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McKechnies Launch Scholarship in Honor of Dear Friend and Renowned Texas Internist

Dr. Bill Tompkins and his wife, Cheryl

This story was published in the September 2023 issue of The Philanthropist, a newsletter for supporters and friends of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

September 18, 2023

Jim McKechnie, ’74 MD, FAAOS, and Bill Tompkins, ’74 MD, FACP, were college pals and then lifelong friends who spent many of their formative years together ahead of their independently successful medical careers.

The two were paired as chemistry lab partners while undergraduates at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, then both went on to attend medical school at Northwestern University. After graduating in 1974, they went their separate ways professionally but maintained a cross-country friendship—until Bill Tompkins passed away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in 2010. He was 61.

“His life was taken far too early by the cruel ravages of ALS,” said Dr. McKechnie, an orthopaedic surgeon who practices in Mattoon, Illinois.

In honor of his dear friend, Jim and his wife, Karen, established the William E. Tompkins, MD Endowed Scholarship Fund in early 2023 to support students at Jim’s and Bill’s medical school alma mater.

Dr. Jim McKechnie

Jim recalls the years he had with Bill with immense fondness. As college students, the two got up to a healthy dose of harmless shenanigans, such as breaking into lab spaces after dark to complete assignments. Bill was quiet and studious but had an infectiously innovative spirit, Jim said. During their senior year, Bill got hold of an old EKG machine that he modified and then practiced with on their peers. In medical school, they earnestly pursued Bill’s goal of standing on as many Chicago rooftops as possible, including that of the iconic Ward Building. Security was more relaxed back then, Jim added.

Not so much the partying types, most of their time together was spent studying. Occasionally, they would plan dinners at each other’s family homes in the suburbs; Bill’s parents were in Skokie, and Jim’s were in Lansing.

Making a Difference in Tomball, Texas

After medical school, Bill went on to complete his residency at Rush University. He then moved to the outskirts of Houston—to Tomball, Texas—where he became the first board-certified internist and spent the following three decades practicing internal medicine with a subspecialty in cardiology.

“Bill established a first-class cardiology practice in a town that did not have anything like that before, and he became a very revered and respected elder of the town as the years went along,” Jim said. “He meant a whole lot to the people of Tomball.”

In 1981, Bill Tompkins was named chief of staff at Tomball Regional Hospital, where he later served as chair of the Department of Medicine. In 1999, he became a fellow of the American College
of Physicians.

Bill also greatly enjoyed mentoring students at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where he was named a “Top Doc” in 2003.

Well into his flourishing career, he began noticing changes in his muscle movement in 2006 and was soon after diagnosed with ALS. ALS is a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease with no cure and an average survival rate of three years.

“Life doesn't come with a fairness quotient to it, but it certainly did not seem fair that he was taken from us when he was,” Jim McKechnie said.

Now, he and Karen hope to honor his lifelong friend with the scholarship in his name.

“Bill was sincerely deserving of being remembered and we felt this was an appropriate way of doing so,” Jim said.

Bill Tompkins is survived by his wife, Cheryl, two sons, and one daughter.

For more information about supporting scholarships, please contact Vic Maurer at or 312-503-2417.