A legacy is not something one merely inherits. It is something one creates. The legacy of Avery County’s Dr. Bill Tate is certainly no exception. His legacy in our region is his own, and it is his gift to the people he served as a physician for most of his life. While there has been a Dr. Bill Tate in Avery County for as long as there has been an Avery County, he crafted a unique role and a remarkable legacy.
Before Avery County was formed
In 1910, before the county’s formation a year later, Dr. William C. (W.C.) Tate came to Banner Elk and spent half a century treating those who would otherwise have lacked access to even basic medical care. Dr. Lawson Tate, his son, followed suit, treating patients in the hospital his father founded.
In turn, Dr. William Cummings Tate II, “Bill,” began practicing alongside his father Lawson in 1977, and in his own more than forty years of treating the people of Avery County, he devoted himself to providing more than medical care, as he worked to make Avery County a better place. He has built upon the past and reached to the future, spearheading healthcare improvements in the region and helping to shape a twenty-first-century Avery County of which his grandfather’s patients could only have dreamed.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s medical school, Dr. Tate returned to Avery County, bringing his surgical training to serve his family and friends, and always deftly blending his concern for his patients with his wealth of knowledge. “He truly cares about every person he ever took care of,” says Dr. Thomas Haizlip, who joined the Tate Clinic in 1998, and was immediately impressed both by Dr. Tate’s willingness to support and trust him, and by the trust the community had in Dr. Tate. “I walked into a full clinic on day one because Bill said I was okay.“ Whether assisting a colleague in a procedure or teaching a new healthcare provider to best meet patient needs, Dr. Tate always brought a collegiality and spirit of cooperation to medical treatment.
Building a “patient-first” surgical team
“He picked up and carried on father’s legacy,” Haizlip says, but he “never endorsed hierarchy,” despite his pedigree and academic degrees. “Every member of his team felt important and prized, valued as friends and colleagues, not hired help.” Sheri Cornett, a surgical technologist who spent decades working beside Dr. Tate in the operating room, agrees, “He never thought he was above anyone else and never treated anyone like second best because the patient always had first priority.”
That “patient-first” mentality explains much about Bill Tate’s choices, including his pivotal decision to spend his entire medical career practicing in Avery County.
Dr. Bob Clark notes Dr. Tate’s remarkable investment in his patients, who have always been the core of his practice. “He bypassed a lot of reward as a rural surgeon caring for rural people. He has always treated people like a part of his family.”
Serving his rural community
For many physicians, Avery County might lack the appeal of a big city. Dr. Charlie Baker recalls originally meeting Bill Tate when they were both students at the first Governor’s School at Salem College in 1963. He thought his new acquaintance was “a guy from the end of the world,” an amusing impression indeed when Dr. Baker himself later came to Avery County to practice.
He notes how a deep connection to the community has allowed Dr. Tate to benefit Avery County, from providing life-saving care to anyone who needed it, to his leadership in merging the historic hospitals of Banner Elk and Crossnore into today’s Cannon Memorial in Linville. “He has always been devoted to quality of care, to improving lives in the community.”
Dr. Clark agrees, noting that that Dr. Tate was frequently on call every other night and, throughout his career, took a wide range of emergency cases that couldn’t wait for a trip to a larger facility. “He’s given his life to mountain folk, people he knew wouldn’t be cared for otherwise,” Clark says, crediting Dr. Tate’s combination of extensive knowledge and love for people with allowing the people of Avery County “to live healthier, longer lives with a better quality of life.” As his colleagues, friends, and patients all recognize, when one is treating neighbors, family, and friends, there is a different dedication than to a stranger.
Dr. Tate “put the community ahead of everything,” says Dr. Haizlip, who notes that his longtime colleague and friend, in his dedication to “appropriate and modern care,” has always been driven to provide whatever his patients needed. “He was willing to take on difficult things, do the homework, do whatever someone needed to make sure people got the right care.” When new skills or tools were necessary, he learned them, and if he really couldn’t do a procedure, “he went with the patient to see it done and learn.” At the same time, he has always understood that there is more to healing than can be achieved with a surgical procedure.
Healing happens with community, kindness, and compassion
Perhaps even more remarkable than his vast skill and his lifelong commitment is his love for the people he treats. Carmen Lacey, President of Cannon Memorial Hospital, describes Dr. Tate as “the kindest, most compassionate surgeon I have ever known. He would do whatever it takes to make his patients comfortable.” He has consistently provided whatever care was required, as Dr. Baker notes. With Dr. Tate, “If you needed a doctor, you had a doctor…It wasn’t his job. It was a lifestyle.”
Dr. Tate has always recognized that community, faith, and family are vital to health and recovery. That focus is clear in his own life outside the operating theater. Whether playing with his grandchildren, laughing with his wife Donna, singing in the church choir, spending 20 years championing education as part of Avery County’s School Board, supporting the YMCA, or just hugging someone in the grocery store, Dr. Tate’s devotion to his family, his faith, and his community shine through in all.
“He absolutely loved this community,” Lacey said. The community loved Dr. Tate in return. In 2013, he was inducted into the Martha Guy Hall of Legends, acknowledging his contributions to Avery County. Even after his retirement, many of his former patients still considered Dr. Tate to be “their” doctor. The improvements he brought to their lives, and to the lives of everyone in Avery County, are his legacy, his own legacy, and the journeys of his family, his friends, and his patients are all the better for knowing him.
Dr. Bill Tate passed away on May 27, 2020, following a long illness.
“Dr. Tate was a third-generation physician serving Avery county. Even as his body failed him, he continued to find fulfillment in serving others by providing medical care to the community and asking nothing in return. I’ll always remember Dr. Tate for his quick wit, love for life and his family,” remembers Chuck Mantooth, President and CEO of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.