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Dr. John M. Cheatham Jr.

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CHEATHAM, Dr. John M., Jr. Dr. John M. Cheatham, Jr., 68 A Life without Furniture Dr. John Cheatham passed away Monday afternoon, November 2nd. He succumbed to a heart attack while climbing Kennesaw Mountain. Hiking was a favorite recreational pastime and an important part of his profession. He recently climbed and summited Mount Kilimanjaro and had made multiple trips to the Grand Canyon. Just this year, he completed a 50 mile hike from the canyon's south rim to the north rim and then back again with his brother and hiking partner, Jackson. John was born in Griffin, Georgia, on November 29, 1940. He graduated from high school at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta. He completed his undergraduate work at Georgetown University, after serving his country as a sergeant in the Army Special Forces with a tour of duty in Vietnam. Not content with traditional career patterns, however, he earned a commercial pilot's license and then set out to travel the world. John worked as a bush pilot in Africa and New Guinea and then there was a stint in the Amazon rainforest. While in the region, he amazingly persuaded his sister, Elizabeth, to accompany him on a 2,500 mile trip down the Amazon River in a non-motorized dugout canoe. The trip started at the river's headwaters in Peru and finished in Manaus, Brazil, where civilization then began. Along the way, there was a particularly troublesome encounter with an anaconda longer than the boat. Briefly giving in to conventional pressures, John returned to the United States and attended Columbia Business School where he received an MBA degree. Then followed a financial career abroad, but one in which he never felt fulfilled. Business was never John's passion and he was a person who simply refused to live life without passion. Though John was never one to be imprisoned by what others thought he should do, it was not until his late 30's that he identified his life purpose and set out to become a medical doctor working with the poor in the underdeveloped world. He decided upon ophthalmology as a specialization as he considered cataract surgery to be the most effective medical procedure for the poor world. He saw an opportunity to give sight to those who were blind but who lived in areas too remote to be helped by others. At that time, however, no one John's age was ever admitted to American medical schools and for years he was rebuffed in his attempts to study medicine. However, John refused to give up his dream and spent ten years struggling to overcome obstacles before finally getting his degree. Early on, he simply bought medical books and self-taught himself enough to pass Part 1 of the National Medical Boards before ever enrolling in medical school. Then there followed years of multiple schools in multiple countries, with his study of medicine including elements in French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese. Eventually, two influential people recognized what John had to offer the world and took up his cause. They managed to have others bend rules to have him admitted to the Medical College of Georgia where he excelled. Quite likely, John is the only graduate of that school who did so without ever completing a single premed course. One of these men described his efforts on John's behalf as the best investment he ever made. John went on to practice ophthalmology for 20 years in the undeveloped world. During that time he never received a dollar of salary nor charged a single patient for either the surgery received or for the all important logistical support that made that surgery possible. John took the time to learn the needs of the poor; he walked among them. He understood how difficult it was for the blind in remote areas to find their way to medical facilities. So he went looking for them, always contending that the surgical aspect was the S easiest part of the process. John knew that the work takes a lot of mud on the boots as well as good medical skills, and he was prepared to give both. Though he certainly never kept score, it seems safe to say that over 20,000 people regained their sight due to his efforts and those of the dedicated team that he led at the Mathis Eye Foundation, an organization named in honor of his mother and uncle. John's other interests over the years included flying, parachuting, judo, SCUBA diving, travel (people would try to name a country that he hadnít visited), languages (he studied eleven and spoke many of these fluently), hiking into remote areas to locate the blind poor, and reading. He studied history that he might learn from the past. In June of this year, he embarked on his greatest adventure of all when he married his long-term companion, and often co-worker, Dr. Anne Schlueter. Many have said how John strongly influenced their lives. We know that his example inspired others into medicine. Some considered him to be their mentor. All who crossed his path found him encouraging, as just being around John left one with the feeling that they could do better in their own lives. He inspired them to try. Throughout it all, John lived a simple life. He did not own a home, a car, or a cell phone. His possessions consisted only of a closet full of items at his mother's home and that which he carried with him when he traveled. Yet with so few accessories, he accomplished so much. People often marveled at John's life and asked if he would ever write an autobiography. This question he would laughingly dismiss, saying that too many people write books while too few read books. However, he did recently say that should he ever change his mind, the book's title would be A Life without Furniture. In accordance with John's wishes, he will be cremated on Friday, November 6th and his ashes scattered without ceremony or memorial. He wanted no flowers to be sent or donations made on his behalf. The family certainly intends to respect his wishes, but we also feel the need to make a request of those who cared for John. We want to recognize that he spent his life giving sight to the poor. He quite literally brought light into areas of the world that desperately needed it. As such, we can not let the day pass without honoring his efforts. So we ask all who knew John or those who simply identify with his life's purpose to light to a candle on Friday in memory of a life well spent and to take a few moments to reflect on how we, too, can bring light into the world. A single life produces much radiance when that person follows his dreams, tries to do what is right, and refuses to let obstacles stand in the way. John Cheatham did all that. The world is better for his having lived. We are better for having known him. Though his life may have ended too soon, it was a life complete in so many ways. John is survived by his wife Anne, mother Elizabeth, sister Elizabeth, brothers Jackson and Harvey, nieces Lizzie and Anne-Marisa, and so many here and abroad who called him friend.
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 6, 2009
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