Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dr. Charles A. Champion: ‘A Pill-er in the Community’

     After the doors to Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store swing open, the voice of Dr. Charles A. Champion is activated and beckons customers into a nostalgic world that is replete with both medicinal drugs and herbal remedies.
     While herbs, tonics and vitamins are juxtaposed on shelves upfront, drugs requiring a prescription are filled behind the counter. It is a fusion of two worlds – one, a portal to yesteryear, or rather a makeshift museum, where the photos of pioneers and other artifacts are displayed; and the other, where customers can tarry until their prescriptions are filled.
     Longtime customers and others familiar with Dr. Champion’s reputation look to him to fill their prescription or remedy simple ailments with an herbal mix that don’t require a doctor’s prescription. Got a cough or cold, try the Cod Liver Oil Liquid Emulsion; for skin and hair care, try the Corn Huskers Hand Lotion or the Pine Tar Shampoo. 
     “If you come in and have high blood pressure, and buy high blood pressure herbal medicine, I’m going to give you a brochure,” said Dr. Champion. “If you come in with high cholesterol or diabetes – whatever you come in with – I try to have a brochure to accompany the medicine so you can get a better understanding of what is going on.”  
Dr. Charles A. Champion is an integral part of Memphis'
medical history. (Photos by Wiley Henry)
     Some medical doctors in Memphis who may find themselves baffled by a patient’s ailment, he added, “say go and see Dr. Champion and see what he has to say.” This is an honor that extends his reach in the community.
     Dr. Champion is a first-rate pharmacist with a thorough understanding of pharmacy. However, after 33 years in business – a total of nearly 60 years in pharmacy altogether – changes in the pharmaceutical industry have become increasingly evident.
     Insurance, low cost prescriptions and convenience often drive customers to the chain pharmacies. But Dr. Champion is not be deterred, owing longevity to his ingenuity, inventiveness, adaptability, and, most importantly, his willingness to serve the community.
     Service is the hallmark that keeps Champion’s Pharmacy flourishing, even though economic downturns and the rising tide of chain pharmacies have swept independent pharmacies like Dr. Champion’s to the wayside and, in some cases, out of business.
     Walgreens, for example, is the largest drug retailing chain in all 50 states. It has 17,935 pharmacists working in 7,694 stores. CVS Corp. follows with 7,288 pharmacies and 15,064 pharmacists; Walmart Stores Inc., with 4,242 pharmacies and 10,273 pharmacists; Rite Aid Corp., with 4,531 pharmacies and 8,769 pharmacists; and Kroger, with 1,876 pharmacies and 4,508 pharmacists.
Dr. Champion mixes a gel-based ointment with a spatula.
     The top five chain pharmacies, ranked this year by the number of pharmacists by the National Pharmacy Market Summary, could be the death knell of fledgling independent pharmacies. Still, there are other chains encroaching on the independents. But Dr. Champion is making headway in spite of stiff competition.  
     In the state of Tennessee, there are 418 chain pharmacies, 555 independent pharmacies, 222 supermarket pharmacies, and 244 mass merchant pharmacies, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.
     “When I started in pharmacy in 1955…there were 154 independent, community-type drug stores,” said Dr. Champion, making note of his research. “There were two Walgreens…two Rexall’s…and six Pantaze Drug Stores that were owned by Mr. (Abe) Plough, who owned the Plough company.”  
     In 2014, Dr. Champion continued, “We have on record 128 chain drug stores (in the U.S.). We have in the city now four, or possibly five, independent community drug stores and about 14 hospital pharmacies. That is a complete turnaround of the number of private stores verses chain stores.”
     The independents include the minuscule number of African-American pharmacies here and across the country, said Dr. Champion, pointing to the only other African-American pharmacy in Memphis besides his own, Taylor Brown Apothecary.
     “Through all of this I’ve been able to survive,” the 84-year-old pharmacist said. “I feel that the reason for our survival is that we have been able to embrace the past, sustain the present, and always set goals for our future.”
The tools for survival…

     Despite the overwhelming odds against independent pharmacies and their unwillingness to yield to the conglomerates, Dr. Champion is not planning on yielding one iota. In fact, he is deeply rooted in Memphis and Shelby County, and his reputation for providing good service is stellar, widespread.
     “Serving people has been one of the survival tools of my business,” he said. “I’ve taught my employees and my family members…when serving a person, get their attention. Don’t do all the talking. Look them in their eyes.”
     Although Dr. Champion is African-American, he is not pigeonholed. His customers come from various communities, some faraway – Chinese, Hispanic, White, and Indian, for example – to see the pharmacist who bills himself as “the herbal pharmacist” and “the Pill-er in the community.”
      Dr. Champion didn’t get to where he is today overnight. After graduating from Xavier University College of Pharmacy in New Orleans in 1955, he spent two years in Germany in the United States Army as a pharmacist. Afterward, he worked 12 years at the former John Gaston Hospital as a pharmacist and 12 additional years as a pharmacist at a chain drug store.
     “I was the first African-American pharmacist to ever work in a hospital system in Memphis,” said Dr. Champion, noting as well his stint as the first African-American pharmacist at a drug chain, also in Memphis.
     Those honors are a few of several that were heaped upon Dr. Champion, whose claim to fame initially began after launching Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store in 1981 at 1925 Third Street. Ten years later the pharmacy would move to its current location at 2369 Elvis Presley Blvd.
     The focus and centerpiece of the business has always been on the application of pharmacognosy (the study of herbal medicine) and compounding medicine, said Dr. Champion, which he’d studied extensively in pharmacy school.
     The study of pharmacognosy and pharmaceuticals didn’t end after Dr. Champion graduated pharmacy school. “I have all kinds of books on compounding, on herbal medicine, on pharmacy,” he said. “I read all the journals that come across my desk. I know what’s in them. I know what’s going on in the field of pharmacy today.”
     Dr. Champion also has an extensive library at home, and reads the books and medical journals when he needs to research something. “So if something comes to mind when I need to look for something, I can do it right at home,” he said.

Continuing the legacy…

     Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store is a family business owned by Dr. Champion and his wife Carolyn Bailey Champion, who were married May 18, 1958. The couple has three daughters: Dr. Carol “Cookie” Champion and Dr. Charita Champion Brookins are pharmacists. Chandra Diane Champion-Walker, who died in March, was a certified pharmacist technician.
     Dr. Champion also has a grandson, Charles Edwin Champion, who is a chemist working in Nashville testing drugs in a lab. “I also have a granddaughter who is a financial advisor,” he said. “She has a degree from Christian Brothers University and she’s part of the business.”
     Longevity has kept Dr. Champion at the forefront in pharmacy. In retrospect, he’s made his mark in the community and beyond, doing what he does best – serving his customers. His knack for service started when he was 15 years old, assisting his grandmother who worked for a Jewish family in Greenfield, Tenn., his hometown.
     “It was my duty, with my little black bowtie on, to go out and announce to the Jewish host that dinner is served,” he recalls.
     Now Dr. Champion is serving people a prescription for wellness. The legacy is assured, he said, even as age slows his stride and renders him powerless to operate Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store. “Champion Pharmacy will live on,” he said. “ I hope I’ve been able to part some information and some skills so they (family) can carry this business on.”

     (For more information about Champion’s Pharmacy and Herb Store, contact Dr. Charles A. Champion at (901) 948-6622 or email him at The website address is

Friday, November 21, 2014

LEGACY: Timothy Lee ‘El Espada’ Matthews

     “El Espada is a fascinating thinker and fine writer who has a unique gift of bringing to life characters whom we come to know and love. This grand highlighting of the rich humanity of everyday people is powerful and poignant.”
     Dr. Cornel West’s endorsement of Timothy Lee Matthews’ book, “The Purple Tiger,” is also a reflection of the man whom others have touted for his writing ability – not just as El Espada, Matthews’ pseudonym, but as a gentle, unassuming personality who possessed inordinate skills and talent in other areas.
Timothy "El Espada" Matthews
     Aside from writing, Matthews was an educator, songwriter, novelist, performing artist, certified paralegal, community activist, and actor whose stage credits included “Ain’t Nothing but the Blues,” “Aida,” “Marry Christmas” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He also released two CDs – “Songs for the Greats” and “Mistic Blues.”
     Matthews recently finished another book, a memoir entitled “Confessions of a Proletarian.” The book is unpublished due to Matthews’ death on Nov. 14 at Methodist University Hospital. He’d suffered a stroke on Oct. 31. He was 66.
     Writing and music fueled Matthews’ creative spirit. He had works published in “Kulture Kritic,” “Jewels Magazine,” “Chicken Bones,” and “Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers.” A song he co-wrote, “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” catapulted him in the blues genre.
     After earning his Bachelors of Arts in creative writing from Vermont College’s Norwich University and a Masters of Fine Art from Fairfield University in Connecticut, Matthews opted to teach English at Wooddale and Raleigh-Egypt high schools.
     When he died, Matthews’ family and friends still were mourning the loss of Matthews’ brother, Orlando Matthews, whom they eulogized Oct. 4 in Hernando, Miss., after he suffered a stroke.  
     Maurice Walker, who befriended Matthews at Lincoln Elementary School, described him as “a good brother and solid citizen” and good for the liberation movement in Memphis.
     “We grew up in Memphis where racism was the law of the land. In adulthood, we dedicated our lives to making life a little better for others,” said Walker, a resident of Dallas. “He was very focused, sharp and intelligent.”
     Cornelius Chambers met Matthews in Los Angeles in 1991, where he’d spent three years “in search of stardom.” “We were roommates for about two years,” said Chambers, an entrepreneur. “He was into music and introduced me to the underground music scene. He was always writing plays…anything entertainment.”
     Matthews was bodacious, too, he said, and recalls an experience he’d never forget. “We were at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, Calif., and El Espada got up on stage and did one of his blues numbers. I didn’t know if I should be embarrassed, but they gave him respect. He always believed he was a star.”
     Matthews was a star in his son’s eyes. Edward Matthews III said his father taught him the pros and cons of being a black man in America. “He didn’t sugarcoat anything. He would give it to you straight. A lot of my friends would reach out to him for advice.
     “He was my best friend, motivator, mover and shaker. I’m proud to carry on his legacy. He will be remembered through his music, writing and his memoir,” said Matthews, founder of Independent Artists Media Group in New York of which his father was a board member.
     Another son, Tracy Matthews, followed his father’s lead as a filmmaker and schoolteacher. “While I worked at ABC News at night, I taught school during the day in New York,” he said. “He was my best friend. He gave me good instructions and I’m going to miss him dearly.”
     Timothy and Carolyn Matthews were married 34 years.
     “He was very perceptive of the most mundane situations to the most complex situations of life,” Carolyn Matthews said. “He saw irony in a situation and found it amusing.”
     For example, while recovering in the hospital, Carolyn Matthews said her husband had texted his “mentee” a message that he’d had a stroke on Halloween.
     The Matthewses were a creative team.
     “He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He always rooted for me,” she said. “He never displayed envy or jealousy of someone’s ideology. If it were a spark of brilliance, he would applaud it. He would encourage it.”
     The visitation is Friday, Nov. 21, from 5-7 p.m., at Christian Funeral Directors, 2615 Overton Crossing St. The body will lie in state from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 22, followed by the funeral at Morning View Baptist Church, 1626 Carnegie St.
     The interment will be in Elmwood Cemetery, 824 South Dudley St. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

A model for beating the odds

     Kylan Robertson has big plans for the future. “I hope to be an NBA player and an NBA game designer some day,” the 12-year-old said. “I also want to be a multi-millionaire. But it would be nice to be a billionaire.”
     For a sixth-grader, Kylan seems to know what he wants – perhaps because Paul Lamar Hunter had assured Kylan and his schoolmates at St. Joseph Catholic School on Nov. 6 that their dreams could come true after relaying his personal story of triumph over adversity.
     The 19th child of his mother’s 21 natural children, Hunter recounted his story about growing up poor, neglected and abused in a crowded household in Racine, Wis., and beating the odds to become the first of his mother’s children – in addition to her 63 grandchildren and 61 great grandchildren – to earn a college degree.
Paul Lamar Hunter encourages the students at St. Joseph
Catholic School to pursue their goals, even if they're struggling
to survive dysfunction in the home. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
     The narrative drew the students to Hunter and his dogged determination to overcome his harrowing circumstances, which he underscores in his autobiography, “No Love, No Charity: The Success of the 19th Child.” (Published by Life to Legacy, LLC; 184 pp.) 

     The book traces the author’s meandering journey from a dysfunctional childhood to his graduation in 2012 from Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration.
     “If I can live my dream, you can live your dream,” said Hunter, 44, encouraging the students to pursue their goal in spite of family dynamics or an inauspicious environment. For example: His mother, relentlessly dismissive, finished third-grade and “discouraged education.”
     “She told me that I’d never amount to anything,” said Hunter, which motivated him to debunk his mother’s assessment of her children by pursuing and eventually earning his college degree. “She didn’t believe in an education.”
     Hunter implored the students not to give up. He stressed three points, the catalyst for his own success: 1) change your behavior; 2) surround yourself with positive men and women; and 3) stay hungry to learn.
     Following Hunter’s talk, Kylan asked if he was nervous about going to college. The other students were just as inquisitive. Xavier Randle, 11, asked about the price of the book. “I want to write a book, too,” the sixth-grader said.
     “Did you have to share anything with your brothers?” Kimberly Smith, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, asked Hunter, the writer, entrepreneur and businessman.
Paul Lamar Hunter
     “It was very difficult, because we had a lack of clothes, food. We were living with a detached mother. She wasn’t there for us emotionally and physically,” said Hunter, noting that he was close to his nine brothers and 11 sisters. Three are deceased.
     Hunter’s terse criticism of his mother stems from his belief that the love, attention and presence that the Hunter household needed was directed instead to The Love and Charity Homeless Shelter that his mother founded in Racine.
     She had published her own book – “Love and Charity, The Life and Story of Louise Hunter, and The Love and Charity Homeless Shelter” – as a testament of her success years before her son penned his own story.
     Hunter’s father was an assembly line worker, but died in a car accident when he was 8 years old. “If it wasn’t for my older siblings, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Hunter, an Austin, Texas, resident and father of four.
     Kimberly was so inspired by Hunter’s story that she’d decided henceforward to attend college. “I want to become a veterinarian,” she said.
     Hunter rolled out a few catchphrases to drive home the point that one can overcome his/her obstacles with faith and determination: “I didn’t let my past dictate my future; it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you’re going; turn your setbacks into opportunities.”
     Jovan Green, who teaches fourth, fifth and sixth-grade social studies and science, characterized Hunter’s survival as a “perfect example” that anything is possible. “It’s good to hear it first-hand than to hear it from someone on the outside.”
     Leslie Harden, St. Joseph’s principal, added, “Our students need to hear from people who’ve lived and experienced hunger, loneliness…the things they experience in their own home. They need to know that there’s a way out and that they can be successful.
     “A mentor, or role model, in the flesh is so important so they know it’s possible for them to overcome their own struggles,” Harden said. “It was important for Mr. Hunter to be here. He had a great message.”
     “No Love, No Charity: The Success of the 19th Child” can be purchased on Amazon and Barnes & Nobel or online at

Working with the 14th child…
     Paul Lamar Hunter’s visit to St. Joseph Catholic School is just one of several scheduled during his six-month stay in Memphis while working with his brother, the Rev. Larry Hunter – his mother’s 14th child – who operates the non-profit Sober House Homeless Mission at 791 Crillion Dr. Proceeds from Hunter’s book, or from his speaking engagements, will be used to help fund the homeless mission. The website address is