In Memoriam: Harris Meisel, MD, 1932-2018

Harris Meisel
Courtesy Photo

Re·nais·sance man

ˈˌrenəˈˌsäns man/


Definition: An outstandingly versatile, well-rounded person. The expression alludes to Renaissance figures who performed brilliantly in many different fields.

Example: Dr. Harris “Bubs” Meisel — March 17, 1932 – February 23, 2018

My father, Dr. Harris Meisel, known as “Bubs” to his family and friends, loved tools: tools to fix, farm, paint, draw, sculpt, cook, create, make music, and master a life’s work dedicated to healing people.

When I was 17, my dad took me with him to the International Meetings of Rehabilitation Medicine held in Mulhouse, France, where we ate and sang with his colleagues, and my father bonded with physicians at the pinnacle of their profession. After the meetings, we rented a car and traveled to Italy, and there I first understood that my father was a Renaissance man.

I knew his path. He studied art and was a committed physician. He was a founding member of The Yes Store in Santa Barbara, where local artisans sold their creations and collectively bathed in a Bohemian Santa Barbara air. He cooked and made elderberry wine and jam, and we sang together as a family and walked the foothills. I once joked that he was “a hippie doctor,” and he had the beard to prove it.

On that trip to Europe, I saw much more. In Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, my father showed me examples of paintings that employed early use of perspective. Dad showed me the process of art, not just the finished pieces. I saw chisel marks and brush strokes — the insignias of patience, vision, and the use of tools. Then he took me to see da Vinci’s medical illustrations.

He reveled in the works, and I understood why dad revered marrying art and science.

My “hippie doctor” dad graduated from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He then decided to pursue medicine as a career. He entered the University of Pennsylvania to complete premed courses, and his advisor thought he was crazy. Crazy? No. He was proud, stubborn, tenacious, and coolheaded. He would not accept “no” when he knew that “yes” was possible.

Courtesy Photo

Doctor Harris Meisel came to Santa Barbara more than 50 years ago to establish the Memorial Rehabilitation Hospital (now Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital), where he built a master tool to marry art and healing science.

He designed the floor plan to foster community, and he made sure that there was art on the walls and music in the halls. Healing and the arts were integral to mending a broken spirit and battling the climb back from a stroke or paralysis or loss of a limb.

He sought “touch” in all that he did, as in “to have touch” — applying finesse and care to everything. He employed sensitivity to help individuals and families in their own rehabilitation renaissance, a rebirth of new life patterns, skills, and expectations after catastrophic illness or injury.

Many accolades came his way, including California Physician of the Year, yet he was most honored by the words “thank you” from the people who were under his care. Harris thirsted to teach, sing, create, learn, and provide expert healing. Ever the teacher, he donated his body to medical science so that others could study the disease that finally claimed his life, Lewy body dementia.

He passed away at age 85, on February 23, 2018, on the birthday of his lifetime love, Fredda — giving a last gift of peace after a 15-year challenging illness.

As Harris’s health waned in the last decade, and the doctor and teacher became more the listener and the patient, his eyes smiled in the presence of kindness. He deeply loved family and beamed when his grandson, Matthew, wrapped “Daddy Bubs’s” head in a hug and planted kisses on his big brain.

Matthew attends the Alpha Resource Center in Santa Barbara, a remarkable program near in proximity to the first Rehab Institute (on Camino del Remedio) and closer still to the ethos that Harris lived by.

Alpha’s mission is directly in line with Harris’s values:

“Alpha Resource Center is committed to empowering individuals with developmental disabilities, supporting families and building a community that values the contribution of all people.”

To honor Harris Meisel’s spirit and celebrate his life, the Meisel family will gather with friends, family, and community on Sunday, May 27, 2-4:30 p.m., at the Alpha Resource Center (with shuttles from the Santa Barbara County Education Office parking lot at 4400 Cathedral Oaks Rd.). It will be a short and sweet event for all who would like to congregate — yet the celebration of Bubs’s art and soul continues indefinitely through family, friends, and the community that he touched.

If you desire to reach out to the Meisel family with love, in lieu of cards or flowers, please consider a donation to the Alpha Resource Center. Those financial tools will help them provide support, information, and life enrichment for families of children of all ages who have developmental disabilities, as well as teen and adult recreation, life-skills training for adults, and art classes and exhibitions at the SlingShot Gallery.


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