Written by Betsy Abraham Thursday, 24 October 2013 00:00
Homecoming is full of traditions—football games, floats, parades, dances. But this year marks the start of a new tradition for Westbury. This year, the Westbury School District, along with the Village of Westbury, will present its first Alumni of Distinction award, given to an exceptional graduate. The inaugural award is dedicated to the late J. Alfred Cannon, a renowned physician who dedicated his life to community service.
Cannon graduated from Westbury High School in 1946. He was dearly loved by his classmates, and voted junior as well as senior class president- — an amazing accomplishment at a time when less than one percent of the student population was African American.
Not only did Cannon excel academically and socially, but also athletically. He lettered in several sports, including football, basketball and track and field. His exploits won him numerous awards and he was the recipient of a full scholarship to Columbia University where he was an acknowledged talent on the football field and in the classroom.
After undergraduate school he entered Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, graduating in 1954. He then went onto UCLA Medical Center and completed his residency in psychiatry.
While in medical school, Cannon engaged in a myriad of health and welfare pursuits, passionate about giving back to the community. He was innovative as well as talented in writing grants and raising money. He founded the Central City
Community Mental Health Center located in South Central Los Angeles and with meager funding, persuaded fellow physicians to volunteer their services free of charge. He noted the reluctance of impoverished patients in seeking mental health services. With this observation, he devised methods of bundling medical, mental health, recreational activities and social services in co-joined facilities to enable broader use and lessen the stigma associated by the poor with mental health issues.
After racially fueled riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cannon became a driving force behind the establishment of a medical facility to serve the community. He would scale his fees by the amount his patients could afford.
“He was very interested in how black people handled their anguish,” said Cannon’s sister, Ann Cannon-Sweat. “He would treat homeless patients for only 50 cents a session. He felt it was important for them to get whatever treatment they could to conduct their lives a little more on a level plane.”
Cannon also tirelessly gave of himself to many health care organizations. He was Chairman of Department of Psychiatry Charles R. Drew/ Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Center, the Augustus F. Hawkins Mental Health Facility, and the Drew
University School of Medicine and Science. In addition to all of this, Cannon maintained a private practice and was the assistant in the Institute for Mental Health at UCLA Medical School.
After several years of serving the people of Los Angeles, Cannon set his sights on Africa. In 1983, he went to Zimbabwe, working for the country’s president and trying to set up health care systems. He died in 1988, at the young age of 59.
“He was an all-around person,” Sweat says. “He was very serious about life and wanting to do things for people and the community. He just wanted to do what he felt was the right thing to do.”
In 2004, Sweat, along with several other of Cannon’s Westbury colleagues, decided to honor his legacy with the J. Alfred Cannon, M.D. Achievement Celebration Award, a $1,000 scholarship awarded to students that excel academically and in their communities. Over $18,000 has been awarded to outstanding Westbury students since the award’s inception.
Sweat hopes that the scholarship program, as well as the Alumni of Distinction Award, will encourage Westbury students to work hard and take their education seriously—just like her brother did.
“Many students from Westbury have graduated that are really Class 1 citizens. We want to let students know this is expected of them, that they can soar to great heights if they try to get the best education and give back to the community,” Sweat says.