Finding a way to say thank you
There’s poor. And then there is dirt poor. “I was dirt poor,” says William Breall ’51, who was raised by a great aunt after his mother died and his father left Portland to find work in Los Angeles.
“You want to talk about first, second, or third choice when you apply to colleges?” asks Breall, who is a prominent San Francisco cardiologist and the father of six. “I had a burning desire to go to college. None of my family had ever gone to college except for one cousin who was a pharmacist. I was determined to go to the best college I could, and that was Reed. In those days the tuition was $600 a year and that was like all the money in the world to me. I often didn’t know where the next nickel was coming from. I said to myself, ‘I can do it.’ I worked at odd jobs from the age of 12 on—summer jobs, evening jobs.”
By the time Breall graduated from Lincoln High School in 1947, he had somehow squirreled away a year’s tuition money. Two other events that year made life a bit easier. First, his adoptive family moved from the Fulton Landing neighborhood in Southwest Portland to a home a block from the Eastmoreland golf course, allowing him to walk to and from Reed. Then, college officials approached him with an offer to pay his tuition for 1948-49.
“Scholarships in those days were called grants-in-aid and not too many people got them,” Breall recalls. “It was not that they didn’t want to give them, but they didn’t have much to give. I was very appreciative and it was very helpful.”
It was a noteworthy year for Breall in another way as well.
“Lincoln High School gave me good initial study habits,” he says, “but that first year at Reed, the kids from the prep schools blew us away. It was like they were repeating stuff, all that humanities and history. They could speak French and Latin fluently. Those of us who had graduated from public high schools were hanging on by our fingertips trying to compete. We were able to make it through the first year and then a wonderful thing happened. By the second year, it was all new for the preppies and they were no challenge any more. We had honed our scholarly abilities and study habits such that we blew them away.”
Breall was emboldened enough in his third year at Reed to apply to what is now Oregon Health & Science University. At 19, he was accepted and thus never did attend a Reed commencement ceremony, officially earning his baccalaureate degree when he completed his first year of medical school. He says that physicians who treated him as “a sickly kid” in Portland also turned his own thoughts to medicine.
That exposure clearly carried through to further career choices. At a time in life when physicians are more likely to be contemplating chip shots than analyzing X-rays, Breall still sees a full patient load at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in downtown San Francisco and serves on myriad medical and community service boards, notably the Medical Board of California.
Reed development officials say that alumni such as Breall are one reason they surpassed a $20 million fundraising initiative in support of financial aid this spring. Individuals who have received aid as students and have gone on to achieve career success are often motivated to earmark gifts to help similarly situated students today and in the future. It is why they encourage recipients of named scholarships, such as Joe Kliegman, to communicate with the donors.
“It’s my way of saying thank you to Reed College,” says Breall, who is building his contributions toward a $500,000 endowment for financial aid. “I’m not only doing it for Reed but for OHSU as well. I think both institutions gave me a wonderful background and a wonderful education. I also realize that there are kids who don’t have the wherewithal to handle the financial aspects of going to school. The main thing, though, is that I want to say thank you to Reed College for giving me my basic capabilities, teaching me how to think and be analytical, and exposing me to all of these elements of a good education.”