“J.Roy, did you get the paper yet?”
“Nope. Just about to.”
“It’s hot out there,” the eighty-four year old doctor and former Congressman tells his wife in a gentle Southern drawl, almost Jimmy Carter-like in timbre, as he re-enters the air-conditioned home. He walks down a long hallway, its walls laced with family photos taken over the years. Rowland stops just short of the end of the hallway and turns left into a home office of sorts that he calls “his room”. The wall decorations in this room include metals that he won during his time in the United States Army and in the Second World War. There’s one for valor, another for conduct.
“I was a good boy,” Rowland chuckles as he examines the six awards encased in glass.
The rest of the walls are covered with pictures of Rowland from his time in Washington. There are pictures of him with presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members, first ladies and fellow congressmen. Their faces are easy to recognize: Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, Tip O’Neil, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Reagan among others, all prominent faces on the national political scene during Rowland’s tenure.
But on one end of the wall, there are six framed pieces of legislation authored by Rowland and signed by presidents, with one of the pens used to sign them accompanying each. These are relics of Rowland’s biggest achievements as a Congressman.
“Washington was a different place in those days,” says Rowland.
James Roy Rowland Jr. was born on February 3, 1926 in Wrightsville, a small, rural South Georgia town roughly twenty miles east of Dublin. He was the older of two children of James Roy Rowland Sr. and Jerridine Brinson Rowland. Almost everyone on his mother’s side of the family was involved in medicine, either as pharmacists or physicians. He spent most of his childhood in his grandfather’s drugstore in Wrightsville, and it was there that he gained his interest in medicine that would later lead to his medical career. His father’s side of the family consisted of lawyers. The older Rowland was a solicitor general, nowadays known as a district attorney, and eventually a Superior Court judge. Rowland also had uncles and cousins who had served in the state legislature as well as his grandfather. Furthermore, his younger brother Joe practiced law in Wrightsville and served as a Magistrate Court judge for fifty-six years. Consequently, politics was always a big topic of conversation among the Rowland men, something that would fuel J. Roy to enter public office later in life.
Rowland graduated from Wrightsville High School in 1943, where he played football and was a member of the Beta Club. He enrolled at Emory College at Oxford for two quarters in the fall of 1943. By that time, it was the height of World War II, and most of his friends had entered the military and gone off to fight. Rowland convinced his parents to allow him to join the Army. He had initially planned to join a specialized training and reserve program while continuing to go to school, but wound up, however, going to an infantry basic camping center in Florida, where he was placed in the Thirteenth Armored Division of the Armored Infantry.
Rowland’s infantry regiment arrived in Europe in January of 1945. He participated in two campaigns in and around Central Europe as a machine gunner, where he received a badge for valor for his service. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, and Rowland’s division returned home in July. From there, he married his longtime childhood sweetheart, Luella Price, on August 3. Rowland was immediately called back into action, with his division scheduled to land on the island of Japan on August 5. The United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and another one on Nagasaki a few days later, effectively ending the war. Rowland remained in the Army for a few more months before being discharged in 1946. He was twenty years old.
After the War
Upon returning home, Rowland worked as a city mail carrier in Wrightsville for a few months before being accepted to South Georgia College in Douglas. After a couple of quarters there, he went to the University of Georgia for two years. In 1948, Rowland was accepted to the Medical College of Georgia. After taking some aptitude tests, he was advised he most likely would not make it through, and if he did, he would finish in the lower third of his class. J. Roy Rowland graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in 1952, sixth out of a class of seventy-eight, one of the proudest moments of his life according to him.
From there, Rowland went to Macon, where he interned and did a residency in a family practice. He then moved to Swainsboro for six months as a doctor, and in 1954, he came to Dublin, where he has remained ever since. Rowland practiced family medicine in Dublin for twenty-eight years.
It was 1976, and while Jimmy Carter was making his ascension to the Presidency, the fifty-year Rowland began to develop an internal fire of his own. He wanted to go into politics. After all, the topic had been present throughout his family history. And with little to no presence of medical professionals in the state legislature, he could be relevant and significant early on. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives as a Democrat, where he served three terms. But his political career was only getting started.
In 1982, Rowland had grander sights in store. United States Representative Billy Lee Evans was immensely unpopular in Rowland’s district. He saw an opportunity and decided to take a gamble by challenging Evans for the Democratic nomination, an effort he was successful in. He liked politics and had begun to experience some burnout from the twenty-eight years of medical practice. He was fifty-six and wanted to make a change.
“Lots of people want to make a change at that age,” Rowland says. “The incumbent wasn’t doing a very good job, and the people were genuinely ready for someone else. I just wanted to get involved. It appealed to me.”
Rowland won the general election for Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District, representing Dublin and cities such as Macon, Valdosta, Albany and later Warner Robins. Some of his notable fellow freshmen members included John McCain from Arizona, who would later be elected to the Senate and become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008, and Harry Reid, who currently is the Majority Leader in the Senate.
Rowland was active on several issues over the course of his time on Capitol Hill. These included issues in transportation, education, agriculture, defense, the environment, foreign affairs, veterans affairs, and, more than anything else, healthcare and medical issues.
He got to work on health quickly, sponsoring legislation to take a drug called Quaalude off the market, an effort he had been successful with in the Georgia Legislature. Quaaludes, also known as the Love Drug, Disco Biscuits, Vitamin Q, and Ludes among other names, had first been introduced in the United States in 1965. It was a Central Nervous System depressant, designed to help people with insomnia sleep.
Rowland prescribed the drug to patients for six months, before noticing that his patients were coming back more and more. They had become psychologically and physically dependent on the highly addictive drug, which had become the top abused drug by teenagers throughout the country. He pushed for Quaaludes to be removed from the shelves and placed on the most restrictive drug lists along with cocaine and heroin. He had done so in Georgia, which had become a case study for the illegal distribution through black markets. Rowland’s bill was passed and signed into law by President Reagan. The legislation hangs on Rowland’s wall in his room, and he points to it proudly.
Rowland was one of only two doctors in the Congress for the majority of his time there. One, Larry McDonald of Marietta, was killed in a plane crash not long after Rowland’s arrival, and the other, Ron Paul of Texas ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate, leaving Rowland as the only doctor in Congress for a period of four years.
Rowland thought that his expertise in the field of healthcare would aid him in being a prominent voice on health issues. With this in mind, he lobbied for a spot on the health subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce committee in the House. It was like running for office all over again according to Rowland, who found out that such assignment decisions could be based on purely ideological lines. He was viewed as a moderate to conservative Democrat, much more so than the liberal leadership of his party in the House. And he was a member of the Conservative Democratic Caucus, known today as the Blue Dog Coalition. This led to Rowland being denied a seat on the subcommittee for some time. He did get a seat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, where he was the chairman of the healthcare subcommittee, where he helped get the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Dublin’s name changed to the Carl Vinson Medical Center, named after the longtime Milledgeville Congressman. He also helped establish an outpatient clinic for the hospital.
Eventually Rowland finally earned the health subcommittee spot he had sought on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He had helped the Democratic leadership with legislation regarding the contras in Central America, and he had been instrumental in creating a national commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. This in turn had increased his favor in the eyes of the leadership, and he was rewarded with the spot.
In his eyes, Rowland’s greatest achievement in Washington would turn out to be his greatest disappointment. As Bill Clinton came into the Presidency, rising healthcare costs were a chief concern. In most ways healthcare reform had become the most critical issue in the country at the time. Rowland was one of five Democrats and five Republicans who put together a healthcare bill in 1994 designed to fix many of the problems without making drastic changes to the system. Mike Billirakis from Florida was the chief co-sponsor on the Republican side. According to Rowland, the problems were in large part the same was they are today.
“I thought we needed to do some things like insurance reform, where insurance companies wouldn’t be exempt from antitrust, and where they would be able to sell insurance across state lines,” Rowland says. “I think there needed to be and still needs to be some malpractice reform done, and the Democrats were and are very weak on that. Litigation is one of the things that really drives up the costs of care.”
Rowland also provided a way that, according to him, would get medical care to everyone who couldn’t afford it.
“My idea was to establish a network of community health centers throughout the country that would be operated by federal, state and local governments. And there would be citizen groups who would have local boards in the communities and run these,” Rowland says. “They would provide care to people who could not afford to pay. That would provide all the outpatient care that was needed.”
At the same time, the Democratic leadership was touting more comprehensive reform legislation aimed at providing universal health coverage being pushed by First Lady Hillary Clinton, and as a result, Rowland and his co-sponsors were never given a hearing on their bill.
Rowland believes his bill would have passed if it had gotten to the floor. In fact there were more than 100 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisles, and according to Rowland, several members had committed to vote for it if it could get to the floor. However, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee told Rowland that he would never let it out of committee.
“It was pure politics, and that’s the way so much of what happens is now,” Rowland says with a tone of resignation.
Rowland feels that problems in healthcare have not gone away today. With President Obama’s plan to expand Medicaid and health insurance coverage to an additional thirty-five to forty million people, Rowland fears that there are not going to be enough doctors to provide the care. As a member of the Board of Directors for the Medical College of Georgia, he cites the Board of Regents’ struggles to obtain another medical school in the state or at least expand the one in Augusta to Athens.
“There’s just not enough physicians now, so what is going to happen with all of these additional people,” Rowland asks. “There’s not going to be enough personnel to provide the care.”
Even more so among his concerns is the fact that every person that is sixty-five and retired has to go on Medicare, which according to Rowland, does not pay enough to cover the medical expenses, which in turn would lead many doctors less inclined to treat Medicare patients.
“Just like Medicaid, I don’t know where they are going to be able to get the care,” he says, shrugging. “The doctors can’t accept balanced billing. We can’t pay them additional money. If doctors accept what Medicare pays, that’s all they’re going to get. So I think it’s going to be chaos.”
Time to Come Home
By 1994, the fire that had first led Rowland to enter politics was beginning to fade. He was sixty-eight, and the Democrats were on their way to a shellacking in the 1994 Congressional midterms. Another big reason was the vastly changing political climate at the time.
“When I went there, Tip O’Neil was the Speaker and Bob Michel from Ohio was the Minority Leader on the Republican side. They were great friends and there was a lot of goodwill,” Rowland says. “There was a lot of debate, but there was not the acrimony that exists now. That was true for ten years, and then not so much the last two years I was there.”
Rowland had fallen out of touch with the leadership of his party, as he remained on the conservative side and the leadership drifted more and more to the left. He had always been an independent mind, and was a different type of Democrat.
“One thing that distresses me now is I hear the media say there’s no such thing as a moderate Democrat anymore,” Rowland contends. “If you’re going to be a moderate kind of person, then you’ve got to be on the more liberal side if you’re going to remain a Democrat. That’s unfortunate, and I don’t think that’s true.”
The last straw came when Majority Leader Dick Gephardt had, according to Rowland, refused to seek help from Republicans on healthcare reform.
“I felt like we needed Republicans too because they had some bright people,” Rowland says. “It’s the same thing that’s happening today.”
Rowland chose not to seek re-election to his office. He was going home.
The Personal Side
But in addition to the political side of things, there was always a personal side for Rowland as well. There were a number of fellow members in Congress who stood out to Rowland, many of whom he became close friends with. In addition to Billirakis, with whom who he had grown close, especially when writing their healthcare bill, there was Sonny Callahan from Alabama and Jim Cooper from Tennessee. There was Bill Thomas from California and Fred Gandy from “somewhere in the Midwest”. And there was Porter Goss from Florida, who would later become the head of the C.I.A., and Dennis Hastert, who eventually became Speaker of the House. Then there were the ones that Rowland was not so close with like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the latter of whom is currently the Speaker of the House, which has surprised Rowland.
“She came a couple of terms after I did and didn’t seem that aggressive to me,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I went to a town meeting in her district one time, and I knew she was a fairly liberal person, but I didn’t realize that she was as liberal as she is.”
Rowland was also left with impressions of all three presidents who occupied the White House during his time in Congress. He remembers Ronald Reagan as a very affable guy who was easy to talk to. Rowland visited Reagan along with other members several times at the White House, once working closely with the fortieth president on an MX missile plan.
Out of the three, Rowland liked George Bush the most. He was a friend of Sonny Montgomery, a longtime member from Mississippi who had been close friends with Bush for several years. On many occasions, Bush came to the gym and played racquetball with Montgomery, and it was there that Rowland got to know Bush on a more personal level.
Rowland’s outlook on Bill Clinton was a bit different from the previous two commanders-in-chief.
“He was all politician, a very smooth guy. You never did know what he said to you. He’d talk to you, and you’d wonder what he said or meant,” says Rowland.
He recalls an instance that when the healthcare bill was being written in the executive office, the different care providers had been excluded from writing the bill. Rowland questioned Clinton on the matter, saying that he felt the providers should be included.
“After all, if you’re going to reform the judicial system, you wouldn’t deny all the lawyers the right to be a part of that,” Rowland says. “And (Clinton) kind of just shook his head. I thought really that he was deceitful. Very affable guy, but I didn’t believe much of what he said.”
After leaving Washington, he became the medical director on a part time basis for the Department of Medical Assistance, a Medicaid program in Georgia at the time, for two years. In 1999, he began working with the Community of Mental Health of Middle Georgia, where he remains today, just down the street from his home. The Laurens County Courthouse building in downtown Dublin was re-named in his honor.
“I have some very fond memories of my time in Washington. The people treated us very well,” Rowland says as he exits his room and heads back down the hallway, past the photos of his parents, ancestors, wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
He finds Luella, his wife of nearly sixty-five years, watching television in the living room, and he looks relaxed, confident that he remained true to himself in more than a decade spent in the nation’s capital, and that he represented the interests of his constituents first and foremost because, after all, “they will send you home if you don’t”.
Rowland knows that as a doctor, treating patients every day is the chief priority. But there always comes a point in the day to leave it and go home. Rowland’s desire to help people through medicine had enticed him to take it a step further, to leave his practice in Dublin behind, and to try to help people at the national level through legislation as a Congressman. It is an experience that Rowland continues to treasure.
“Public service is a very noble service. It’s great that people really put that trust in you and look up to you, and I would encourage everyone to take that opportunity if they get it,” he says.
The front door closes.