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Keizer’s first doctor turns 100

Of the Keizertimes

Dr. Vernon Casterline suspected he might make it to 100 years old.

“I had a second cousin who lived to 100 and two aunts who lived a little longer,” Casterline said. “I thought maybe I would, but it wasn’t something I was shooting for. Now, I’m getting cold feet.”

He attributes crossing the threshold to “moderation in all things,” but he suggests getting started pre-birth.

“Pick good ancestors,” he quipped.

Casterline will celebrate the centennial of his birth with friends and family at Avamere Court on Thursday, April 13, but those who have gotten to know him over the past 10 decades are invited to attend a birthday open house at Keizer Heritage Center on Saturday, April 15, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Casterline’s time in Keizer predates the city itself by more than three decades. He was the first doctor with an office in town and served as the team doctor to a generation of McNary High School athletes.

Dr. Vernon Casterline (front row, second from right) with his intern cohort at Portland’s St. Vincent Hospital in the late 1940s. (Submitted)

Casterline was born on his father’s homestead in eastern Montana, but ended up living with his grandmother in Minnesota after his mother died a year-and-a-half after his birth.

He never set out to become a doctor, but some old-fashioned grit and curiosity led him to his vocation.

“My family was all farmers. The homestead was thistles, grasshoppers and rocks. When I look back on it now, I didn’t realize it was happening,” he said.

Casterline departed Minnesota with a plan to finish high school back near his father’s home, but the nearest school was 35 miles away in Glasgow, Mont. It meant a long trek on a bus every day.

“I asked my teacher to keep a look out for a job that came with room and board and he called me one afternoon to say that a new hospital had been built in town. They needed someone to be in the building 24 hours a day because of the boilers or they couldn’t stay open,” Casterline said.

Casterline approached the administrators and soon enough he had an army cot in the basement with a wash basin filled from pitchers of water. Eventually, he became the day orderly.

It was in that capacity that Casterline followed a nurse to the X-ray room to take a picture of a patient in a cast. On her way back, Casterline stopped the nurse and asked if he could learn how to do that. He was told to go to the hospital administrator and find out if that was possible.

“I went to her office and she told me there was no shortcut to anything in this world worthwhile, and you have to go to school and get some more training in anatomy and chemistry,” Casterline said.

College was not something he’d ever considered, but another door opened about six months later. One of Casterline’s aunts married a man in Salem, Ore., and she invited him to come to live with her while he attended school at Willamette University. He took her up on the offer, arriving in Salem in January 1937, but had to borrow $5 to cover the registration fees.

“There were still tracks from streetcars in the roads, but I don’t remember seeing the streetcars still in operation,” Casterline said.

To make money for room and board, he decided to inquire about opportunities at the 12-bed Deaconess Hospital down the road from Willamette’s campus. Deaconess is now known as Salem Health.

He offered to become the first night orderly at Deaconess, but the administrator at the time, Frank Wedel, declined. Casterline persisted. He returned to the hospital once a week for a month until Wedel relented and gave him a job.

“I think he just wanted to put a stop to it, but it created a job for someone else after me,” Casterline said.

He was just finishing his course of study at Willamette in 1941 when the United States entered World War II. He enlisted and spent time in the medical corps. After finishing his stint with the Army, he qualified for the GI Bill and was able to complete his medical degree at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland, now known as Oregon Health and Sciences University.

It was while interning at St. Vincent Hospital that Casterline met his future wife, Jean Ryser, who was a surgical nurse.

In addition to her “bright raisin eyes,” Jean’s adeptness in the surgery room caught his notice. Casterline scrubbed in to observe an open-chest surgery one day while she was the nurse in the room and he enjoys telling the story to this day.

“The doctor had reached out his hand for a tool and Jean put it there, but he told her it was the wrong one. Jeannie stood firm though and held it there. The doctor looked again and realized it was the right one,” Casterline said.

The couple eventually married and had five kids together. Jean served as the office nurse when Casterline opened his first office in Keizer on Sept. 8, 1950. He shared an office with dentist Jerry Bowerly and a building with pharmacist Earl Mootry.

An office visit was $4 or $5 dollars at the time, and there was something of an uproar when other local doctors started charging $7.50 for a new patient. House calls were between $5 and $7.

“You lived a lot on farm products,” Casterline said.

After he caught a 20.5-pound trout on his honeymoon with Jean, one of his patients stuffed and mounted it in return for delivering a baby.

“The hardest thing to do was send a bill. That was something they never taught us in school,” Casterline said.

Still, his practice grew rapidly. He earned enough in his first year to pay off all the debt on the equipment he purchased for his office. In 1956, when Mootry had a new pharmacy constructed nearby, Casterline moved to a new office in the rear of the building. Modern day Keizerites know the site as Boucher’s Jewelers and Willamette Valley Animal Hospital.

He said it was “great” being tapped as the team doctor for the Celtics, especially because he got to get into all of the games for free. Football and basketball were his favorite sports, but coach Vic Backlund turned him into a baseball fan. He still recalls vividly – as in he can name every team McNary beat – the Celtics’ path to the school’s first football state title in 1997. Two years ago, he was invited to cut the ribbon at a dedication of the turf football field at the school.

Casterline retired from his private practice on Sept. 8, 1986, but he was far from through. He spent the next 22 years as the medical director of a plasma center in Salem.

Throughout it all, Casterline’s youngest daughter, Debbi, recalls the ways her father chose to get involved in the community.

“He would do screenings for the Shriner’s or free physicals for kids at churches. I was always really proud of it,” Debbi said.

His advice for those who want to live to 100 – and even those who don’t – is to hold fast to the things that matter to you personally.

“If you want something, go for it. Don’t give up on the first try. If you want it and you’re qualified for it, work for it,” he said. “Being around hospitals was something that got into my blood. I liked those surroundings. When I wanted that job as an orderly, I just kept asking.”