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Dr. Donald Chatham - 1926-2009

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'He was just a really good person'

By Steve Doyle

From a country doctor who carried his medicine in his bag to an inspirational community leader, Dr. Donald Chatham spent more than half a century tending to the physical, spiritual and professional needs of a broad spectrum of people in Shelby County and around the world.

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Revered as a man of kindness, generosity and dedication to his profession, his community and his family, Chatham died Tuesday afternoon at Jewish Hospital Shelbyville after a long battle with a variety of health problems. He was 82.

"He was just a good man, a really good person - that's the best thing to say about him," Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said.

Chatham's lifetime in medicine -- since 1952 in Shelbyville -- was spent tending to patients and inspiring those who followed him.

He delivered by his own count 1,003 babies and helped move Shelbyville's hospital from two old houses on Henry Clay Street to the building that is the core of the one in which he died.

He leaves a rich legacy of improving people's lives and setting a lofty but unassuming example for those who followed.

Unlike so many in today's world, Chatham's entire career basically was spent working in a little office at 615 Washington St. and raising a son and four daughters with his wife, Betty Jean, at a house her father built for them on Plainview Avenue.

A native of Louisville, Chatham served in World War II and then graduated from Georgetown College -- the first person in his family be so highly educated -- where he met his wife. And when he completed his degree at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, he came to Shelbyville in 1952, one of five doctors who covered Shelby, Spencer and Henry counties.

They traveled the back roads to see sick patients and deliver babies, working nights and days and helping each other during breaks. "If the phone didn't ring at night," he once said, "I'd check the next morning to make sure it worked."

He was the last survivor of the 11 doctors to practice at what was then known as Kings Daughter's Hospital when it opened its new building in 1954, and he was the first doctor in Shelbyville to specialize in Family Medicine, so honored for that certification among 250 colleagues at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1971.

  Giving to the community

In 2005, Operation Care named its clinic -- housed in the building on Washington Street where Chatham had practiced -- as the Dr. Don Chatham Medical Mission Building. And at the ceremony that day, Judy Roberts, the director of Operation Care, said, "It's not what he has done for us; it's what he has done for the whole community."

What Chatham did was, in addition to doling out treatment and the pills that come with the job, to minister to his patients and colleagues in ways for which he wasn't paid: advice, counsel and a sermon or two about commitment.

"I have been a counselor to some of Dr. Don's patients, and a close friend to his only son, Donn Jr.," said Dr. Paul Schmidt, a psychologist from Shelbyville. "Boy did he take good care of his family and his friends.

"Like a shepherd pulling in one sheep that might be blessing or cursing some of the others, he pulled me over a few times with his raised eyebrow and his come-over-here, pointing-and-pulling index finger, to share some of his wisdom, caution, hope and compassion for those he loved.

"I am one of so many who will really miss a man who could always give me a full dose of truth with a full dose of grace."

  Building bridges

Michael Collins, CEO of Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, said that his first week on the job in early 2002, Chatham showed up for what he thought was a perfunctory visit from a doctor who no longer was practicing.

"He talked to me like a father to a son," Collins said. "I expected advice, because I was a new administrator, and a senior physician always has advice for a new administrator.

"But he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He was very humble as he said it, but he said, 'We warm ourselves by the fires others have set, and we walk across bridges others have built.'

"He was very humble as he talked about how he and other had built bridges, and he said, 'You're basically walking across those bridges right now, and you too will build bridges for others that will follow after you.'

"I thought about that about my own legacy. It was his very subtle way to let me know that I have a very important role, to carry on the many traditions and the sweat effort that had gone on for 100 years before I came on board."

His fatherly approach extended to every part of his life.

In 1967, teenager Duanne Puckett, the community relations manager for Shelby County Public Schools, was tragically injured in an auto accident in downtown Shelbyville that left her in a wheelchair for life.

"My dear Dr. Don held my hand in the ambulance on Feb. 25, 1967 from Shelbyville to Louisville after my wreck. And he was with me on my 40th anniversary party in 2007 with my wheelchair," Puckett said.

"When I mentioned it to him, after he squeezed my hand, he clenched his face. I thought I had upset him until his wit came through: '"I was trying to remember if I sent your father a bill.' We died laughing."

  Giving to the public

After practicing alone until 1981, Chatham took on partners and then left private practice in 1991. His health had been failing for the past several years. He had survived four heart attacks, four open-heart surgeries and three strokes.

But he has traveled months at a time  -- across the nation and to 18 countries -- to spread his knowledge and administer to sometimes hundreds of patients some days.

"In December 2004," Collins said, "he wrote me a note that said in part, 'The philosophy that I have attempted to give to my patients, my five children and to the colleges and universities that have educated me is, Who did I owe? The public.'

"He paid back the public. Medicine was his way of helping people."

Said Collins' boss, Bob Shircliff, CEO of Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare: "Shelbyville and its community hospital owe a lot to Dr. Chatham. He was truly committed to providing outstanding care in his practice and in the hospital.

"He was passionate about Jewish Hospital Shelbyville becoming a strong community asset. I will personally miss both his wisdom and friendship."

Chatham's contributions extended far beyond medicine. He was a patriarch at First Baptist Church Shelbyville, where he will be eulogized on Saturday, serving in numerous leadership roles, and his family invested in Shelbyville by buying and restoring old buildings, such as the former train depot and a log cabin that now sit at the corner of Seventh and College streets.

Even in retirement and declining health, he volunteered at the clinic that now bears his names to sort supplies and to see patients when that was needed.

Said Hardesty: "He did a lot for families that didn't have the means to pay him. He has done a lot for Shelbyville that he will never be paid for. But now he's getting his reward in Heaven."