seemed suspiciously like fear.
On the last night of our visit, Bill told his life story. Sometimes tearful, he explained he always thought he was better than other people because of his intelligence, but he never had done anything to achieve his potential. He'd never pursued higher education. Never held an impressive job. Never accomplished any of the great things he had always known he could. Now it was too late.
Bill died shortly after that visit. I mulled for years over the regret he felt at the end of his life.
Like Bill, I was academically gifted. Like Bill, I thought I could do anything I put my mind to. Like Bill, I had a tendency to think my intellect made me superior.
But nobody in my family had graduated from college, let alone attained a professional degree. My daydreams of becoming a doctor were in danger of falling prey to timidity and inertia - just like Bill's dreams.
In the mid-1970s, the University of Illinois opened a medical school branch campus near my home. It seemed an omen.
Propelled by Bill's memory, I returned to and finished college and became one of the oldest first-year students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. It was the best decision I ever made.
Telling his story gives me a chance to pay forward what Uncle Bill taught me the last night I saw him: If there's anything that, at the end of your life, you'll regret not doing, don't hesitate. Get out there and do it.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.