thank you, Dr. E. F. Ritter

If you belonged to a midwestern Methodist family in the 1950s, patron saints weren’t part of your spiritual practice. But if the Thompson family had nominated one for canonization, it would have been Dr. E. F. Ritter, a general practitioner in Centerville, Iowa.

He entered our lives when I was two and had what later would be diagnosed as appendicitis. For nearly a year, my parents spent considerable time at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. At one point, they were told I probably would not survive, a conversation I, as a parent, cannot imagine having. At another, one of the Catholic sisters quietly advised my mother that they should consider taking me to the University Hospitals at Iowa City.

Then came a chance intervention. Our original family doctor was away, and Dr. Ritter covered his cases. The fact that this gentle but gruff, mustachioed man who peered over his glasses as much as through them had kids just the ages of my siblings and I probably entered the equation. But he would not give up–even when the appendix burst and peritonitis set in. I recovered, obviously.

Some 14 years later, he would surgically remove said appendix. It was spring 1967, and I had a part in the Junior play. Which I tearfully told him during hospital rounds one morning I was afraid I would miss. Each morning, thereafter, he would walk into the room, grab my playbook and dramatically read lines to see if I’d memorized mine. (I made the play.)

But we weren’t the only ones who considered him special. My childhood friend George Valentine shared a story from when his dad and several other young Southern Iowa men reported for their WWII draft physicals. A bit older, Dr. Ritter was conducting them. To put the draftees at ease, he stripped down to his briefs before conducting the exams.

Years later, when a bomb would explode in a plane crossing the Iowa/Missouri air space, Dr. Ritter would lead the local medical team at the scene. He shared with my folks that one news reporter had countered his orders as medical examiner and, when wrath ensued, yelled, “Who do you think you are, God?” To which Doc replied, “You cross that line and you’ll learn that I am.”

I love the fact that Dr. Ritter was a staunch Democrat. And that his beautiful city-edge farm has become the campus for Indian Hills Community College.  But today, when Kate sent me this story from NPR: after-30-years-of-surgeries-doctor-and-patient-dance, it was the little girl thoughts that flowed freely.

At two, every doctor’s visit was frightening. So, he would take my baby doll, who wore a red coat and cap crocheted by my Aunt Elma, and fill virtually every hole with a lollipop. We would walk out with Timmy looking like a porcupine, but I wouldn’t be crying.

I think that’s worthy of sainthood.

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8 Responses to “thank you, Dr. E. F. Ritter”

  1. Marvin’s family also went to Dr. Ritter. Marvin has stories he tells at times.

  2. We had Doc Ingraham in Sewal until he passed when I was 16, but he was certainly not as imaginative in his practice. He did, however, deliver a spare tire to my parents in Missouri the night they were married (and signed as my grandfather, so the ceremony could proceed at 11:45 pm!)

  3. Thank you for posting your memories of my grandfather. My aunt Mitzi digitized over 900 near perfect photographs (from slides) of his life and the era. He was a great man. Chris Sally, son of Irene Ritter.

    • Oh, Chris…I remember your mom and your aunt Mitzi. My post didn’t begin to express the gratitude my family and so many others felt for your truly original grandfather. He was a world-changer for the people of southern Iowa. Do hope you’ll share some photos of him on the Centerville site. My best to your family. Thanks for writing. Carla

  4. I loved reading this, not only was Dr. Ritter my doctor, he was a true friend, we were two good Democrats working for the party. He and my husband Bill Hayes served at a hospital in New Guinea during WW2 and had some interesting visits about their service. Without his help we might not have Lake Rathbun among so many things he did for Centerville. I miss him, he was so much fun.

    • Thanks, Joe Anne, for the note. He was such a powerful force for good in that community…but still very much his own person. (Good Democrat qualities!) I learned more about his service in the Pacific Theatre when I spoke with Enfys McMurry who wrote that lovely “Centerville” book. We need more people like him now. C.

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