A Catskill Catalog: August 1, 2012

Seemed right to say good-bye to Dr. Ray Huggins at the St. James Episcopal Church in Lake Delaware, on the road to Delhi. Built by the Livingston and Gerry families, St. James is elegant and traditional, solid, formidable but inviting, suggestive of a surer time.

Dr. Huggins was like that. A 1937 graduate of Andes Central School, a Cornell trained physician, Dr. C. Ray Huggins practiced medicine in Margaretville from 1947 to 1972. Such is his legacy, that the new hospital’s first Medical Arts building – office space for physicians and dentists – is named for him: The Huggins Building.

At the old Margaretville Hospital, Dr. Huggins delivered over 3,500 babies. Baby-boomers born in these parts, are likely to have been Huggins-delivered. The last infant he ushered into the world is now the general manager of the Margaretville Telephone Company! An earlier one edits the Catskill Mountain News.

The old hospital was a wood-frame structure located at the end of Academy Street, across from where the school bus garage now stands. Margaretville Hospital grew out of the big house where, in 1931, Dr. Gordon Bostwick Maurer began accepting overnight patients.

First in his class in both engineering and medicine, the Yale-trained Dr. Maurer founded the hospital, and brought it into its seventh year. He was a prodigy of service, but his untimely death in 1938 left to others, the job of raising the hospital to full adulthood.

Three of those others were quietly celebrated when, in January 1951, Margaretville Hospital marked its 20th anniversary. A full-page spread in the Catskill Mountain News praised the hospital, not only for “providing care and treatment for its patients,” but also as, “the community’s biggest enterprise.”

The photo in the upper left shows, in a glance, just why and how the hospital had become “big business,” and just who was responsible.

Captioned, “Medical staff,” the photo showed Dr. Gilbert M. Palen and Dr. C. Ray Huggins in surgical-whites, bent over a patient on the operating table. The caption notes that Dr. C.K. Ives, the anesthetist, is not in the photo.
Three doctors, all with local roots.

Dr. Gil Palen was the surgeon. Born of a prominent Philadelphia family, Gil Palen spent summers in Roxbury. After Hamilton College, med school at Duke, and a surgical residence at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. Palen chose to settle in Margaretville, where he established a busy surgical practice.

Dr. Charlie Ives grew up in Roxbury, the son of a prominent attorney who was also an amateur archeologist. Dr. Ives’ expertise in anesthesia allowed sophisticated surgery at Margaretville Hospital throughout the post-war period.

Dr. Huggins was the physician. He delivered babies, diagnosed and treated illness, assisted in surgery, tended to the sick. Of course, all three doctors saw patients as general practitioners.
General practitioners of country medicine didn’t always get paid. A year or two ago, Dr. Huggins described for me, in a letter written in a strong and distinguished hand, how he and Gil Palen, partners in medical practice, met one Sunday, built a fire in the fireplace, mixed a pitcher of martini’s, and proceeded to burn $100,000 or so of bills that their patients simply weren’t going to be able to pay.

Ray Huggins moved to Andes when he was 11 years old, at the height of the Great Depression. Teachers at Andes Central piqued his interest in science and Ray went off to study at Cornell. He graduated in ’41, stayed right there at Cornell Medical, attaining his M.D. in 1943.

Dr. Huggins did his post-graduate training at the University of Chicago clinic, where he must have run into every kind of case and patient imaginable. Add that urban-clinic experience to growing up in Andes and what do you get? Maybe, a lifelong, bedside manner that elicited confidence and loyalty in patients over the long haul.

In 1944, Ray married Virginia Reynolds. They were married 64 years. Ginny died four years ago.
Of course, at the beginning of the marriage, a war was on, so 25-year-old Dr. Huggins served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps upon completion of his clinical training. He was discharged a Captain in 1946, came back home, and started the practice of medicine in Margaretville.
Here, Ray and Ginny raised their family: son, John, and daughter, Sally.
Gil Palen was eight years Ray’s senior, already established in town, but soon Palen and Huggins became a team, and the hospital was busy, thriving.

That 20th anniversary article points out that 1,700 in-patients received overnight care at the hospital in 1950. That’s an average of 141 patients in the hospital per month! Of those 1,700 admissions, 240 were for childbirth (20 per month – see why it’s called a baby boom?) and 700 were for surgery. Shake your head a minute just to clear it for this fact: in 1950, Margaretville Hospital averaged 58 surgeries per month.
Palen and Huggins and Ives.

When, in the early ’70s, Dr. Huggins retired from practice, he became director of the Health Center at SUNY Oswego. He then held a similar position at the University of Delaware, and established a home there. He and Ginny returned home, here, every year, spending summer weeks in their place on Perch Lake.

St. James Church was full the other day as a solemn high Mass and a fond and grateful community said thank-you and good-bye. It was fitting and proper that we did so.
billbirns@gmail