SAN JOSE -- Whether he was wearing his doctor's white coat or his preacher's black robe, Dr. Herman Wilbert Hyatt Sr. always wore his trademark cowboy boots as he delivered medicine and sermons with a passion for justice and equality, from the Jim Crow South to Silicon Valley.
"There are no doctors like him anymore," said Dr. Sydney Choslovsky, of San Jose, a longtime colleague. "I wish I could be like him."
A pediatrician who practiced for 40 years in San Jose, Hyatt died late last month in Madera, a farm town in the Central Valley, where he moved after retiring in 2008. Although Hyatt belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal faith, funeral organizers figured none of the local AME churches were big enough for his funeral. They were right. More than 500 people -- from former patients to community leaders and aging civil rights activists -- filed into the cavernous Emmanuel Baptist Church in East San Jose to say goodbye.
According to friends and family, Hyatt was devoted to medicine and his faith in equal parts and often described him as a "healer" in both the medical and spiritual respects.
"My dad put great importance on education and the Lord," said his son Hamilton Hyatt, of Madera. "If you stay focused on the Lord, your life will come together."
Education and faith became Hyatt's twin foundations early in life as he confronted the racial segregation of the time in his native Tennessee. In his autobiography, "A Cry for Help," Hyatt told of working as a dishwasher in his hometown's finest restaurant when he decided to spend his 2:30 a.m. breaks eating in the white-only dining room. But the owner discovered Hyatt's defiant, lonely sit-in on the fourth night.
"He walked in and fired me on the spot," Hyatt wrote. "There was no fanfare."
Hyatt was born on Feb. 19, 1926, in South Pittsburg, Tenn., the son of a troubled union. His mother took him and left his father when he was 3. Soon after, his father took him back and moved to another town, Cleveland, Tenn. Hyatt would not see his mother again until he was in college.
Growing up in Cleveland, Hyatt's new stepmother took him to black Methodist churches and enrolled him in Sunday schools, where he excelled in reading and religious study. About the same time, his grandfather tried teaching him to plow a field, but the bookish boy failed.
"I was little concerned because I had no intention of being a farmer," Hyatt said.
Even so, he fell in love with cowboy boots and grew to fancy black lizard boots later in life.
Hyatt heard his call to medicine as a preteen when a neighbor started crying uncontrollably. Something was caught in the woman's eye. Moving calmly, Hyatt wet a towel with water and plucked out the obstruction. It was a small healing, Hyatt recalled, but it made a lasting impression on him.
A voracious reader, Hyatt excelled academically and fell in love at first sight with his future wife, Beth, when both were still in high school. After a brief stint in the Army, he attended Morristown College and Tennessee State before going to Meharry Medical College, where he became an emergency room intern in the mid-1950s. By then he and Beth had married and started a family. California beckoned when a Bakersfield hospital offered him an emergency room residency in 1957. The Hyatts moved to San Jose 10 years later.
He opened a private practice across from the old San Jose Medical Center and joined the St. James AME Church on the East Side. Word spread quickly that he never rejected patients who were without insurance or cash.
Jose Montes de Oca, a former director of the Alum Rock Counseling Center, said the mental health clinic often sent indigent patients who also had physical problems to Hyatt.
"He never turned any of them away," Montes de Oca said.
Hyatt's reputation as a good pediatrician extended beyond the poor. Rigo Chacon, a television reporter at the time, brought his ailing infant son to Hyatt after other doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong.
"Hyatt took care of him right away," Chacon said. "From then on he became my son's regular pediatrician."
Choslovsky added, "Medicine was never a business to him. He felt lucky that he could become a doctor and that he could help people."
By most accounts, Hyatt was tirelessly talented. He wrote more than 30 articles for medical journals, founded the Mount Hermon AME Church in San Jose, led several NAACP projects and earned a law degree from San Jose's Lincoln University. But he never practiced law.
"He wanted to get a law degree just for the challenge," Hamilton Hyatt said.
Hyatt was honored posthumously Tuesday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown San Jose on the civil rights leader's birthday. Councilman Sam Liccardo recalled that Hyatt had delivered so many babies at San Jose Medical Center that they nicknamed the delivery room the "Hyatt Wing."
The hospital closed in 2004, but Hyatt kept his practice across the street until 2008, when he and Beth retired to Madera. She died in 2011 after 62 years of marriage, but Hyatt wrote notes to her almost every day until his own death of natural causes on the very last day of last year.
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Born: Feb. 19, 1926, South Pittsburg, TN.
Died: Dec. 31, 2012, Madera, CA.
Survived by: Sons Robert and Herman Hyatt of San Jose; Richie Hyatt of San Bernardino, and Hamilton Hyatt of Madera; daughters Monica and Monique of San Jose; 16 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Services: Funeral was held at Emmanuel Baptist Church, San Jose, on Jan. 9, followed by burial at Oak Hill Cemetery.