As part of a collaboration to remember my grandfather-in-law, Sidney “Zait" Raffel, I wrote the short piece below. Cait and I had the good fortune to live in Zait’s home during the first three years of our life as a family. Like many, I sure do miss him. The official obituary ran today in the Los Angeles Times.
Sidney “Zait” Raffel, MD, ScD, one of the best and last of a great generation, died on Friday, December 27. He was 102 years old.
A Baltimore native, he came west to California on a Roosevelt Foundation Fellowship in 1935, and never went back. He told everyone who asked that, on his first day in Los Angeles, he came outside to a cool summer evening and fell in love with the state. He froze on the ride north to San Francisco, but warmed to the place soon enough to settle in, marry his best friend’s girlfriend, raise their five daughters, and move in 1955 to the Stanford University campus. His beloved “770,” at the top of the hill, became the family home to four generations of Raffel daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. For half a century, with Yvonne, the great love of his life and first public health nurse to work at Stanford, they presided over a loving, warm, and raucous crowd of friends and family members. Sidney and Yvonne threw fantastic parties year-round, including the annual Thanksgiving celebration, and thirteen family weddings.
Zait was a gifted student, educator, and teacher, and he wasn’t shy to let you know it. He graduated from high school at the age of 15, Johns Hopkins University at 18 (B.A.) and 21 (Sc.D.), and Stanford University, where he joined the faculty at 23, studied medicine, and graduated, already a professor, at 31, with a M.D. During World War II, he trained doctors and nurses. He served as Chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology from 1951 until his retirement in 1976. From 1964-1965, he was acting Dean of the Medical School, during which he named Pasteur Drive and Welch Road, and oversaw the building of the (then) new medical complex. He wrote the comprehensive textbook in his field, Immunity, first published in 1953, with a second edition in 1961, the year he received a Fulbright Fellowship and took his family to Europe. He contributed extensive research to Stanford’s effort to discover the polio vaccine. His great professional regret was that Jonas Salk’s team beat his own to finding it.
Few matched Zait for his quick wit, fondness for a good joke (and, often, pun), love of dark beer (the warmer, the better), and his affection for Walker, Texas Ranger (the best show on television). Upon his retirement in 1976, Zait took up painting. Visitors to 770 marveled at his watercolors, oil paintings, and sketches, many of which lined the walls. Zait’s favorite subject was his beloved Yvonne (“Ami”), and his daughters, Linda, Gail, Polly, Cynthia, and Emily. He would paint them on large and small canvasses alike, working from photographs of their many international journeys. Zait and Ami trotted the globe together, from Salzburg to Egypt, Iran, Israel, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and her native British Columbia. On the lazy Susan in the middle of his kitchen table, until the day he died, he kept a small oil painting of Ami standing in front of her family’s homestead. Every February, he painted her into a valentine and wrote her a short, funny poem. After she passed, in 2001, he recreated these cards and mailed them to his large, beloved family.
Until a few months ago, he rode his stationary bike at least a mile every day. He worked in his basement woodshop, building ingenious, if idiosyncratic, contraptions that quickly earned knowing eye-rolls from the family. Most famous was “The Barbecue Bullet,” a garden-to-porch pulley-and-bucket system for delivering meat to the grill that almost decapitated his son-in-law. Others included his compost-bin-on-bicycle-wheels, dual-back-scratcher-lotion-applicator, and jello-mold-light-fixtures. Zait never found a broken chair or appliance to which he could not affix an el-bracket, chunk of foam, or piece of Velcro. He had a particular talent for gorilla glue, and little talent, but great gusto, for homemade picture framing.
Zait took great pride in his daughters and their families; his grandchildren; and, his great-grandchildren. They all loved him back. One of my favorite memories was of watching him whirl Walt around the house on his walker, and later, Sam and he doing exercises together in his room. Zait maintained close friendships and mentorships with many of his former students, who visited regularly. This past Christmas, he was in great spirits, and much of his family was with him on the day he died. He will be sorely missed by the many whose lives he touched, always for the better.
(Sidney "Zait" Raffel, 102 years old, with Sam, 18 months, on Christmas Eve 2013.)