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January 2, 2008 > Richard Delfs, M.D., a Tri-City masterpiece

Richard Delfs, M.D., a Tri-City masterpiece

Sunday, December 23 marked the passing of a Tri-City original. Just as an artistic masterpiece is beyond the reach of duplication no matter how fine the technology employed to create a copy, so are people, especially those who have used their lives to assist and enrich those around them.

Dr. Richard Delfs, a well known Tri-City medical pioneer, opened a General Practice in Centerville in 1954 with Dr. Holger Rasmussen. These physicians were among the Washington Hospital "originals" who formed the first medical staff in 1958. His partner for four decades, Dr. Rasmussen remembers "Dick" Delfs as a man who "had a life well lived. He loved golf and he loved medicine and he did them both very well."

Destiny would engineer a meeting between two young physicians: Holger Rasmussen who grew up on a farm near Hummelstown, Pennsylvania and Dick Delfs, a farm boy from Nebraska who had opened a medical practice in a small farming community - Shelby, Nebraska. During the Korean War, Rasmussen, a doctor for combat engineers and Delfs, a draftee, both served in the U.S. Army at Camp Atterberry just south of Indianapolis, Indiana and then their final five months of military service at Colorado Springs. "He knew how to work and so did I," says Rasmussen. Delfs certainly did; he had worked his way through medical school by taking odd jobs and spending nights as a janitor at a bank in Omaha polishing brass spittoons.

According to Rasmussen, these two formed a bond of friendship "almost better than a brother" that resulted in a "handshake" agreement to practice medicine together following their discharge from the service. That informal contract was the only thing necessary between the two honorable men. Searching for a likely place to practice medicine, Delfs' brother-in-law, living in the California city of Alameda, told him about a nearby community called Centerville that would welcome new physicians. Delfs called Rasmussen and they visited the small town. "We went and looked and decided to do it, again on a handshake," recalls Rasmussen.

General Practice involved a wide spectrum of medicine in those days and Rasmussen notes, "we delivered a lot of babies and did a lot of surgery." In an earlier interview with TCV, Delfs wryly commented on his experience of delivering over 2,000 babies compared to current practices saying it probably isn't too different since, after all, "nature has been doing this a lot longer than we have." Delfs proved to be a man of integrity and as Rasmussen became heavily involved with state medical organizations, office and patient responsibilities were shifted to allow time for these duties. "He never failed to help me when I needed to fulfill outside obligations," says Rasmussen.

House calls and after-hours visits were not uncommon for physicians in those days. Rasmussen notes, "If you called and said, 'I have a temperature of 103,' I would say, come on in, we will wait for you." Before Washington Hospital was operational, Rasmussen recalls making 22 house calls in one weekend during flu season.

Dick Delfs had a tremendous influence as a physician, but Marilyn, his wife of 65 years, and daughters Diane [Lusch] and Kathy [Pearson] were his top priority. "He was one of the most honest men that could ever be," says Marilyn who met him at college. "He was very kind, very generous and considerate of everyone. You knew where you stood with him." Daughter Diane fondly remembers her dad as a "hardworking, honest, moral person who loved to 'stir the pot' with a bit of controversy and surprises to get us going." She notes, "I had such a great dad and he lived in a great era when doctors knew the whole patient." Although extremely busy tending to others, Delfs maintained a presence with his family. "He was a real good dad," recalls Diane. "He was somebody who I always knew trusted me."

House calls often kept her father away from meals, but Diane says, "he was always there to listen and support us." Every Thursday - Delfs night off - the family would go out to dinner and share an evening together. Marilyn recalls their introduction to Centerville when people referred to the "new doc in town" and came by to size him up. Initially, the new "docs" couldn't find medical office space in Centerville, so Marilyn remembers that they rented an old beauty parlor. The only space available for an x-ray machine was in an area that could only be accessed by walking outside. In inclement weather, it could be an interesting trip. "Things like that don't make a lot of sense now, but that was what it was like in those days in Centerville," quips Marilyn.

Diane has fond memories of moving to Centerville as a nine year-old and growing up in the small, safe community. She says, "He and my mom were probably the best friends anyone could hope to have." Rasmussen echoed these sentiments when he commented, "That couple was the best couple I have ever met in being able to make people comfortable in their presence. Once you came in their door, you were made to feel that you were the only one of importance."

Not only known for a "generous heart," Dr. Delfs appreciated and displayed a marked talent in the fine arts as well. Self-taught in mosaic tile composition, his artwork is exemplary and adorns pots, stepping stones and gifts for friends. Although the family was a bit surprised by his talent with tile mosaic composition, Diane muses that he was trained as a physician and surgeon, which can also be considered an artistic endeavor. "He was a good guy, a good friend and loved this country."

Delfs daughter Kathy, remembers her father as a proud American who was kind, generous and "full of the dickens" at times. As proof of that point, during the Christmas season, Richard Delfs, M.D. would don his trusty John Deere hat with wine cork "reindeer antlers" as a holiday tribute. "He was very loving and generous; he loved to play baseball with me when I was a little girl." Kathy remembers trips to Seal Stadium to see Giants games and her idol, Willie Mays and watch 49er games at Kezar Stadium.

Thinking of her father's legacy, Diane says, "He gave me love, self-confidence and a positive attitude and taught me how to give without expecting anything in return; both of my parents shared these attitudes. He was strong; you knew you could count on dad. We were secure in our family."


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