Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient Dr. Robert Lerer ’66 shares the moments at BSC and beyond that set the course for his life
The thing about history is that before it becomes history, it’s a series of days in someone’s life.
In 1950, Robert Lerer was a boy of Eastern European heritage playing with his friends in Havana, Cuba. His parents had moved there after first fleeing Poland for France during World War II. His parents never talked about the war. Their lives before his birth in 1946 were a mystery to him, although he knew that many of his Jewish family members had died in the Holocaust.
In 1953, Lerer was a boy of 7 years old, being raised in the Catholic Church on a northern Caribbean island, where a revolution was just beginning—a revolution that would last for five years, five months, and six days.
In November 1960, Lerer was a boy of 14, whose parents told him that they were taking him and his brother away from Cuba to a city in America: Miami. They were part of a historic wave of more than 100,000 refugees who emigrated from Cuba to countries around the world after Castro-led revolutionaries overthrew the Fulgencio Batista regime in 1959.
In the summer of 1961, Lerer’s family moved to Birmingham, where his father Joseph Lerer would become the first Cuban refugee admitted to the University of Alabama School of Dentistry. Both of Robert’s parents were already dentists before leaving Europe; his father had been an oral surgeon in Cuba, and his mother was a teacher in Cuba.
Robert attended Ramsay High School. As he applied to colleges throughout Alabama, he thought maybe one day he could be an engineer.
These were the moments in history that marked Lerer’s path to BSC in 1962. It was at BSC that his path changed course.
“A chemistry professor, Wynelle Thompson, changed my life,” he said. “She saw that I was more suited for something else.”
In 2017, Lerer is an esteemed physician with a long career of service, decades spent in service to the place he lives and the place from which he came. He is associate professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and is one of the longest serving health commissioners in the state of Ohio; Lerer volunteers in underserved areas around the world; and this fall, he will be one of the honorees receiving a Distinguished Alumni Award.
After graduating magna cum laude—and as valedictorian of his class—with a bachelor’s in chemistry in 1966, he attended Johns Hopkins University Medical School and excelled there.
“I would not have been third in my class at Johns Hopkins without my education from BSC,” he said. From there, he continued his post-graduate education in pediatrics at Yale University and became chief resident. He is an expert in neonatology and has reviewed and consulted on thousands of newborn cases.
“God gave me skills and intelligence and drive, but all of that really developed while I was at college,” Lerer said. “Birmingham-Southern made all the difference in my life.”
Long before the phrase “lives of significance” became common on campus, it was a way of life on the Hilltop.
“Being a servant to others, being a person of integrity, and having a purpose in life was very important,” he added. “It’s one of the reasons I chose to go into pediatrics. Pediatricians become advocates for children.”
A lasting impression
As much as his early years were marked by revolution, Lerer’s time at BSC also occurred in the midst of unrest.
“Birmingham was still segregated at that time, as was BSC,” he said. “It was only natural that I became friendly with groups that, at that time, felt like demonstrating openly our displeasure with the Jim Crow laws. I remember vividly going to work after chemistry lab—I worked at Birmingham Book and Magazine Company downtown and parked my old beat-up 1956 DeSoto near Kelly Ingram Park—and seeing Bull Conner using hoses and dogs; I witnessed those things with my own eyes.”
On May 3, 1963, 60 young people were arrested in the vicinity of the park. The next day, thousands more arrived to demonstrate. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Lerer recalls another time when the segregation of the South was made clear to him personally.
“Not being from the United States, this had a very deep impact on me,” he said. “In Cuba, there were no outward signs of discrimination; brown children and black children and white children played together. In ’63 or ’64, a friend—who was a student at UAB and also Cuban—and I went to a Y dance downtown. During one of the intermissions, a couple of students asked us to go outside and announced they were members of the Klan, and they started beating us up. We had been chatting in Spanish and they’d caught wind of that. They said people from Latin America weren’t welcome, and how dare I dance with a white girl?
“We were speaking Spanish to one another to better communicate to each other about which girl we would like to dance with next. That was my priority at that young age, of course.”
He arrived home that night with two black eyes and stayed home from classes the next day. It made an impression on him that lasted much longer than the injuries.
Lerer says living in Birmingham and attending BSC, which integrated in September 1965, taught him a great deal about race relations.
“In some ways, by its example of acceptance when this was still very controversial, Birmingham-Southern served as an example that has lived with me for the rest of my life,” Lerer said. “And, personally, the experience of having been accepted into the midst and given a scholarship at a time when I was a needy and poor adolescent gave me a lifelong desire to help people who are not well off.”
Inspiring the future
Since leaving the Hilltop, Lerer has given back by traveling to Haiti after natural disasters; providing primary care in India and Nicaragua, to name just two; and participating in faculty exchange trips to teach health care providers in China, India, and Ukraine.
And, as the course of history often does, Lerer’s life brought him back to the place where he began. He serves on the board of the nonprofit group Caring Partners, which has provided more health care services to the government of Cuba than any other organization. He has visited Cuba more than 50 times, delivering medical supplies and bringing faculty teams from various medical schools.
“I have always had a regard for people who are not well off, because we were refugees and had almost no money. As soon as I was able, I started contributing what I could to Birmingham-Southern,” he said.
In 1991, Lerer established a scholarship named for his family. He and his wife, Janis, a retired nurse, contribute to the Joseph, Frances, and Robert Lerer Scholarship annually and have included the college in their estate planning. The scholarship provides aid for Hispanics and other minority students pursuing careers in the medical and dental fields.
Antonio Castanon ’12 received the scholarship his senior year at BSC and graduated with a degree in biology with concentrations in Spanish and chemistry. Like Lerer, Castanon was an immigrant; he moved to the U.S. from Mexico with his mother.
“At that time it was very challenging for me and for my family. My mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor during that period of my life, so the financial backing from my family was really limited,” Castanon said. “Being a recipient of the Lerer Scholarship was a ray of hope in pursuing the dream of completing my higher education. I was the first in my immediate family to have the opportunity to become a graduate.”
Today, Castanon is a union representative with Laborers’ International Union of North America, advocating for workers in the construction industry. He also works in community advocacy for immigration, and he is a candidate for a Masters of Public Health at George Washington University.
Inspired by alumni like Lerer, Castanon says he would like to start a scholarship himself someday for immigrant students pursuing degrees at Birmingham-Southern.
“The scholarship let me know that the BSC family is committed,” Castanon said. “The president's office, the faculty and support staff at Birmingham-Southern, the people at the post office, cafeteria workers—I have fond memories of good meals in the Caf—everyone is helping everybody out. That may not be reflected in the degree title, but it is certainly part of the education at BSC.”
Lerer’s own memories from 50 years ago mirror Castanon’s more recent experience—proof that Birmingham-Southern has a decades-long tradition of supporting students.
“I recall the warmth of the faculty, the eagerness to help you after hours. More than once I walked down faculty row and knocked on the door of a faculty member because I was having trouble with something,” Lerer said.
“And I was always met with an open door.”