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WWII veteran and former heart surgeon speaks on campus

From tailor to soldier to heart surgeon, 96-year-old Dr. Fitzalbert M. Marius arrives on campus, encouraging students to practice a life of service, Nov. 9. As the first heart surgeon in the City of Fresno, Dr. Marius brought a life-saving operation to the Central Valley. Writer, speaker, artist, and surgeon, Marius speaks on using his talents for the good of others and glory of God.

Danielle Foster | The Feather Online

Dr. Fitzalbert M. Marius, right, takes time to speak with journalist, Addison Schultz ’21, about his experiences as a soldier and as a surgeon, Nov. 9.

Born in Colon, Panama in 1922, Marius was raised in the Catholic church by West Indian parents. At the age of three, Marius immigrated to Harlem, New York during the Great Depression. Crammed into a tenement home with his five siblings, Marius’ father never failed to put food on the table. This hard work ethic from his parents carries into his attitude today.

Following a family tradition, Marius chose to apprentice a tailor to learn the trade while taking violin lessons from a local volunteer until the age of 16. After nine years of tailoring, Marius became an expert custom tailor, making everything from caps to winter coats. Selling his work, put extra money in his savings and allowed for the young tailor to attend college.

From the time Marius was a child, his dream was to be the next Rembrandt. Becoming an accomplished surgeon, the aspiring artist never dreamed of spending his days in a hospital. After graduating high school and entering Lincoln University as an architecture major, Marius received a call from a friend who proposed they join an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). This would shorten the time to become a doctor by four years, greatly interesting Marius. He enlisted in the completely segregated army, and after a mistaken identity, was sent off to an all-black unit during World War II.

“People get confused because I was one of the pioneers of heart surgery that I always wanted to be a surgeon,” Marius said. “The issue is, Bert Marius never wanted to be a doctor. All I wanted to be was another Rembrandt! I painted pictures and expressed myself in writing and poetry. I just happened to get into medicine. My mother always used to tell me, ‘Bert, if you only be a ditch-digger, you better be the best darn ditch-digger in the whole world!’ So whatever I’ve gotten involved in, I’ve done it one hundred percent.”

Dr. Fitzalbert M. Marius

Dr. Marius served with the Marines in the South Pacific, Philippines, and Japan in the burial and disposal unit for four years during WWII.

Marius served with the Marines in the South Pacific, Philippines, and Japan in the burial and disposal unit. Tasked with digging ditches and burying bodies, Marius received a close look into the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for America’s freedom.

After serving in the army for four years, Marius returned to the U.S. to finish two years of college at Lincoln University, continuing in tailoring and art. Under the pressure of his peers, Marius applied to Howard University and a university in Tennessee to study medicine. But wishing to continue in his path as an artist, Marius applied to the School of Fine Arts in Paris, France.

Receiving his acceptance letter to Paris, he made plans to pursue art school. But as Marius checked the mailbox on his way out one day, an acceptance letter from Howard University arrived in the mail. Frustrated by the two eligible offers, Marius pulled a half dollar coin out of his pocket and flipped it into the air. Heads – medical school. Tails – art school. The coin landed… heads.

After completing medical school at Howard University in 1954, Marius interned at Fresno County General Hospital, now the Community Medical Center. To continue his experience in the operating room, Marius spent a year with Dr. Frank Gerbode’s cardiac surgery program at Stanford Lane Hospital in San Francisco. In 1960, he became one of the original members of the first team to ever perform a heart surgery in Fresno, CA. Throughout his career, Marius was involved in over 11,000 open heart operations.

“When I was looking for an internship, I wanted to be around the people,” Marius said. “I wanted to be a doctor among individuals, not just some doctor who is caught up in the highly educated stuff. I applied for an internship somewhere where I could be serving the people, not educating them. Fresno came up, and it met the qualifications. I took four of my students with me and we became the first African-American interns at the Fresno County General Hospital.”

Danielle Foster | The Feather Online

Marius reads one of his poems, called “Fitzalbert”, reminding himself to be humble and compassionate to others.

Dr. Marius only retired from heart surgeries five years ago at the age of 91. Through speaking and writing, Marius continues to influence young people to stick to the fundamental truths in life. Especially on Veterans Day, Marius seeks to remind youth that serving others is more rewarding that serving themselves.

“Recognizing Veterans Day sets the proper attitude for young people,” Marius said. “We as humans have an egotistical way of thinking only of ‘me, myself, and I’. But when you think in terms of unity and you operate on those terms, you realize that when something isn’t good for one person, it isn’t good for anybody.

“We need to learn to share what we have,” Dr. Marius said. “If I shut my mouth about all the experiences I’ve accumulated over the years, what good did that do you? If I didn’t use my gifts and talents for positive production, they mean absolutely nothing. I have to remind myself that I am nothing without God.”

Through Hometown Heroes and the Central Valley Honor Flight, Dr. Marius’s story has become a humbling inspiration to people all over the valley. Boarding the Honor Flight for the first time this year, Marius was impressed by the appreciation given to the servicemen and women on the plane.

“I was very impressed with on the Honor Flight because despite past issues, all veterans were being recognized and appreciated for the sacrifices they made,” Marius said. “I was able to pray over the flight and the Holy Spirit led me to pray a prayer of unity. I prayed that the Lord would show the leaders and youth of America that we are one in essence. They do not call us the United States of America by happenstance, they call us this because we ought to be united under our essence. We all come from one sauce – humanity.”

Dr. Marius tells his story to students on campus and speaks on the joy of serving others.

Marius continues to serve people in the Central Valley. In his church, community, and family, Marius shares the importance  of a heart of service. As a pioneer of heart surgery in Fresno, his contributions continue to save millions of lives. Though a man of many talents, Marius continues to live by his words, “A talent has no blessing unless it’s shared.”

The video below shows highlights of the interview with Dr. Marius:

To see the full interview, watch Dr. Fitzalbert M. Marius interview (full)

For more articles, read UH-60L Blackhawk lands on campus or 99th annual Fresno Veterans Day parade spotlights Air Force.

Addison Schultz can be reached via email and via Twitter @SchultzAddison.

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