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Celebrating a Lowcountry legend: Dr. Thomas P. R. Rivers

Few demonstrate the characterizing touch of the South Carolina Lowcountry as much as the late Dr. Thomas Pinckney Rutledge Rivers. For it’s a mix of fresh air and salt water, understated elegance and pluff mud; it imparts a curiosity about the natural world and drives the pursuit of knowledge for the remainder of one’s life. From his childhood on Orange Street — where he also later lived as an adult — in downtown Charleston to his retirement in 2006 and onward, Tommy Rivers proved himself a devout student of the outdoors and an unabashed lover of people, many of whom remember his calming demeanor and quick judgment in the delivery room. He was equally comfortable with a shotgun on his shoulder, a quail in his coat pocket or a baby in his arms. Throughout his career as a physician, he helped deliver more than 7,000 babies.

“Dr. Tommy” was born on July 23, 1934, to George Lamb Buist Rivers and Ethel Pinckney Rutledge Rivers. His father, a Broad Street attorney, first took him hunting when he was six years old, and on that drive, his father shot an eight-point buck and a 20-pound turkey. Young Tommy was hooked from that point on. Between hunting around McClellanville and elsewhere and fishing at Sullivan’s Island, he spent much of his time outside.

Dr. Rivers with his son Thomas. Image provided by Thomas Rivers, Jr.

He grew up at a time when Charleston remained exceptionally local and he could walk down the street expecting to know everyone he met. Back doors were always unlocked, and children could come and go from friends’ houses and travel safely on bicycles downtown. In a 2017 interview for Historic Charleston Foundation, Dr. Rivers recalled it as “a wonderful way to grow up. I was so blessed.”

Tommy Rivers was nine years old when he shot his first buck at Hampton Plantation. His great-uncle and South Carolina poet laureate Archibald Rutledge was the owner of Hampton and had kept a plaque on a cabin wall with little deer antlers that read, “Killed by Archibald Rutledge, age 11.” But soon after Tommy’s feat, the inscription was edited to “age 9.”

During the summers, the Rivers family moved to Sullivan’s Island, from which Tommy used to row a small boat up the Intracoastal Waterway to Goat Island and fish. Whatever he brought home was cleaned and served for breakfast the next day, often with a healthy portion of hominy grits.

The sportsman lifestyle began at a young age; during the course of Tommy’s life, it grew into a wholistic reverence for the outdoors manifested in extensive records of birds he encountered and wildflowers he collected.

He attended Charleston Day School and the Gaud School, and then went off to boarding school with many other young men at Episcopal High School in Virginia. During his high school years, Tommy’s father encouraged him to aim to be his own boss, and after graduating from Davidson College, Tommy enrolled in the Medical College of South Carolina.

One night in September 1958, while Tommy was helping in Roper Hospital’s hectic emergency room at the end of his first year, a woman in labor arrived. He called the attending OB-GYN physician. However, to his surprise, the physician ordered Tommy to do it himself: take the pregnant woman to the maternity floor and deliver her baby with a nurse’s help. There in the presence of ten other expectant mothers, following the nurse’s calm direction, Tommy delivered a six-pound baby girl. He witnessed the birth of a new life, and from that night onward, he knew he wanted to continue facilitating the same miracle.

After medical school, Dr. Rivers completed a year of internship and four years of residency before serving as an Army doctor for two years. In 1968, he joined a medical practice founded by his late uncle, Arthur Rivers, with Drs. Richard Sosnowski and James Wilson. They asked him to start on August 15, but as that marked the first day of deer hunting season, he went to work on the 16th. He practiced obstetrics and gynecology and became known throughout his career as a progressive physician and surgeon. He was the first physician in South Carolina to use a laparoscope in gynecological procedures, which enabled women to recover more quickly, and he was the first physician in Charleston to allow fathers into the delivery room.

Dr. Rivers said in his 2017 interview with Anne Blessing: “I thought it was a good idea to have the man present who had fathered the child because that would be a bonding time.”

Naturally, these uncommon innovations were borne of his character. Upon hearing his patients and friends describe him, one begins to understand. As his daughter Elise Kennedy says, “He was a shepherd to many; he took care of people’s hearts.”

Dr. Becky Baird, another ob-gyn who worked closely with Dr. Rivers at his practice, says of him, “He was so well-loved by all of his patients because of his bedside manner, always making people feel comfortable. He genuinely cared about people, and they could tell by the way he treated them.”

Similar testaments are as numerous as the babies he delivered, for he possessed a disarming charm coupled with a confident strength. He held hands of expectant mothers and fathers and made a point to do something rare in the medical field: pray.

A man of Christian convictions, Dr. Rivers acquired his steadfast faith in the middle of his life, around the same time he met the lady who would become his wife — Mary. Since then, it shaped his approach to both his professional and personal lives.

Dr. Baird says, “He would always pray with his patients, and that’s one of the things he taught me. He encouraged me to support my patients in that way. I’d be willing to bet a lot of his patients remember praying with him.”

He was always willing to help and would not hesitate, day or night, to aid in a delivery or surgery. As Dr. Baird attests, his presence alone was comforting.

Mutual love of the outdoors characterized many of his relationships. Throughout Dr. Rivers’ life, he cultivated old and new friendships in the woods or on the water, always enthusiastic about the moment at hand. He and a group of childhood friends called “The Sportsmen” would retreat to wildlife sanctuaries like Lavington Plantation and bond through interactions with the natural blessings of the Lowcountry. He was also the longest living member of the Middleton Hunting Club, where he hunted often and sometimes drove the deer on horseback.

He and his own family spent many years returning to Sullivan’s Island during the summer. There could be seen a hoard of children and his beloved dogs running betwixt the house and the beach.

Before and after his retirement in 2006, Dr. Rivers enjoyed spending time at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Known by his grandchildren as “Grandaddy,” he would gather members from both of his families for a week each summer and find respite in the forest-scented mountain air. There he ventured on ponderous walks along trails lined with various wildflowers. His comprehensive books of collected blooms nearly rival his recorded bird sightings.

As much as he did love the sport of shooting birds, he was enamored with watching them. He gave his daughter Cacky Rivers a Peterson Field Guide bird book and a pair of binoculars for her college graduation; he encouraged her to record where and when she saw each bird. When Dr. Rivers became ill three years ago, Cacky started photographing birds and showing the extraordinary results to her dad. And the more she photographed, the more she realized an unintended skill learned from her father.

She says, “When I was younger, Dad taught me how to shoot birds with a shotgun. We would track the bird, then shoot. Now I just do the same thing with my camera to capture birds in flight.”

Dr. Rivers once recalled his life as “a phenomenal ride.” Perhaps nothing could more aptly describe the life he took so seriously and treasured so humbly. Dr. Rivers spoke a disappearing language quite separate from his defining old Charleston accent. He spoke of duty toward place and people. He spoke of the wonders awarded to the observant few. He spoke of the Lord’s presence in His creation, and the surprising power of a person’s spirit.

Dr. Thomas Pinckney Rutledge Rivers died Monday, November 30, 2020. He was 86. Held on Friday, December 4, at Magnolia Cemetery, the funeral began with a flight of white ibis gently drifting overhead and ended with a pair of bald eagles taking off from their nearby nest from which they had watched the service. The Reverend Terrell Glenn spoke of Tommy living with his head, his hands and his heart. We rarely find such a sincere combination. And what a celebration it is when one life brings forth so many others.

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