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Column: Remembering Charlie

Dr. Charles Fitch was a good man who gave his time and love to the Worthington community.

Dr. Keith Towne, reminiscing about Fitch -- who died April 24 -- said he was "always 'Charlie' to patients, doctors, and nurses alike ... there were no formalities with Charlie."

Fitch was born in 1930 in Wisconsin and grew up in Ishpeming, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, where he stated "most of the young men's right of passage was going down the Suicide Hill Ski Jump at the Ishpeming Ski Club." Charlie did that, too. He went to college and medical school at the University of Wisconsin. After two years of internship/residency in New Orleans, he was in the service during the Korean conflict.

He completed his internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota in 1962 and met his future wife, June LaBelle, an RN, during a VA ward consult. As newlyweds in February 1962, they interviewed at Worthington Medical Center the same day Dr. Seisler did during a blizzard with 56 inches of snow on the ground (the wing of Dr. Seisler's plane got stuck in a snowbank). Undeterred, both joined the clinic in July of that year, and they retired on the same day in 1998.

Charlie's love of medicine and helping people led him to fill in at Willmar with Dr. Becker, volunteered at St. Mary's Health Clinic (SMHC), and then in the Minneapolis metro area until a couple of years ago. Barbara Dickie, director of the St. Mary's Health Clinics, said, "Everyone loved Dr. Fitch."

Receptionist Anne Kruger reflects: "His patients all loved him because he treated them all with love and respect. ... He made me feel special, as he always had time to ask about family and what was going on in your life. I felt he was like my father and always wanted to give him a hug."

Michelle Ebbers recalls how her father, Charlie and others got up as early as 4 a.m. to make ice at the outdoor hockey arena. Charlie would state that he enjoyed participating in his childrens' sports, saying they had athletic talent he didn't have as a child. Charlie recruited me -- who had never played hockey -- to play on the "Old Timers Hockey Team. I later accused him of wanting someone on the team who was worse than he was, and I then recruited surgeon David Eaton (who never had been on skates).

I recall telling Charlie he was a born psychiatrist, noting how many patients sought him out for their personal as well as medical problems. He always took the time to talk with them -- resulting in his often being late -- but most patients didn't mind because they knew he would give them the time they needed.

James Harris, MD, surgeon, recalls how Charlie would walk on snow shoes several miles over drifts that blocked the road to respond to the emergency calls at the hospital in the middle of the night. After being called to the ER in the middle of a blizzard late one night, the ER worried called the police to find him. After not finding him on the road, he was located -- exhausted -- having fallen asleep in his front closet after putting his coat on to snow shoe to the hospital.

Keith Towne, MD, internist, recalls letting the Fitch family babysit his child while he interviewed for his position in 1974. Dr. Towne's son hadn't realized Charlie and June's eight children were all part of one family upon being picked up, and said: "I like that school. ... I want to go back there."

Receptionist Alice Tjaden White remembers Charlie's interest in her children and his constantly going by her desk, saying, "Have you gotten your children signed up for hockey yet?" He did this so often that she eventually signed them up, which "resulted in some great memories for our family." Alice went on to say, "We will always be thankful. "Blessed be his memory." On a humorous note, Alice remembers, "His left-handed scrawl was always easier to read if you turned it sideways. He was a very kind man who usually brought laughter to the department with a story."

Dietician Peggy Saxton recalls receiving a nice letter from Charlie after she resigned to have her family asking her to help out a little in the clinic, which resulted in her still being here 34 years later.

Joyce Vortherms looks back on catching Charlie early in the morning dictating and listening to opera music. When he would kindly ask if the music bothered her, she would respond, "The music is fine, but I don't understand the words."

Patients have relayed stories on how, when their car wouldn't start in the winter time, he would drive to their house and jump start them or give them rides back home from the clinic. One individual without insurance or money called the clinic because his family was ill and told how Charlie came over after work with medication samples and made no charges (which now can't be done because rules made by well-meaning faceless bureaucrats thousands of miles away make illegal such acts of kindness between two local people).

Charlie initiated a number of programs including diabetic education in 1968, cardiac monitoring in 1973 and stress testing in 1978. He was named Little League baseball coach of the year and Charlie, in his usual humble fashion, stated they awarded that to "any dad that stayed with the program for three or more years."

His wife, June, was also very involved in giving to the community, and they were both awarded the Community Service Award in 1997 by the Chamber of Commerce. When retiring to Forest Lake in 1998, he stated with his typical humor that he would be able to be more involved in the activities of "my 18 all-above-average grandchildren."

This column will be continued on the May 29 Reminiscing page.