Eye Doc Remembers Willie

November 24, 2006

By JOSEPH BENTIVEGNA

“Call me Willie.” That’s what Willie Pep said to me after I addressed him as Mr. Papaleo.

I always treat my celebrity patients as if they were just another patient off the street. It has been my experience as a physician that they do not wish to be fawned over; rather, they prefer just to get competent care and get out of my office as quickly as possible.

Willie was no different, but he brought up his boxing career, not me. Perhaps it was while ascertaining why he couldn’t see out of his right eye — a boxing injury. I don’t recall exactly.

Anyway, he regaled me with his ring stories, informing me that his professional record (278-11) did not include his 57 consecutive amateur victories.

My father, a first generation Italian and a boxing fan, was thrilled when Willie gave me an autographed picture to send to him. I have my own hanging in my office. I eventually was forced to remove the cataract in his only good eye. He did fine and was appreciative, as was his gracious wife. Eventually, his recollection of who I was faded with each visit, but he was always friendly.

What was interesting about carring for him is that I have other patients who actually fought him. One recounted the bout. It was the first round and he was backing Willie up. He was thinking to himself that he was holding his own with the legend. The next thing he remembered was everyone looking down at him asking him if he was okay. Such was Willie’s hand speed.

Many experts think Willie Pep was the best boxer ever, pound for pound. I suspect that analysis is correct.

Dr. Joseph Bentivegna, an eye surgeon, practices in Rocky Hill. He is the author of a political thriller, The Lords Of Greenwich, and two non-fiction books: The Neglected and Abused: A Physician’s Year in Haiti; and When to Refuse Treatment.

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