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Madison doctor shares how King changed her life

St. Mary's hospitalist recalls shaking reverend's hand

MADISON, Wis. - Debbie Jones meets a lot of people as a doctor at St. Mary's Hospital in Madison.

But she credits a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 46 years ago in Chicago as a handshake that changed the trajectory of her life.

Jones remembers how her mother adored King. When the reverend moved to Chicago in 1966 to lead the civil rights movement there, her mother knew she had to go watch King speak.

She took 8-year-old Debbie, one of eight children, for reasons her daughter still doesn't know.

King had "the quintessential southern Baptist preacher voice" as he spoke, then moved into the crowd to shake hands.

As he approached, Debbie Jones' mother hoisted her up, sacrificing her moment for her young daughter.

Jones went home and read all she could about King. She emerged from a life of poverty, becoming the first in her family to attend college and, later, medical school.

"I couldn't be the girl that shook his hand and did nothing with my life," Jones said. "That was simply never ever an option from the moment I climbed off my mother's arms that day."

Madison doctor shares how King changed her life

Now, she inspires kids in the Madison community, shaking their hands and telling them she's transferred King's greatness to them. She said she asks each one to tell them what kind of a great person they'll become.

"I look forward to the day when they come back and tell me they are just that," Jones said. "That would mean so very much -- that would be a life well lived for me."

Jones has retired her mother, to whom she's still grateful for sharing that moment with King. She has three kids of her own, two of whom are pursuing careers in medicine.

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