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SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2005
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End of
an Era

Dr. Hansberry, 77, begins retirement after 40-year career

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer

phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

After 40 years, Dr. George Hansberry will trade dance partners Monday, letting go of his medical practice in exchange for a life of retirement.

Retiring Dr. George Hansberry with, from left, Dr. Jeffrey Johnson, Jo Smallwood, Brenda Reeves, Mary Harbin, Carolyn Proctor, Bethany Roop and Gina Powell.
DAILY Photos by Gary Cosby Jr.
Retiring Dr. George Hansberry with, from left, Dr. Jeffrey Johnson, Jo Smallwood, Brenda Reeves, Mary Harbin, Carolyn Proctor, Bethany Roop and Gina Powell.
His old dance partner led him through dips and turns such as being drafted into the Army after high school and delving into a mistaken career as an artist and a short stint as a dance instructor, but hindsight views all that as a path to success.

So the 77-year-old ends his tenure as Decatur's senior physician with no regrets, no fear and no loss of thankfulness for the blessings that pulled him from a poor rural upbringing in Depression-era Pennsylvania to a career that he says he loves as much today as the day he started.

Perhaps most of all, he's thankful that he has a worthy successor to care for his 1,000-patient family.

Without this, Dr. Hansberry concedes, he would never be able to pry himself from his family practice.

"You don't walk away from something if the job isn't finished," Dr. Hansberry said, as though it were a creed he imbedded deep within his heart while still a boy in Roxborough, Pa.

While the term "caring professional" may sound like an empty slogan, Dr. Hansberry's attitude of completing the job the right way shows his sincere interest, according to his patients and staff.

Family and colleagues say that caring attitude burns as bright inside as the day he started at Baugh-Wiley-Smith Hospital, and why he still may feel roused at 3 a.m. to call the hospital to check on a patient.

More than a doctor

"We adopted him as a member of our family," said Beulah Booker, whose family has seen Dr. Hansberry for nearly his entire tenure.

From finding a cure for one of their children when other doctors couldn't, to being available to answer family questions, she said Dr. Hansberry was much more than a doctor.

"I just can't describe what he has done," Booker said. "But we love Dr. Hansberry. We love him dearly."

Charles Allen, 75, a patient for more than 30 years, chose Dr. Hansberry from lots of recommendations and from his relationship with him as a fellow Kiwanis Club member.

He said Dr. Hansberry walked with him through difficult illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. And even when Dr. Hansberry referred him to specialists, he knew Dr. Hansberry was following his treatment.

"He's even made personal visits to my home without any fees or anything out of concern for me," Allen said.

Wooed to Decatur

Dr. Hansberry came to Decatur immediately after completing his medical degree at the University of Tennessee at Memphis. Decatur, one of many cities he considered, caught his eye because he could tell it was beginning to boom.

The Chamber of Commerce and local physicians wooed him with dinners at the country club and even an airplane flight around town.

"I was so impressed that I decided on Decatur," Dr. Hansberry said, noting it was the first time in six years that a new physician had chosen Decatur.

At the time, Decatur had 36 doctors compared to 250 today, he added.

The proliferation of doctors hardly compares with the exponential advances in medicine during the past four decades, he said.

When Dr. Hansberry started, doctors couldn't order computerized tomography scans or magnetic resonance imaging and the specialists they could refer to were limited to general surgeons, internists, orthopedists, obstetricians/gynecologists and urologists.

"That's it. That's all," he said, noting that in the '60s, modern medicine limited him to things like X-rays and barium enemas.

In 1965, an office visit cost $3, the same price as for a shot, he said, and it wasn't unusual for a doctor to see 50 to 60 patients a day, whereas today it's from 20 to 30.

"And house calls, just about all the family physicians made them then," Dr. Hansberry said.

House calls

Dr. Hansberry remained one of the few doctors who still made house calls, according to one of his longtime nurses, Carolyn Proctor.

"When we have patients that are dying or are very, very ill, he makes house calls and usually takes us with him," she said. "I don't know very many doctors who would do that. Sometimes that means so much to the patients and their families."

Dr. Kermit Pitt, who stayed in practice until he was 78 when he retired in 1991, said the common praise he heard from Dr. Hansberry's patients was that he was generous with his time. This made each feel like he was his only patient.

"There's a tendency in the medical profession today to have to rush," he said. "You can almost see the doctor hoping this is your last question because he's on a schedule.

"George is one of the real assets to the community. He's an excellent physician. They don't make them any better than George."

Easier and tougher

Dr. Hansberry said in many ways, being a doctor became easier over the decades because of the years of experience, the repetition and the training. In other ways, it became tougher, primarily because the medical industry became more sophisticated.

It changed from a totally reactive practice where people saw doctors only when they were sick to mostly proactive where most people get yearly checkups and doctors help patients plan a healthy lifestyle.

"And, my goodness, how medicine has exploded," he said, crediting broader education and pharmaceutical research.

"Like ulcer diagnosis — the way we treated ulcers back in the 1960s was totally wrong," Dr. Hansberry said. "We used to treat them with milk and antacids."

Decatur was more than a smart place to launch a career for Dr. Hansberry. From the time he arrived, he decided it would forever be his home. That helps explain why his record of community involvement is longer than his extensive professional record.

He has served with 40 organizations or special events, ranging from co-chairing a fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts to being marshal of the Decatur Christmas parade. He has been president of the Decatur Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the United Way campaign, president of Calhoun Community College Foundation and vice president of Morgan County Economic Development Association.

He still serves on eight boards of directors.

Free health care

Dr. Hansberry's pride these days is the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County, which provides medical services for county residents who don't have health insurance, who fall at the poverty level or meet other criteria.

When most men his age had long been retired and become accustomed to having others wait on them, Dr. Hansberry helped lead the fund-raising effort that acquired $500,000 to completely pay for the renovation of the former Baugh-Wiley-Smith Hospital.

Now, everybody has access to medical care, he said, adding that Decatur is one of only 300 cities in the nation to have a free clinic.

Perhaps it's that type of selfless commitment that has earned him a dedicated staff, with a total of 139 years service among six employees.

Proctor has been with Dr. Hansberry for 28 years. His office manager, Brenda Reeves, has been with him 32 years; Gina Powell, a nurse, 26 years; Bethany Roop, nurse assistant, 10 years; Jo Smallwood, office assistant, 10 years; and Debbie Harbin, lab supervisor, 33 years.

"When I was out with a heart attack, he told me not to worry about my job and he paid me the whole time I was out, for like eight weeks," Proctor said. "And if anybody needs to take a day off, like if family is coming to town, he's OK with it. There's not many bosses who would do that."

Dr. Hansberry said he made it a point to thank his staff every day before quitting time and walk out together with them.

"I've got an obligation to them as well. So I wouldn't turn this practice over to just anyone," he said, referring to his careful and lengthy search to find a replacement.

Finding a successor

His wife of 20 years, Cathy, said they started talking about retirement when he reached his 60s, but her husband clearly wasn't ready. She never pressured him despite getting to see their four grandchildren only twice a year.

"I decided that everybody knows when it's time," she said.

For Dr. Hansberry, the time came when he got to know Dr. Jeff Johnson, a former military physician who Dr. Hansberry said shares his philosophy on medicine and has demonstrated a desire to care for his patients.

"He was what I was looking for," Dr. Hansberry said.

With retirement just a day away, Dr. Hansberry said he's not sure what part of his new life most excites him, but high on his list is visiting grandchildren.

"Of course we're going to travel, too," his wife said. "But we each have hobbies and are active in the community. I think we'll stay busy as much as we want to."

Dr. Hansberry added that the alarm clock will still remain set at 5:30 a.m., indicating how busy he expects to stay.

His enthusiasm for community service perhaps sheds light on Dr. Hansberry's longevity. He lives every day, doing what he loves to do. And to think about how he had that opportunity still amazes him.

Dance lessons

Getting drafted by the Army in 1945 gave him a taste of being a doctor as he received medical aid training. After being discharged in 1946, he used the GI Bill to enroll at Philadelphia College of Art, where he earned a bachelor's degree in industrial design in 1954.

He worked in his field for a few years in Asheville, N.C., but realized it wasn't how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He enrolled at the University of Tennessee, where he acquired his science credits to get into medical school.

While still in Philadelphia, Dr. Hansberry wanted to take dance lessons, but couldn't afford them. He got around that by getting the Arthur Miller Dance Studio to teach him how to become a dance instructor.

Though it never became his career, it did lead to him starting dance studios in Asheville and Spartanburg, S.C. The income from those studios enabled him to go to medical school.

"You see how I've been blessed, where things fell into line that took me where I needed to go. I've always considered myself lucky, especially to acquire an education. I was the happiest person I could be when I was in school, learning. The good Lord gave me a good computer, I guess," he said, knocking on his head. "And ambition, too."

Perhaps that passed from his father, a contractor carpenter who made up for a lack of money with a strong work ethic, telling his children success is spelled "W-O-R-K." But he also stressed giving, and Dr. Hansberry recalled his father advising, "If someone asks for a dozen, give them 13."

Dr. Hansberry's patients will tell you he followed that motto, but the doctor said he's the one humbled by how much his patients gave to him. It's been a difficult final month, he said, because he doesn't know how to articulate his appreciation.

"Thank you," he said at last. "Thank you for letting me be your doctor."

Dr. Hansberry by the numbers

Numbers that stand out after Dr. George Hansberry's 40-year medical career ends Monday:

  • 3 — Dollars a patient needed for an office visit in 1965.
  • 36 — Doctors who served Decatur in 1965.
  • 40 — Organizations or special events with which Dr. Hansberry has served.
  • 139 — Total years of service by his six staff members.
  • 250 — Doctors who serve Decatur today.
  • 16,000 — Different patients he has seen in 40 years.
  • 282,000 — Total office visits by patients through 2003.

    —Paul Huggins

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