Because of his name and accent, it’s not unusual for Dr. Yele Aluko’s patients to ask where he’s from.
But in the early 1990s, when he got the question from this new patient – a retired Charlotte principal and Johnson C. Smith University professor – Aluko asked one of his own: Where do you think?
Spencer Durante guessed correctly that his new heart specialist was from Nigeria, in west Africa.
This rarely happened. In fact, when Aluko first came to Charlotte in 1989, one area hospital administrator suggested he change his name from Yele – pronounced yeh-lay – to Yale, so it would be easier to say.
As Aluko chatted with Durante and his wife, Rosalia, he learned they had lived in Nigeria from 1962 to 1966, when Spencer Durante was working on a U.S. project to build a college that would train Nigerians to be secondary school teachers.
Rosalia Durante (pronounced rose-ale-ya due-rawnt) said she had taught primary school in Nigeria. And she remembered having a student named Yele.
Really? Aluko thought. And he asked the name of the school.
When she said Corona International School in Lagos, his jaw dropped.
Aluko, who was born in Lagos in 1954, had gone to that school in the mid-1960s. What a coincidence.
The Durantes had seen Aluko’s name in The Charlotte Observer and made an appointment, both to confirm he was the boy at the Corona School and because Spencer Durante needed a heart specialist. They continued seeing Aluko for more than a decade, but the conversations focused on medical issues.
Spencer Durante died in 2003, at 86. Rosalia Durante remained one of Aluko’s patients, coming to his office once a year for an evaluation. At one of her visits, she brought Aluko a surprise. She had been digging through papers after her husband’s death.
She’d found an 8-by-10 copy of a black-and-white picture of her first class at Corona, for the school year 1963-64. That’s her, at 47, standing in the middle of 23 children – girls and boys, black and white, Nigerian, Asian and British, mostly dressed in white.
She asked Aluko if he saw anyone familiar.
Indeed, Aluko saw his sixth-grade self, legs crossed, sitting on the grass in the front row. He’s smiling at the camera, resting his elbow on his knee and his cheek on his fist.
“Oh my God, that is me,” Aluko thought. “How could this be?”
By what twist of fate did this Nigerian boy in Mrs. Durante’s class end up, half a world away and more than three decades later, becoming the heart specialist who cares for his former teacher and her husband in Charlotte, North Carolina?
Settling in Charlotte
The picture had been taken outside Corona, a private British-owned school that attracted children who could qualify academically and afford the tuition. Some were children of foreign diplomats. Aluko’s father was a civil engineer; his mother had been an English teacher.
Aluko remembered having American, Nigerian and British teachers at Corona. He got a good education, good enough to get him into Kings College boarding school and then medical school at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He came to the United States for medical residency at Columbia University in New York, where he met his future wife, Shirley Houston, also a doctor.
In 1989, they chose to settle in Charlotte. Aluko said he started a solo cardiology practice after he couldn’t find an existing group that would hire someone with his foreign education. His practice grew into the city’s second-largest group of heart specialists, Mid Carolina Cardiology, now Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute. He often was quoted in the Observer, about new heart procedures, efforts to reduce health disparities or the community of Nigerian doctors in the Charlotte area.
As she got to know Aluko, Rosalia Durante continued searching through her scrapbooks. They bulged with keepsakes from Africa – maps of Nigeria, newspaper and magazine articles, pictures of her students and copies of their handwritten notes.
“I keep stuff,” said Durante, whose home is decorated with African art, including a carved ivory elephant tusk and a painting by a Nigerian artist.
She remembers her first day at Corona School: “When I first saw all the boys in that class, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have a terrible time.’” She had three “rambunctious” sons of her own. But these boys, from several countries, sat at attention at their desks, called her “Madame,” and raised their hands and stood before speaking.
“They didn’t have many books, but their books were well-used,” Rosalia Durante recalled. “…I enjoyed hearing how the languages criss-crossed. … And they had to listen to a Southern dialect from North Carolina.”
‘My name is Yele’
Nigerian names were distinctive and stuck in her mind, Rosalia Durante said. It helped that she had asked her students to print their names in large letters on construction paper. For the first week, they held up their posters and announced themselves so she could learn to spell and pronounce their names correctly.
“My name is Yele Aluko,” she recalled him saying. He had bright, eager eyes and a “zest for knowledge. … He was inquisitive. You didn’t have to pull things out of him,” she said.
In 2011, Rosalia Durante read in the newspaper that Aluko was getting a lifetime achievement award from the Charlotte Post Foundation. She mentioned it to her granddaughter, who arranged for them to attend. During the ceremony, Aluko was surprised when organizers announced that his primary school teacher was in the audience.
By then in her 90s, Rosalia Durante stood at her table and waved. Aluko walked over and gave her a hug. She couldn’t hear well, but she had a keen memory of that year when he was beginning to find his path in the world. He vowed they would become more than just doctor and patient. They would be friends.
‘With all my love’
He called her occasionally, and this year, he arranged a visit to her home off Beatties Ford Road. Aluko arrived with a bouquet of flowers. Rosalia Durante pulled a note on white paper from her scrapbook.
It read: “To the teacher I will not forget. And to the teacher who has helped me with my lessons.”
Aluko recognized the tiny but clear and legible script – and thought how much better it was than his handwriting today.
He did not remember writing this note at the end of sixth grade to thank his American teacher. But she had saved it all these years. It had meant that much to her.
It was signed: “With all my love. From Yele.”