At 75, pharmacist still just what doctor ordered

Keeping up with Fred Mayer is like running a marathon you haven’t trained for. The 75-year-old talks so fast, and with so much passion, it is a miracle he finds time to breathe.

This happens when Mayer gets on the topic of public health.

He starts by recalling his first pharmacy job at the age of 12 at Geary Drug on 22nd Avenue in San Francisco, and how Mr. Belkin, the aging pharmacist, would take naps and leave young Fred to fill prescriptions.

Mr. Belkin was “a little crazy. Well, he was a lot crazy,” Mayer recalls.

Also, because there was a shortage of pharmacists in those days, leaving the pharmacy in the hands of a non-pharmacist was occasionally done (even though it was illegal), Mayer acknowledged.

Mayer will then tell you about how he loved being the “corner store doctor in the community,” and how he worked three jobs to put himself through pharmacy school at UCSF, and how he regularly attended Shabbat services at Congregation Kol Yakov on Buchanan Street — and served as president of his class.

Of course, this prompts the memory of when the dean of the school called him because he was flunking out — uncharacteristic for the over-achiever — and suggested that Mayer rearrange his priorities so he would be less busy.

“I could multitask before I even knew what the word meant,” Mayer said.

It may be this infectious enthusiasm that has allowed the veteran pharmacist and public health advocate to dedicate himself so fully to causes he believes in and for which he is routinely recognized. Most recently, the Oakland-based Flowers Heritage Foundation honored Mayer as a “Champion in Public Health” for his work supporting health policies in areas of teen pregnancy, smoking and HIV and AIDS.

Mayer is a chunkier Mr. Rogers, with deep smile lines etched onto his face. He wears silver wire-rimmed glasses and hip New Balance sneakers. He is proud that at his age, he takes only one prescription medication, for an arthritic condition, and otherwise pops six vitamins and minerals daily.

Mayer’s true reputation, though, is that of a “pharmacy icon,” said Burt Freeman, a colleague and friend.

“Fred is the guru in the United States for public health and pharmacy,” said Bob Gibson, former president of the American Pharmacy Association and one of Mayer’s closest friends. “There’s nobody in pharmacy who has advanced public health more than Fred.”

He was born in Kansas City, Mo., at the height of the Depression. His father died when he was 6 months old, and because his mother couldn’t afford to care for her two children, Mayer and his sister were taken to an orphanage for Jewish children.

The family moved to San Francisco during World War II, when Mayer’s mother found a job with the Air Force. He has lived in the Bay Area ever since.

Mayer and his wife, Jackie, have raised four children in San Rafael, where they still live. They have long been active in the Jewish community and were founding members of nearby Congregation Rodef Sholom.

Mayer got his first job at 9, selling newspapers on the corner of O’Farrell and Gough streets, then in Hunter’s Point. “I’d be on the corner rain, sleet or shine — I’d make five cents for every paper I sold. It was big-time money!”

When he graduated from Lowell High School at 15, he knew he wanted to study pharmacy.

“I saw the pharmacist as someone who was available morning, noon and night. They were accessible when someone needed a professional opinion about an ailment, no doctor’s appointment necessary.”

Mayer thinks of himself as a public health pharmacist who educates patients, consumers and pharmacists. For instance, he helped popularize childproof caps on medicine bottles, and more recently advocated for larger-print labels so older people can read their prescriptions more easily.

Often, he takes his ideas and contacts state lawmakers, who over the years have written laws with Mayer’s suggestions in mind. He’s currently pushing legislation that would require health insurance companies to explain why some drugs are listed on their formulary and some are not.

“In this world, there are dreamers and non-dreamers,” he says. “There are doers and non-doers. I’m a dreamer and a doer. And I think you can do anything you want to do. One person can make a difference.”

Two of his best-known accomplishments are the Great American Smokeout and National Condom Week.

Mayer started the smokeout in 1969, working with the Northern California Pharmacists Association to encourage Bay Area smokers to quit. After four years of success, the American Cancer Society took over and renamed the effort. On Nov. 15, the quit day celebrated its 31st year.

In 1978, Mayer launched National Condom Week. He helped popularize catchy posters, like the one with a hand wearing a condom on each finger and the text that says, “Keep a rubber on hand.” At last count, National Condom Week was observed at 473 college campuses around the world. (Years earlier, he pushed for California law to require condoms be on open display in all pharmacies.)

“Fred is not always politically correct, but he does things he believes in, and always has the patient’s well-being and care in his front vision,” Freeman said.

Mayer has launched a total of 43 public health education and awareness campaigns through his nonprofit Pharmacists Planning Service, Inc. (PPSI), which he started 47 years ago after opening his own pharmacy in Sausalito.

“Every one of my campaigns faced opposition,” Mayer said. He recalled a time in 1989 when he created the “pregnant man” posters, which had three variations featuring a white, black and Asian man, with the caption “Would you be more careful if it was you who got pregnant?”

“Hispanic men picketed in front of my drug store in Sausalito. So we had a contest in Dolores Park. We lined up nine very macho Hispanic males, stuffed them with pillows just like the poster, and had people vote for the best pregnant man. We use adversity for publicity.”

Mayer’s assistant, Barbara Birnbaum, is doing some quiet publicity on her own. “Fred needs to retire. He needs to slow down,” she said, noting that her boss is reticent to do so.

It’s true. Although Mayer is mostly retired, he still works one evening a week at a pharmacy in San Rafael and still runs PPSI. So far, he hasn’t found anyone to continue what he started and built.

“He needs someone who is interested in pharmacy and public health to come in and take over,” Birnbaum said. “He’s still involved because he cares about public health and safety for all of us.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.