Britt honored as Suffolk First Citizen

Published 11:41 pm Friday, September 27, 2019

A man of immeasurable impact.

A man with a legacy of hope and healing.

A man who is selfless and gives without complaint — to his family, to his patients and to his community.

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Those are just some of the ways Dr. L.D. Britt was praised Thursday as he received the 2019 Suffolk First Citizen Award in a ceremony before a packed auditorium at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

“Tonight is Suffolk’s night to honor Dr. Britt as Suffolk’s native son and lifelong resident,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said.

As others say he has done often, Britt, in a short speech, sought to take the attention away from himself.

The award is given by the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary Clubs to an outstanding individual who best exemplifies the spirit of citizenship and who has demonstrated leadership through time, talents or efforts to make Suffolk a better place to live.

“I want to take the honor away from me,” Britt said in brief remarks. “I’m proud of Suffolk. This is a testimony of Suffolk. There are a lot of individuals that have done exceptional work. … And that has defined Suffolk. I’m one, but there are many more that define this city.”

Britt, the Henry Ford Professor and Edward J. Brickhouse Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School, talked of his mantra — burn the boats — in reference to how he returned to Suffolk and Hampton Roads and doesn’t plan to leave.

The legendary saying came from the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who in 1519 was going up against a strong Aztec army that had not lost a war in 400 years.

“The first thing he did when he landed, is he told his men to go back and burn the boats,” Britt said, “which meant that they needed to win, or they were going to perish. … When I came back to Hampton Roads, I said ‘I’m going to burn the boats.’ And that’s what I did.”

Britt has had a storied career in the medical field, Johnson said, but his impact goes well beyond that to his efforts to help Suffolk and Hampton Roads.

“Don’t make the mistake of going on the internet and trying to print his biography, or his peer reviewed scientific publications,” Johnson said to laughter. “You will need two reams of paper, and you will realize that you don’t have enough hours in the day to detail or highlight all of his accomplishments and his accolades.”

She touched on just a few of those accomplishments and accolades, which included graduating at age 16 as valedictorian from Booker T. Washington High School, becoming the first African American in the country to have an endowed chair in surgery, and every Tuesday seeing patients in Suffolk — none of whom are charged.

“It’s evident that Dr. Britt learned early on in life the lesson that ambition is the path to success, and persistence is the vehicle you arrive in,” Johnson said. “He credits his strong work ethic as traits he inherited from his parents. His extensive achievements are a testament to the fact that no goal is impossible. Some just require a little bit more dedication.”

She described his legacy as one of hope and healing.

“Dr. Britt, the lives that your skilled surgeon’s hands have saved, the guidance and knowledge you passed on in your teachings and writings in the medical field, and those lives that you will continue to touch in the future are all, in honesty, boundless,” Johnson said.

In a video, family, friends and community members were effusive in praising Britt’s impact upon them, Suffolk and the medical community, as Britt weaved his own memories of growing up in the city.

Dr. Rosa Biggs and Gregory Lawrence, who attend East End Baptist Church with Britt, said the honor was long overdue.

“We’re so proud of him,” Biggs said. “He’s a wonderful person.”

Roland Wilson went to school with Britt at Booker T. Washington High School, and Britt’s mother was one of Wilson’s teachers. He said he was proud of Britt’s accomplishments, and noted Britt has not changed in how he treats all people with respect.

“He doesn’t put himself above anybody or anything,” Wilson said. “He just stays on that level. He’s been that way all his life.”