Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Country Doctor of Amherst Makes a House Call

We have already established that one of my biggest childhood fears was DOCTORS. It was an awkward situation for me when the person who represented my biggest fear became one of my father's closest friends. Dr. Gordon K. Leonard came to Amherst, Virginia, around 1965. I would have been four when he established his family practice in our small town. 

Gordon's family grew to include four handsome sons. When we visited their home, it was fun to see the animals. I remember playing under the shade of the trees in the sprawling yard on the outskirts of town. I shied away from the adults, self-conscious and a little nervous.

Remember the TV show from the sixties, Dr. Kildare, played by Richard Chamberlain? I know it's odd for a child who went into hysterics at the mention of a doctor's appointment to admit, but I was fascinated by that show, and even at a very tender age, I had a crush on Dr. Kildare. 

In my mind, our family doctor, Dr. Leonard became my very own Dr. Kildare. They were both young and dashing, but because of their chosen professions, there was something very intimidating about them. I loved to hate them both, but secretly, this little girl had fallen in love with the very thing she feared, a doctor.

I was mortified every time he came to the house. My face would redden, I would offer a polite hello, and then I would find somewhere else to be whenever he stopped by to visit Dad. He had SEEN me, after all. That's probably all he ever talked about, and I would die of embarrassment if he ever mentioned it in my presence. Yes, I was modest, and very ego-centric. 

G.K. had a soft-spoken bedside manner. He chit-chatted amiably with whichever parent had brought me for my appointment. His commonsense approach and friendliness secured his position in town as the kind, country doctor. In the sixties, Dr. Leonard even made house calls, when necessary. 

When young parents were discussing pediatricians in the presence of my father, someone asked him which doctor he had chosen for his children. "Dr. Leonard, of course."

"But he's not a pediatrician," would come the response.

“If that is the case," my father retorted, "why not go to his office, and tell him to get all those children out of his waiting room?”

Daddy told this story of having to take my baby brother Eric in to Dr. Leonard's office, which necessitated giving Eric an injection. 

"Eric was very young, and GK said, 'Hold him up facing you, and I’ll pull down his shorts and give it to him.'  I did, and then he did, and Eric screamed like a banshee.  I said something about me holding Eric up like that, and GK said, 'I want him looking at YOU when he gets it.  I always want him happy to come to see me; I don’t care if he gets mad at you.'  He left smiling."

Eventually, after many, many exposures to medical professionals, I overcame my fear of doctors. I even have pleasant memories of weekends at Smith Mountain Lake with Gordon, and my favorite English teacher Miss Marsha. It seems she had a crush on my doctor, and his favorite English teacher was the same as mine. I loved seeing them together; it made me happy.

When I was a single schoolteacher living in Utah, I adopted a black Labrador Retriever puppy. I named him Gordon. Gordy was my constant companion, accompanying me on solo camping trips, hiking, and even cross-country skiing. I'm not sure Dr. Leonard was thrilled when Daddy told him I'd named my dog after him, but I bet it made him smile. 

A few years ago, when I went back to Virginia, I saw Gordon during the coffee hour after church on Easter Sunday. He was still so handsome, and his hair was nearly white then. He told me when they cleaned out his office when he retired from his practice, he had found something he wanted to give to me. My curiosity was piqued; I couldn't imagine what it was. Later that day, he stopped by Daddy's house with a manila folder.

Apparently, when I was quite young, I had drawn a picture of Dr. Leonard in his examination room with his nurse, and me, smiling on the examination table. The picture shows trays of medical implements. My attention to detail was outstanding for a child so young, don't you think?

G.K. told me he had kept it in his desk all of those years. One day, one of his sons said, "Dad, there aren't any pictures with you in them. I need a picture of you." Gordon assured him that he DID have a picture of himself, and retrieved this primitive drawing from his desk as proof. His eyes smiled warmly with the memory.

I couldn't believe he had kept my gift to him all of those years. How touched I was to receive it so many years later. That was to be my last house call from Dr. Leonard. I couldn't know that day would be my last chance to visit with him as he passed away four years ago. 

Thank you, Gordon, for being such a kind-hearted doctor, and for taking the time to appreciate the gift of a child, and acknowledging a patient who grew to love you as the wonderful man you are.


  1. What a wonderful coming around in memory. The gifts of children are so meaningful. The gift of finding they were cherished is just as meaningful.

    1. Linda, thank you for taking the time to visit my blog, and especially leaving a comment! Enjoy your weekend!

  2. Denise, that was a great bit of memory and writing. What a man he was.

  3. This is beautifully done, Denise. Thank you for sharing this lovely man with us.

  4. Oh what a beautiful, well written article about a wonderful man. When my husband and I moved to Amherst 20 years ago, Dr Leonard became our Doctor. We just fell in love with him. I am not a big fan of Doctors, but Dr Leonard made me feel comfortable with my visits. He would talk about his family and over time we got to meet and got to know his family,
    When we were told he was going to retire, we were sad. We knew he had mixed feelings but was looking forward to being able to spend more time with his family, especially Grand-kids, He is gone now and so missed by a lot of people, To this day I still hear people talk about him and how much they thought about him. He was one of a kind,
    Oh and yes I am back to that uncomfortable feeling about Doctors again.

    1. Martha, living so far from home, I worried about being able to write well enough to give Dr. Leonard the honor he deserved. It's so nice to hear from someone who knew and loved him, too. Thank you for your heartfelt response. He truly was one of a kind. Best of luck in finding a doctor to fill Gordon's big shoes.


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