CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Paul Ambrose’s name lives on through community and national wellness efforts.
Huntington residents may exercise on the “Paul Ambrose Trail for Health,” a bicycle and pedestrian trail system that currently extends over 16 miles.
Nationally, Ambrose’s name remains associated with outreaches of the American Medical Student Association. He is the namesake of the “Paul Ambrose Outstanding Student Activist Award.” His name is also carried on through the “Paul Ambrose Scholars Program” of the Association for Prevention Research and Teaching.
“I’m sure he might be a little bit embarrassed that all this attention was for him,” said Michelle Perdue, a friend who met Ambrose at Marshall University. “He was such a kind and giving person, it’s no surprise that so many things were named in his honor.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, 32-year-old Ambrose, who was a family doctor and fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, boarded American Airlines Flight 77 at Washington Dulles International Airport to go to a childhood obesity conference in California.
Less than 35 minutes into the flight, five men stormed the cockpit, took control of the plane and crashed it into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., killing all 64 people aboard, including Ambrose.
Today at 2 p.m., on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a patriotic vigil will be held at the Healing Field in Huntington, not far from Ambrose’s grave at Spring Hill Cemetery.
Ambrose had lived an impressive life already. He had graduated magna cum laude from Marshall University with a double major in biology and Spanish. He also got his medical degree from Marshall and completed his residency at Dartmouth.
While he was at Dartmouth, Ambrose became friendly with then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Ambrose worked with the Koop Institute to establish a resident physician leadership symposium, which Koop later renamed for Ambrose.
In doing so, Koop wrote, “Paul had the ability to put as much effort into four or five projects simultaneously with the same zeal you and I would put into one. He was sensitive, self-giving, the very model of what a physician should be to his patients, but his vision extended to the public health community whether local or global.
“I have never talked with anyone about Paul without that person having words of extravagant appreciation for Paul the man and Paul the public servant… I have no doubt Paul would have gone on to roles of Surgeon General of the United States, the cabinet position of HHS, Senior Delegate to the World Health Organization and, eventually, be dean of a major school of public health.”
In Huntington, friends like Michelle Perdue agree.
“I think he definitely would have been the Surgeon General at some point in his career,” Perdue said. “He was very much for people in less fortunate circumstances who might not be able to get the health care that they needed.”
Perdue admired Ambrose not only for his impressive career path but also for his interpersonal skills — his caring and humor.
Perdue meet Ambrose through mutual friends. In fact, he dated some of her friends and remained friends with them even after breakups.
“He was a very unique personality. Lot of fun. Very inclusive,” she said. “I think that’s why my friends that dated him, they even remained friends after it didn’t work out. You couldn’t help but be his friend from the moment you met him.”
Perdue recalled once being invited by Ambrose to an early-morning Kiwanis pancake breakfast. She was not into it. Too early.
“I’m not really a morning person. He called real early and said ‘You’re gonna go.” I kept saying ‘I’m not gonna get up.’ He shows up at my house anyway. He was like, ‘You’re gonna get up and get dressed.’ He was grabbing clothes.
“He got you motivated. ‘You’re gonna go whether you want to or not.’ He instilled that. It’s part nurture, part nature. He was a friend who said, ‘You know what, This is where we’re from and we need to give back. It’s our home.’”
Perdue went on to become director of the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, an initiative of United Way of the River Cities. She works with youth in Cabell County on drug prevention.
“I think that’s how I connected to him because you see people struggling and you want to try to help them the best you can,” Perdue said. “That’s what led me to my path.”
She hopes Huntington residents see Ambrose’s name associated with their local wellness trail and are inspired to improve their own lives and the lives around them.
“For those people who are younger or maybe have gone on to Marshall or who have grown up in the community, maybe if they didn’t know him it piques their interest and they want to know him and what he was like and why being healthy was important,” Perdue said. “Just being active in your community and giving back. He loved Huntington.”