Miami Herald

Former state health official was an advocate for early childhood learning

- BY HOWARD COHEN hcohen@miamiheral­d.com Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohe­n

Dr. Wil Blechman — one of Florida’s most influentia­l advocates for early childhood learning — died Wednesday morning at his Miami-Dade home at age 89 after battling cancer, his wife Rachel Blechman said.

“Wil was one of my earliest and wisest advisers — now more than three decades ago — on the imperative of investing in early learning and school readiness,” said David Lawrence Jr., chairman of the Children’s Movement of Florida. “I could not have a better teacher and ally and friend. He brought a soul of great decency to everything.”

Blechman, appointed Florida State Health Officer by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1995, was born in May

1932 to Florence and Charles Blechman in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Yale University in 1953 and the Medical College of Virginia in 1957.

In 1959, he started a fellowship in rheumatolo­gy at Johns Hopkins University. Soon after, he moved to South Florida and began his medical practice with the formation of his medical group in North Miami Beach in

1961.

For the next 30 years, he developed a reputation as a devoted internist and rheumatolo­gist. But in a surprise mid-life twist, Blechman found his greatest renown for his work on behalf of the world’s children.

After joining the Kiwanis Club of North East MiamiDade in 1962, he became club president, then Florida Kiwanis governor, an internatio­nal trustee and president of Kiwanis Internatio­nal in 1990-91. He “embodied the Kiwanis motto of serving the children of the world,” the group wrote in tribute after he died on Sept. 15.

Blechman partnered Kiwanis with UNICEF to initiate a program to understand the role iodized salt plays in healthy brain developmen­t and worked to help eliminate iodine deficiency disorder, Rachel Blechman said.

Dr. Wil, as he was fondly called by patients and colleagues, was also involved in the Kiwanis’ work to eliminate maternal neonatal tetanus, a deadly disease that kills nearly 34,000 babies annually.

“He worked with Lawton Chiles on the vaccinatio­n rate for young children and raised the vaccinatio­n rate well above what it had been before to an acceptable rate. When you say he impacted children he impacted thousands of children worldwide in so many ways,” said his wife.

“He was just a truly amazing man. You talk about how one person can change the world, and this is someone who has dedicated the latter part of his life to children and the importance of brain developmen­t. From a moral standpoint and an economic standpoint he understood it all,” said James

Haj, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust.

“If we invest early on in children, not only financiall­y but with our hearts and give them all the resources available, this community and this world would be a much better place,” Haj said. “And I think Wil handily changed the trajectory for the youth of this

community.”

Jack Levine, a child and family advocate for 43 years and founder of the 4Generatio­ns Institute in Tallahasse­e, celebrated Blechman’s “truly infectious spirit for children. The man created an aura of concern and conscienti­ous advocacy that was so effective in moving people in the direction of worthy causes,” he said.

Blechman’s various faculty positions included research professor of public health at the University of South Florida, associate professor of medicine at Nova Southeaste­rn University School of Osteopathi­c Medicine and clinical professor emeritus status at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Blechman also served as a senior consultant to the Department of Health and Children and Families, as a vice chair of the Children’s Forum and as chair of the

Health Committee of the United Way Center for Excellence.

“As we look through the roster of his honors and his involvemen­ts as a volunteer, the hours and brilliance he brought to the world of child advocacy are truly immeasurab­le,” Levine said. “What the man created was a conscience for doing the right thing as early as possible in the lives of our youngest and he truly has had a generation­al impact.”

The intriguing shift in Blechman’s work is remarkable when one considers that his medical training and his clinical practice of 30 years had little, if any, relation to pediatrics or early childhood disease.

“Rheumatolo­gy, the treatment of what we usually consider ailments of the old — arthritis, rheumatic inflammati­on and the ‘aches and pains’ — are almost always associated with advanced aging,” Levine noted.

In a letter Levine drafted to his advocacy group and shared with the Miami Herald, he recalled a story Blechman had told him about why early childhood mattered so much to him.

During an office visit at his North Miami Beach rheumatolo­gy practice one of Blechman’s patients answered the simple pleasantry — “So, how are the grandchild­ren doing?” — with a sad, “To tell you the truth, Doc ... not so good.”

Blechman learned that his patient’s 4-year-old grandson had exhibited learning problems.

The small talk during the exam turned into a major life plan for the doctor.

Blechman’s Cornelledu­cated wife, Rachel Simonhoff Blechman, now a retired attorney from Miami’s Holland & Knight, had a considerab­le background in the academic study of children. She proved a fount of informatio­n. The couple had married and blended their families in 1985 — two years after Blechman’s wife Sidell Cohen died.

With her support, Blechman announced his retirement. He closed his rheumatolo­gy practice to begin the final three-decade-long chapter in his life.

The fruitful period would see an indefatiga­ble Blechman elevated as a “sainted figure in early childhood developmen­t,” as Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher, described him.

Blechman, a Marquis Who’s Who Humanitari­an Award inductee for 2020 and Lawton Chiles Foundation board member, was fueled by one foundation­al question, Levine wrote:

“Do young children deserve life experience­s which promote their proper developmen­t — both physically and emotionall­y —.and if so, what can a middle-aged physician do to make a difference for a new generation of children in need?”

What this middle-aged physician with a mission did was help to develop and introduce a program called “Young Children: Priority One” to Kiwanis’ worldwide clubs. The program focuses on the prenatal period to age 5.

In March 2020, the Blechmans establishe­d the Wil and Rachel Blechman Fund via the Florida Kiwanis Foundation.

“We can think of no better way to honor the longtime work of Dr. Wil and Rachel than establishi­ng the Wil and Rachel Blechman Fund,” Florida Kiwanis Foundation president Jim Wylie had said in a news release. “Dr. Wil’s drive to emphasize early childhood has positively impacted children around the world. The Blechman legacy will be felt for generation­s to come.”

As recently as December, even as he fought cancer, Blechman was still advocating and speaking out on behalf of children.

Reacting to a Dec. 14 Miami Herald front-page story, “County jails get big share of the property taxes,” Blechman wrote a letter to the editor urging officials to rethink how a portion of tax dollars ought to be utilized.

“For a change, we should pay attention to years of research that show it is possible to reduce criminal behavior by focusing more resources on enhancing young children’s capabiliti­es. Economists say the return on investment of public dollars in early childhood is between seven and 13% higher than most other investment­s,” Blechman wrote.

“He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfathe­r and that is certainly a part of who he is — and a dear friend to many people,” his wife Rachel said. “Besides being a great doctor and a humanitari­an and a volunteer, his personal life was equally wonderful.”

In addition to his wife Rachel, Blechman’s survivors include his children Michele Platt, Michael Blechman, Ivy Blechman, Diana Greenwell; his grandchild­ren Zac, Max, Jordan, Jacob and Eli, “and his aging rescue dog Mabel,” his family said.

A celebratio­n of life and services will be held at a later date. His family welcomes contributi­ons to the Wil and Rachel Fund for Young Children at the Florida Kiwanis

Foundation.

 ?? Courtesy Jack Levine, 2013 ?? Dr. Wil Blechman, who started a medical group in 1961 in North Miami Beach, was appointed Florida State Health Officer by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1995.
Courtesy Jack Levine, 2013 Dr. Wil Blechman, who started a medical group in 1961 in North Miami Beach, was appointed Florida State Health Officer by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1995.

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