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Keizer’s first doctor

I’m very happy with the way my life has turned out,” says Dr. Vernon D. Casterline. And should be. His life story reads like a Horatio Alger tale, but it is true.

Keizer’s first doctor was born on his father’s homestead at Vida, Montana, in 1917. Widowed early, his grandmother Casterline had taken her six young sons to northeast Montana to homestead “to give them something to do” as she puts it.

When he was about a year-and-a half old, his parents, his sister, Lois, and his older brother Garold, rode the cattle train back to the Twin Cities to visit their maternal grandmother in Clinton, Minnesota. While there, his mother contracted the flu that killed so many Americans after World War I, and died in January 1919.

It was decided that his father would take five-year-old Garold back to Montana, but Grandma Heacock, who also had been widowed and had to raise ten children by herself, would take three-year-old Lois and baby Vernon.

Later Vernon and Lois attend a one-room school near Clinton, and took the rest of their elementary schooling at Ortonville before returning to Clinton.

After completing three years at Clinton High, Vernon decided to join his brother in Glasgow, Montana, where Garold was working on the Fort Peck dam while taking his last year of high school.

Vernon’s current events teacher helped him to get a job tending boilers at night in the newly constructed hospital in Glasgow to make expenses. He progressed to janitorial duties and then to orderly work. He wanted to help do the X-rays, but the administrator sternly pointed out to him that for some lines of work there were no short cuts. She advised him to get some college training.

His work at the hospital made him very interested in a career in medicine. He worked for another year and a half and saved up enough money for one semester’s tuition at Willamette University in Salem.

He chose Willamette because there was a pre-med course there and he had two aunts living in the Salem area. Aunt Pearl Hummel was in the Hollywood district where her husband was a building contractor. Aunt Nora and Uncle Ben Brown were caretakers of the Gideon Stolz-McNary estate, a portion of which is now the McNary golf course.

While a student at Willamette Vernon worked as an orderly at Deaconess Hospital (now Memorial) for board and room.

In 1942 Vernon enlisted and served in the Army for four years. He was very resentful of the interruption in his education, but the service had its compensations.

It enabled him to go to medical school on the G.I. Bill. He received his degree from the University of Oregon School of Medicine in 1948. Then followed two years of internship at St. Vincent and Providence hospitals in Portland. It was at St.Vincent that Vernon met Jean Ryser, now Mrs. Casterline, where she was a surgical nurse.

Vernon’s aunts and Dorothy Lamer, Darthee Teeter, and Alice Anderson, who with their husbands owned small businesses in the little Keizer community, were very persistent in their efforts to get him to set up a practice in Keizer. They pointed out that the community had grown to almost 10,000, but people had to drive into Salem for medical care.

They prevailed. In 1950 young Dr. Casterline moved into the new professional building constructed by Ed Anderson. He shared the north half with Dr. Gerald Bowerly, the new dentist. Walt Kechter managed Mootry’s Keizer Pharmacy in the south half. Behind the professional building, cows grazed.

When Doctor set up his office Keizer looked very rural with many prune and cherry orchards and berry fields along its main street. River Road was paved, but it was a very narrow two-land street. However the “downtown Keizer” was beginning to develop along the road and Vernon liked the friendly, small -town atmosphere.

During his first year the new doctor spent about $8,000 for equipment and furnishings. For comparison, bread cost 15 cents a loaf, a good pair of shoes, $15; and for $7500 you could buy a three-bedroom house.

The going rate for the delivery of a baby was $35 (“If I got paid,” interjects the doctor.) This included weekly checks of the prospective mother, delivery, weekly checks for the baby and the mother’s six week exam.

At the hospital the mother was charged $8 a day for a private room or $4 for a bed in a 4-bed ward/ There was no charge for the baby, although the usual length of stay for both was ten days.

Jean was her husband’s first office nurse. Then Doryls “Skip” Libby was hired a nurse, receptionist, and bookkeeper. His practice grew slowly, but faster than he had anticipated.

Doctor had quite a few rural patients and every now and then he was paid in farm products. Probably the most interesting payment he received for the delivery of a baby was the stuffing and mounting of a 21-1/2 pound Kamloops trout which he had caught in Lake Pend Oreille during his honeymoon.

Doug Watters, the first baby he delivered, went on to play basketball for North Salem High and was instrumental in upsetting McNary High is state competition. He recalls with pride the one-year-old baby on whom he correctly diagnosed appendicitis and helped Dr. Upjohn perform an appendectomy. The patient is now a big, healthy adult.

Farmers, particularly Fred Viesko, would bring in their seasonal workers for medical attention. As the same ones generally came back to Vieskos every year, Doctor got to know them and was able to provide some sort of continuity to their medical care.

in 1952 Vernon and Jean were married. During their first year they continued to live in his apartment in Hollywood. Then the Hummel Construction Co. built them a house on Sunset Ave. They moved into it when little Dale was six months old. At that time there was a large horse pasture north of the house.

When traffic became heavy on Sunset and the Casterlines lost a pet dog to a car, they bought their current home on McNary Heights. It has been built for the Dean Schackmans by Will Sparrow, who developed Main and Linda Streets.

The Casterlines didn’t move into their new house immediately. However, there was a bad freeze that winter and the furnace stopped running. When they discovered that the house was ice cold, a repairman was called . In a short time he had corrected the problem and soon the house was worm and cozy – and every pipe in the house burst, flooding the entire house and putting 8″ of water into the lower level, again snuffing out the furnace.

When they did move in, the family enjoyed the new location. It was open and it was quiet. The boys hunted for nutria. The children brought home ducks from the McNary pond. Mark came home one day with two little opossums clinging to a branch an the children raised them as pets.

The children are now grown. Vernon Dale is a dermatologist in Wisconsin, but planning to return to the Willamette Valley to practice. Patty is a Licensed Practical Nurse working in foster care. Mark runs an alfalfa farm in Ontario. Cameroon Scott is an electrical engineer in Portland; and the youngest, Debbie, is in her last year at Oregon State, studying fashion merchandising.

Dr. Casterline has earned a number of awards, both professionally and for his community work. In 1982 he was selected Keizer’s First Citizen. His community contributions include serving as McNary High School’s first and only team physician. He is a charter member of the Keizer Lions club and was its first president in 1950. He is also a charter member of the Keizer Rotary Club, and served for several years on the school health committee through the Marion-Polk County Medical Society.

In 1976 Dr. Casterline received the annual Physicians Recognition Award. This honor has meant the most to him because it was bestowed upon him by his peers in the Marion-Polk County Medical Society.

In 1963 he was president of the Salem Memorial Hospital Medical staff. In the same year he was alternate delegate from Oregon to the American Academy of General Practice national meeting in Chicago.

Doctor is charter member and past president of the Oregon Medical Directors Assoc.., a group bound together for the betterment of patient care in nursing homes.

In 1954 he joined the American Academy of General Practice, which in turn, afforded membership in local and state chapters that organization. This was the very first professional organization that required of its membership a definite number of post-graduate study hours (50 hours very three years) to maintain membership. Nowadays almost all professional organizations of this description require post-graduate study.

Because of things which evolved through the ensuing 20 years, general practice was declared a specialty entitled “the family practice” so the organization changed its name in 1974 to The American Academy of Family Physicians. At that time Casterline became a Fellow of the AAFP in a colorful ceremony in Los Angeles.

Dr. Casterline is looking forward to retiring in a few months. On February 17 he was joined in his practice by Dr. Gregory Thomas, a classmate of his son Dale.

Keizer is coming to the end of an era. Of the four medical professionals who set up shop in the community of Keizer in the early 1950’s, Dr. Bowerly, dentist; and Dr. Davis, optometrist; have already retired. Soon only Walt Kechter, pharmacist, will be left – and he is giving retirement a lot of thought.

Published April 24,1986. Reprinted with permission of Ann Lossner from her book, “Looking Back – People and Places in the Early Keizer Area.” The book may be bought at the Keizer Heritage Museum, 980 Chemawa Road NE, Keizer.