Remembering a Denver physician and community leader
by Kate Alfano, CMS Communications Coordinator
Featured in the January/February 2019 Colorado Medicine.
The son of prominent Denver surgeon Kenneth Charles Sawyer and Elizabeth McAndrew Sawyer, Bob (aka “Dr. Bob,” or simply “DB” to many) was born during the Great Depression on May 3, 1933 and was raised in Denver. He attended Graland Country Day School, Morey Junior High, Denver East High School, the University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He was a captain in the Colorado Army National Guard and served in the U.S.
Army Surgical Research Unit at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A top student at East High, Bob was active in many sports and clubs, played on the school’s state championship football team in 1951 under legendary coach Pat Panek, and competed every year in the state wrestling tournament. While attending CU, he played varsity football under coach Dal Ward until an injury curtailed his athletic career, he remained a lifelong supporter of the university. He was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, where he roomed with future Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, and was a loyal member of the CU Buff Club. In 1976, Bob ran for an at-large seat on the CU Board of Regents, believing the CU Medical School deserved more of a voice in university decisions. Although he lost that race, he contributed to the school in other ways, including teaching at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where he was a clinical professor of surgery.
In 2005 Bob received the Silver and Gold
Award for Excellence in Humanitarianism, Citizenship and Professionalism, the highest honor bestowed by the University of Colorado Medical Alumni Association.
Sawyer was a general surgeon. He and his father were partners in one of Denver’s most respected general surgery practices, principally working out of Presbyterian Hospital (now HealthONE-Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, or P/SL). Following his father’s death in 1977, Bob continued running the practice until retiring from surgery in the early 2000s, from then on serving as medical director of the Denver Wound Healing Center at P/SL. At various stages of his career he was also chief of staff, chief of surgery, and on the board of directors at P/SL; chairman of the HealthONE Foundation; and president and a longtime board member of the P/SL Community Foundation. In addition, he held appointments at many other Denver-area hospitals, including St. Joseph’s, The Children’s Hospital, Denver Health and Aurora Presbyterian.
“He cared for thousands of people over the course of his long career and felt blessed to do work that he truly loved,” says his son, John Sawyer. “He always advocated for his patients, respected the dignity of the human person, and as much as possible without surrender fought against the idea of socialized medicine, believing trained doctors – not the government, insurance companies, lawyers or hospital administrators – should have the most say in determining a patient’s course of treatment.”
Bob had two siblings. His brother, Kenneth Charles Sawyer Jr., also a physician, passed away in 2014. He is survived by his sister, Patricia Teets, of Los Angeles, Calif., and his wife of 34 years, Clarice V. Sawyer (“Curley”). Children from his first marriage, to Margaret Dolan Sawyer (now Peggy Sawyer Gorsuch), include Robert B. Sawyer Jr. (Hilda), Patrick D. Sawyer (Julie), John K. Sawyer (Cindy), Mary R. Sawyer (Alyce), Joseph M. Sawyer (former wife Heidi), Michael M. Sawyer, MD (Kate), and the late Margaret E. (“Beth”) Sawyer. He has two step-daughters, Jennie Coulthurst (Tom) and Kellie Allen Strawbridge (former husband Whit), 16 grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and many cousins, nieces and nephews.
A man of great intellect, keen insight, silliness and quick wit, Bob believed laughter to be the best medicine. Equally well-known for his operating room tirades and his caring bedside manner, he always put his patients first. Bob enjoyed traveling, collecting art, attending the opera and the symphony, gardening, golf, tennis, skiing, and cheering on the Denver Broncos, the CU Buffs and the Denver Nuggets. When not working, volunteering or participating in community activities, Bob enjoyed road trips throughout the southwest, and spending quiet time in the mountains at his cabin in Conifer.
In his early religious life, he belonged to what is now Good Shepherd Catholic parish, and later became a member of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. Services were held at St. John’s on Dec. 10, 2018. In lieu of flowers, people are encouraged to make donations to Denver Hospice, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, the Denver Zoo, 9Health Fair, the East High Friends and Family Foundation, or any charitable health care organization.
"Bob Sawyer was a leader. Throughout his medical career, he worked tirelessly to champion physicians’ causes. He was CMS president, served many years on the COL, and sat on the boards for many community organizations. He was a surgeon who felt an obligation to serve his fellow man by taking on the responsibility for leadership in health care to the community he served. He was an inspiration to me and many others. His humor and his commitment will be missed."
M. Robert Yakely, MD
"Early in my CMS House of Delegate years, Dr. Bob (as he liked to be called) was the ever-present COMPAC chairman. I am now privileged to be carrying on that torch as the current COMPAC chairman and once again in the shadow of Dr. Bob’s mentorship! Dr. Bob has been a true presence and mentor in my life and my career. The Denver medical community and me personally will be forever blessed by his contributions."
Christopher Unrein, DO, FACOI, FACP, CMD
"Bob Sawyer and I shared numerous patients over the years at both P/SL and St. Joseph Hospital. He had incredibly loyal patients—if they needed an operation, it was Bob or no one. Many saw him for their primary care as well. I and many others will remember Bob for his steadfast dedication to his patients and to the profession of medicine."
Deb Parsons, MD, FACP, CMS president
"Bob Sawyer was the ‘great encourager.’ I remember him for saying, ‘You can do it. Go for it!’"
Gary VanderArk, MD