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The Ultimate Hand-Me-Downs

“I know plenty of students who wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the support of alumni and other gifts,” says Dr. Mark Michels. “So it’s a pleasure to provide some support and pay it forward.” Michels and his wife, Lyn, have given a scholarship in honor of Dr. Jean Bennett, who had been Michels’ pediatrician.

These two generations of Gators are doing their parts to pay forward the support they received.

Then-college freshman Mark Michels recalls just how miserable he was during that first winter semester in Massachusetts.

“Cold and nasty,” said Michels, a Clearwater native. “I knew there had to be a better place for me.”

Seeking options for their son, Michels’ parents sought the advice of his lifelong pediatrician, Dr. Jean Bennett. After all, she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Florida’s College of Medicine and had since led scores of her patients – whom she fondly calls her “babies” – to pursue medicine as a career.

As expected, Bennett came through with a great idea: Go interview for UF’s Junior Honors Medical Program in the spring, in sunny Gainesville.

“That was one pleasant surprise after another,” Michels said. “As I explored the offerings of UF’s medical center, I found the faculty so open and willing for me to participate in their research. Frankly, it’s something that keeps me interested in the college today.”

Now, more than 40 years later, Michels (BS ’82, MD ’85) is a proud Gator. He’s a sought-after ophthalmologist in Palm Beach Gardens, president of the College of Medicine’s Alumni Board, and, with his wife Lyn (BSBA ’83), among the Gators who have contributed scholarship funds to bolster future generations of budding physicians.

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Dr. Jean Bennett is among the few women who graduated in the UF College of Medicine’s first class in 1956. She has been credited with leading scores of her patients to pursue medicine as a career.

Fittingly, the Michels gave their scholarship gift in honor of Bennett and issued a challenge to match some other alumni donations to the College of Medicine’s scholarship drive. To fund their challenge gift, the Michels leveraged a charitable remainder unitrust, which pays the couple interest payments for their lifetime. Then, it will be given to the beneficiaries they designate – including this College of Medicine scholarship fund.

“Medical students, like most students, face a number of challenges. I wish one of them wasn’t the challenge of paying back their school debt,” Michels said. “I know plenty of students who wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the support of alumni and other gifts. So it’s a pleasure to provide some support and pay it forward.”

In addition, Michels said he is pleased to support future Gator doctors in the name of the “great lady” Jean Bennett.

“She’s a pretty important part of our school,” he said. “I showed up on my first day on the alumni board and saw her sitting there as a fellow board member. To sit and work with her on the Board was an unexpected pleasure.”

Bennett, now retired, was quick to deflect praise and commend Michels for his generosity.

“He’s the consummate graduate from our school, in my opinion,” Bennett said. “He comes from good genes.” (Michels’ mother was the first speech pathologist at Morton Plant Hospital, and his father founded and operated Michels Pharmacy in Clearwater.)

“It was obvious from the beginning that he was so bright and motivated,” she said.

Bennett was equally bright and motivated when, at 19, she arrived in Clearwater in the late 1950s with her parents. Eager to attend medical school, she had her eye on a university in West Virginia, but her parents suggested the new medical program at UF might be a good fit. Bennett agreed to attend the first school that accepted her application. UF’s acceptance letter arrived one day before the others.

“My dad sacrificed so much to send me to school,” Bennett said, adding that his coal mining job and her mother’s teaching post didn’t leave much money at the end of each month.

Bennett also credits her success to Dr. George Harrell, dean of UF’s budding medical program who took an interest in her early on. One of just three women in the college’s first class, Bennett said Harrell acknowledged her proficiencies in the sciences, but encouraged her to take additional courses in the arts, philosophy and other subjects so she could become a more “well-rounded” physician.

“He was so right,” Bennett said. “And I’ve been forever grateful to him – a prominent dean who gave this little girl from West Virginia a chance.”

Bennett and Michels both say they hope future generations of Gator doctors will continue their tradition of paying forward the generosity they receive. Michels added that it’s even more important today, during these tumultuous times.

“Doctors not only lean in and listen to patients’ medical problems, but to what’s going on in their lives. Those are magic moments,” Michels said. “Yes, there are unpleasant aspects of our field, such as politics and funding problems and pandemics, but you can’t take away the care and compassion and positive energy physicians bring. And Florida students are uniquely qualified for these roles because they’re being taught to keep this patient-centered focus by example.”