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Clyde Beal: Childhood fascination becomes life's passion

May. 25, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

By the time Walter Yates was 6 years old, he had already assembled his own doctor kit that he carried around in an old taped-up cigar box. By the time he reached the sixth grade, he had started working a part-time position at a local drug store. He also loved listening to the Metropolitan Opera with his father. In fact, he still remembers the first time he heard the opera from "Hansel and Gretel" on the family radio in 1930 on Christmas Day.

"My childhood was a most delightful time of my life," said Yates. "My mother tried to make a gentleman of me while my father developed my love of opera. Dad played several musical instruments including the flute, piccolo, trumpet and violin. When he was 35, he decided to start taking piano lessons at Marshall College. He became pretty good at it, too."

Yates was born in Huntington at the old Guthrie Hospital on 6th Avenue in 1923. He grew up on Poplar Street in Kenova where his father was a pharmacist who operated the Yates Drugstore in Kenova.

"The drug store really was a family operation," said Yates. "Mom would do the books, inventory and ordering of certain merchandise and supplies while dad filled prescriptions. I would empty the trash, clean windows and sweep the floor. Eventually I was promoted to soda jerk at the fountain -- a job that was full of tasty perks. I enjoyed working behind that soda fountain almost as much as sliding down the high water slide at Dreamland Pool."

Walter's father always assumed his son would follow in his footsteps and eventually become a pharmacist at the family drug store just like his father had done. But it was the comforts of an old winter gas stove that started his son thinking about pursuing a much different occupation.

"The drug store had a centrally located gas heater that was sort of a gathering place for customers during the cold weather," said Yates. "When doctors came in for medical supplies, they would often sit around that stove and talk about the health benefits of this drug or a particular medicine they prescribed. I would hear them speak about how they cured a patient or helped a child get better. All this made me think that becoming a doctor had more job satisfaction than becoming a pharmacist. I also wanted no part of the long hours that my dad worked at the drug store every week."

Yates spoke of the adventures he enjoyed flying with his father during the barnstorming days when aviation was still in its infancy. He recalled how his father would buy and sell used airplanes from a trader publication called "Trade a Plane."

"His first aircraft was an old single-engine Luscombe that he bought around 1939," said Yates. "He would trade for another plane whenever he thought he was getting a good deal. I flew with dad for a while, and then just decided to get my own license."

So while still attending high school, Yates earned his private flying license. Up to that point of his young career, that was the most demanding accomplishment of his life. But he hadn't entered medical school yet.

In 1947, Yates graduated from the Medical College of Richmond, Va. He spoke about the difficult times when he felt so overwhelmed with long hours and constant exams. He also remembers the great feeling of satisfaction in hanging his medical degree next to his Marshall diploma. The two years he spent in the United States Navy greatly helped in reducing the cost of his education.

After serving his internship, Yates entered residency training at St. Mary's Medical Center (then hospital). His concerns about the military soon proved to be correct. In 1950, with the advent of the Korean War, he was called to active duty. Yates entered the United States Air Force, was commissioned as a first lieutenant and sent to Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio. It was during his assignment at Randolph AFB that Yates was introduced to a virtually unknown form of treatment called nuclear medicine.

"The Air Force sent me and seven other doctors to a medical facility in Oakridge, Tenn., to learn the fundamentals of nuclear medicine," said Yates. "For the next four months we became involved with the benefits and effects of this new medicine. We conducted laboratory experiments which laid the groundwork for the use of nuclear medicine in today's operating rooms."

The education obtained by Yates was most beneficial in helping him to establish a radio isotope laboratory at St. Mary's.

After his military days were complete, Yates finally returned to his downtown practice at 1139 4th Ave. It was during that time that Yates received a one-year fellowship from Massachusetts General, with the support of Harvard Medical School. It was an invitation to study cardiovascular diseases. Yates said he was extremely proud to be selected.

During those early days of medical practice, one of Yates' patients was a well-known figure in the Huntington area.

"Many people don't know it, but Cam Henderson was a diabetic. I had the greatest respect for his work ethics, both on and off the basketball court. He also had a very interesting sense of humor. I believe many misunderstood him to have other social problems because he didn't always take the medication he needed to control his diabetes. This affected the public image he portrayed to those around him."

Yates spent the last 10 years of his practice with Huntington Internal Medicine Group when they were located along 20th Street.

In 1995 at 72 years of age, Yates retired from the practice of medicine. For a while, he traveled with his wife Betty Jo. At 89, he still walks around the neighborhood and dabbles with an old photography hobby of his.

When asked about any advice he might give an aspiring doctor, he smiled and gave this bit of information: "Be absolutely sure, know that the road is long and full of doubt at times. If you are not prepared to give it everything, every day, find another profession."

He also feels that many people pay a lot of attention to things that are a waste of time. He feels a great deal of uncertainty for the future of our world.

"I would like to believe that I made a small difference in the world we occupy," said Yates. "I hope I have helped a few people along my way. I've had my failures. I believe every physician strives to get better. We are never as good as we would like to be."

It's been many years now since Yates handled the controls of dad's old airplane. It seems even longer since he was paid with a homemade chocolate cake or a fresh apple pie as payment for a house call. And it's been a lifetime ago since he made that very first house call in the neighborhood with his homemade doctor kit in that old cigar box. But he remembers it all like it was only yesterday.

Clyde Beal is an area freelance writer looking to hear from anyone who witnessed the Tipton Movie fire in October of 1950. Write him at archie350@frontier.com.