Dr. Michael C. Watson – 1926-2016
BAMBERG – Dr. Michael C. Watson – founder of the ministry that has become the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission – passed away Tuesday, Dec. 20. He was 90.
Watson retired in 2001 after nearly 50 years as a physician in Bamberg. For 62 years. he was a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bamberg, in the Orangeburg District of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
For 15 years, the S.C. Conference’s top volunteer recognition has been named for Watson. The Michael C. Watson Volunteer in Mission Award is presented each year to one clergy and one layperson who exemplify extraordinary volunteer mission service within the Conference.
UMVIM promotes, encourages and enables Christians to exemplify “Christian Love in Action” through short-term mission service at home and abroad.
“UMVIM is a powerful mission movement throughout our denomination,” said L. Jonathan Holston, resident bishop of the S.C. Conference. “Many are not aware that this
movement of mission and ministry began right here in South Carolina under the leadership of Dr. Mike Watson.
“So, it is with sadness that we mourn the passing of a tremendous servant who left a legacy of mission across the length and breadth of the United Methodist Church. Today, people near and far have been blessed in so many ways because of Dr. Watson’s life of service and compassion.”
The Rev. George Strait, now retired and living in Greer, was Watson’s longtime friend. He was right there with Watson when the seeds for what is now UMVIM were planted.
“He had a burning passion to serve people in need,” Strait said. “He felt that there was something more than watering the yard at the church that lay people who were followers of Christ could do. That’s where the volunteer movement began.”
Watson’s first mission trip came in 1967 to the tiny Caribbean nation of Anguilla, which was about to lose its only doctor, Strait said. Watson had been working as a medical adviser with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and UMCOR dispatched him and a team to Anguilla to see what could be done.
“When he met with the leaders of Anguilla,” Strait said, “he promised them South Carolina would send a doctor there for the next six months. We did. Doctors went there every two weeks, and we covered that six months.”
Billy Robinson, ERT disaster coordinator for UMVIM-SC, recalls hearing one more detail about that visit:
“Dr. Mike would tell the story, that he got on the airplane home from that trip and said, ‘Lord, I don’t know a single doctor willing to go to Anguilla.’ But it started right there, with his faith that God would provide – and He did.”
Two years later, Strait recalls, Watson and his brother, Joe, went to Haiti and planted a missionary effort that continues today.
“We started with an immunization program for the people of Jérémie, Haiti,” he said. “Jérémie was hit again this year by Hurricane Matthew, and United Methodist volunteers have been on the ground there.
“His leadership and his vision and his sincerity and his faith helped all of us to see not just what needed to be done, but what could be done.”
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Robinson and others who have dedicated their lives to mission work – at home and abroad – talk affectionately of Watson and his wife of 60 years, Mary Carolyn, whom Robinson calls Watson’s “right hand.”
“What an inspiration they have been to my wife and me and our entire team,” he said of the Early Response Team he leads in the Orangeburg District. “I look at them as the father/mother of mission and disaster response for South Carolina and for UMVIM as a whole.
“If Dr. Mike hadn’t allowed Christ to use him in those early days, I’m sure our efforts wouldn’t be nearly as developed as they are now. I just think how much more wonderful this world is because he let Christ use him as his hands and feet.”
Paulette West, executive director of UMVIM of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, said Watson was “always such a servant…it was never about him; it was always about others in serving.”
“He really felt that people like himself were called to use the skills and talents they have for God,” she said. “He really wanted to help make that happen, and he had the commitment to be able to get people engaged in service.”
The Rev. Tony Rowell, former chairman of the executive committee of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission-South Carolina, said Watson and Mary Carolyn have inspired his work for more than 25 years.
“Dr. Mike was one of the most genuinely Christian human beings I have ever met,” said Rowell, who still serves on the UMVIM-SC board. “The mission ministry he began for the United Methodist Church and the short-term missions movement he helped inspire within the Christian Church in general have been an inspiration to several generations of Christians – young and old – with many more to come.”
Rowell, now pastor of Beulah United Methodist Church in Gilbert, credits UMVIM and Watson for “focusing” his own call to ministry.
“My first mission trip was back in 1989, to Tagaytay City, Philippines,” said Rowell, disaster response coordinator for the Columbia District. “By the time I had returned twice, I had focused and accepted my call into the pulpit ministry, as well as continuing in the missionary aspects of the church until this day.”
Ward Smith, director of recovery ministries for the S.C. Conference, credits the vision of Watson and other early pioneers in the United Methodist mission movement for making possible the work he and thousands of volunteers are doing today.
“To have the realization of need and to pursue it in such a caring, focused and deliberate way is, in some ways, why we’re able to do what we do now,” Smith said.
Derial Ogburn, current chairman of the UMVIM-SC executive committee, said that, while he didn’t know Watson as well as others, knowing him was like knowing George Washington.
“Like President Washington,” he said, “Dr. Mike Watson was instrumental in helping create an organization that will continue to do great works long after his life on this earth is ended”.
Una Jones, assistant general secretary for mission volunteers of the UMC General Board of Global Ministries, said her agency and the wider UMVIM community “were blessed by Dr. Watson’s unwavering dedication.”
In addition to his mission work, she said, Watson wrote and commented in “The Knock” medical newsletter for decades.
“Dr. Watson was a true medical volunteer/missionary because – besides engaging in God’s mission around the world – he helped to keep medical teams well informed,” Jones said.
Watson was not only dedicated to mission work, he was an advocate for the rural poor closer to home. According to an article in The Times and Democrat newspaper, Watson was:
- A 1953 alumnus of the Medical College of South Carolina and one of the state’s most celebrated physicians. In the 2001-02 legislative session, the S.C. Senate adopted a resolution recognizing his “caring attitude, work ethic and dedication to the medical profession.”
- Responsible for many history-making “firsts” in the medical field in the state and the nation. In 1969, he established the first comprehensive, rural hypertension clinic in the Southeast. In 1975, he established the longest-running nurse midwifery service in the state, and in 1989, he established the first HIV/AIDS clinic in a South Carolina health department.
- A founding member of the Tri-County Drug & Alcohol Abuse Commission in 1972, going on to help start the region’s only adolescent inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program.
- The first recipient of the Bamberg County Citizen of the Year Award in 1975, and recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor, in 2002 for his work in HIV/AIDS prevention by then-Gov. Jim Hodges.
And, somehow, he managed to find time to write two books:
- “The Cloud Chaser” – The story of his life from farming peaches in his family’s Ridge Spring orchards to surviving the depression, becoming a U.S. Marine deployed in the Pacific to recollections of being educated and trained as a physician.
- “Catching the Clouds” – A history book version of rural Americana that features short stories ranging from the old South into the modern era. Told through the eyes of a small-town family physician, Watson told real stories behind racial integration, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, the AIDS epidemic and mission work.
But it was his mission work that Watson considered his most significant life’s work, those who knew him say.
“He was truly just a great, wonderful man,” Rev. Strait said. “He will be missed – but I have every confidence that his dream of helping and serving people will live on.”
- A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Jan. 15 – what would have been Dr. Watson’s 91st birthday – at Trinity United Methodist Church in Bamberg.
Memorials may be made to:
- United Methodist Volunteers in Missions, c/o Maxine Smith, 2681 Oakhurst Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29732
- Trinity United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 335, Bamberg, SC 29003
- Shalom Zone Mission Cottage, P.O. Box 93, Bamberg, SC 29003