“Doc” Gerald Higgins’ hands were never still. With a wife and 10 children, a private practice and being the exclusive physician to UNLV’s athletic department for 40 years, it was hard to catch him in a lull.
And yet, according to the people close to him, he was a well-balanced man who never neglected any aspect of his life.
“He was tremendous in terms of commitment,” said UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice, who knew Higgins for more than 25 years. “He always found time.”
Higgins was born in Madison, Wis., in 1934. He would have celebrated his 80th birthday Sept. 2, but died Sunday after complications from a recent surgery. Passionate about his orthopedic practice, he retired only three weeks ago.
His funeral was held Thursday. Hundreds of people packed into — and spilled out of — Our Lady of Las Vegas Roman Catholic Church, on Alta Drive near Rancho Drive.
After completing medical school in Chicago, Higgins and his wife Lucia moved to Las Vegas in 1969 with their 10 children.
Higgins’ children remember him being intensely invested in his family after the move to Las Vegas. He instilled traditions that still hold strong in the family now — Christmas and Fourth of July together at their second home in Idaho, for instance, and Krispy Kreme runs on the weekends.
Higgins’ second daughter, Mary Beth Higgins of Las Vegas, recalled that in her whole 57 years living, she has never spent a Christmas away from her family. And just months ago, she opened her front door one Sunday morning to find a box of donuts on her porch from her dad.
Higgins was just as invested in his grandchildren, 26 of whom survive him.
He loved playing games with them. His son, Kevin Higgins of Las Vegas, joked that his father was the “master of the art of BS” in spouting off random trivia that was often untrue. “Google was my dad’s downfall,” he said.
Every Friday during soccer season, Gerald Higgins would fly to Oregon to watch one of his grandsons play. In fact, the last text Higgins sent before he died was one of encouragement to a grandson who was in the process of trying out for college soccer.
Higgins believed staunchly in college and education in general, Kevin Higgins said, and was a voracious reader. In addition to his 10 children and nearly 30 grandchildren, Gerald Higgins put his kids’ friends through college as well, and has a scholarship fund named in his honor.
“He had a close-knit family of 50,” Kevin Higgins said.
He needed to be around people always, whether it was his family, friends or patients.
As one of the Las Vegas Valley’s first orthopedic surgeons, many of those patients saw Gerald Higgins for the whole 45 years he practiced. They joked that he spent more time chatting about life with them than about their ailments. That’s what was great about him, his family said. He made everyone feel important.
“Whether you parked the car or owned the hotel,” Kevin Higgins said, “he treated you the same.”
Along with leading a fiercely loyal family and caring for patients, Higgins was UNLV’s main athletics physician. He worked with UNLV’s sports teams at morning practices and evening games, and worked at his own private practice in between. He did yearly team physicals, treated countless injuries, and performed hundreds of surgeries.
He also helped at Bishop Gorman High School, where he performed athletes’ physicals for 45 years.
Rice was a student when he first met Higgins in 1989, and even then the doctor’s commitment was apparent.
“He was very energetic, always upbeat, and positive about everything,” Rice said.
Dave Tomchek, athletic trainer for the basketball team, said Higgins had a calming effect in stressful situations.
“He had an incredible knack for making injured student athletes feel comfortable,” Tomchek said. “I’d be shocked and amazed if you found one thing negative about him.”
About 30 years into his time as UNLV’s sports doctor, Higgins was inducted into the UNLV Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. His name also resides in the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame, and he was recently given the Clark County Medical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
After Higgins’ funeral, the crowd moved to the family-owned pub in Boca Park, Three Angry Wives, for an Irish wake.
In the pub room where Higgins “held court” every week, as his children put it, friends and family had one last chance to say their goodbyes. An open casket showed Higgins’ body in his favorite University of Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt. He was draped with a blanket featuring the University of Notre Dame, one of his alma maters.
At the pub, Higgins’ son Sean spoke highly of his father and the way the family has remained close since his death. Any given day, Sean said, you can find a group of six or seven family members at the pub.
“Doc would rather celebrate life… so let us all do the same,” son Kevin said.
Contact Annalise Little at email@example.com or 702-383-0391. Find her on Twitter: @annalisemlittle.