For as long as I can remember, people have asked me, “Are you Dr. Kirkman’s daughter?”
We – my dad, my mom (Phebe) my sister (Anne) and I – moved to Statesville the summer before I entered the fifth grade at Pressly Elementary School. My dad had just finished his cardiology training in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and he opened a practice on Davie Avenue. In a town where there was only one other cardiologist at the time, it did not take long for people to know who Dr. Kirkman was.
But he had not always been Dr. Kirkman. He was born Paul Madison Kirkman to his parents, Sarah Jane Rierson Kirkman and Clay Macy Kirkman, and grew up in Madison, North Carolina, the youngest of four children. His father worked in a mill, and his mother cooked for the people who boarded in their house. He was the first in his family to attend college; he went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he proudly lived in Old East, Number 1. He went to Pharmacy School at Carolina because his father once told him that the only person in Madison who kept his job during the Depression was the town pharmacist.
It was in Pharmacy School that my dad met my mom. They were married in 1961, and when my dad went back to school, Wake Forest Medical School this time, my mom worked as a pharmacist at City Hospital in Winston-Salem to support them. Notable events during this era were: Dad finishing medical school, the births of me and my sister, and my dad being drafted into the Army. He did his officers’ training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas; he went to Vietnam; and he finished his Army service at Fort Benning, Georgia, as a Major.
After the Army, he joined a general medical practice in Waynesville, North Carolina, where he stayed for five years. Then he made the decision to go back to school, and he did his cardiology training at Penn State.
When he completed that training at age 40, it was like he was starting all over. He moved to Statesville because he had run into Dr. Tom Templeton at a conference, who had told him that Statesville needed a cardiologist. His decision to move to Statesville is what brought me to Iredell County and ultimately shaped the rest of my life (so far).
My dad worked long hours during his time in Statesville, including being on call nearly every other day. I can remember one summer evening, my dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating one piece of watermelon after another when he got paged (yes, this was the 1980s) to come to the hospital. I was bored, so I asked him if I could go with him.
I went in with my dad while he talked to the patient, a man who had been having chest pains. My dad asked the man what he had been doing when he started having the chest pains. The man replied that he had been eating watermelon. “You don’t think that had anything to do with it, do you Doc?” he asked. My dad turned and looked at me, grinned, and said, “I sure hope not.”
My dad worked in Statesville from 1979 to 1994. In 1994, he left his practice in Statesville to work at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital as an associate professor of cardiology. He still saw patients; in fact, many of them followed him there from Statesville. But I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard, “We sure miss your dad,” often from people I did not even know.
He has had quite a following over the years. Last summer, when we were all eating dinner at Capt. John’s in Calabash, I went to the restroom where two women I did not know were talking to each other, one asking the other, “Was that Dr. Kirkman at that table out there?”
My dad worked full time at Wake Forest until 2017, when he retired just one month shy of his 79th birthday. Of course, he still works part-time from home, reading EKGs. Before he retired, my husband, Michael, would joke that he wondered if my dad would get mad when we all retired before he did.
My dad put both my sister and me through college – my sister went to Peace and Meredith, and I went to Carolina. But I did not follow in the Pharmacy School footsteps; I went to Journalism School. My dad then put me through law school at Campbell. When I ran for office the first time, my dad contacted all his associates in Iredell County and asked them to support me. He even appeared in a picture in a newspaper ad with me. He and my mom held a fundraiser for me in Statesville, and I guess you could say, next to my husband, they were my biggest supporters.
My sister and I are (somewhat) grown now and have families of our own. She lives in Raleigh, and for some reason, married an N.C. State graduate. But I consider it a win for Team Kirkman that her oldest just finished his freshman year at Carolina, following in his Papa’s, his Phebe’s and his Aunt Sarah’s footsteps (hey, I’m the one who took him to a Carolina College Day after all).
So this Father’s Day, on behalf of my sister and me, and both of our families, thanks Dad, for always being there, for always helping us and for being great. We could not have asked for better role models than you and Mom.
P.S. For the millionth time, thank you for Law School. It seems to be working out so far.
Sarah Kirkman is the District Attorney for Alexander and Iredell counties.