Dr. Howard C. Toepfer delivered 5,000 babies in
Calhoun County, reaching out to hundreds of families
in need of medical care, he married his devoted wife ...
... Jean Mersch shortly after coming to the county
during the Great Depression in 1934, the family accepted
hams, chickens and produce for the good doctor's services
(Photos courtesy of Von Yoak)
By Bob Weaver 2006
He was "Doc" to most Calhoun citizens, coming to the county to practice medicine in 1934 during the Great Depression, widely remembered for his dedication and character - a real gentleman.
It was not the best of times to launch a career and start a family.
It is an amazing story.
For 33 years Dr. Howard C. Toepher made thousands of around-the-clock house calls over mostly unimproved roads, traveling long distances into the deepest hollows.
He delivered about 5,000 babies, carrying a birthing table in his car.
When Doc quit practicing medicine, Calhoun citizens owed him $100,000 in 1934-1967 dollars, well over one million dollars in today's market. "He took hams, chickens, hog meat and produce for his bill," said son Chuck, or "Whatever people would give him."
In 1979, Doc's longtime receptionist Emily Stump said "He gave away more care than he ever collected, more than any doctor who has ever been here (in Calhoun)," emphasizing he was "a distinguished man who had a wonderful wife."
Chuck said his dad taught him about not being prejudiced, saying "He never looked down on the poorest of the poor, or for that matter, anyone at all."
He came to Grantsville after a schoolmate at his osteopathic college told him the rural county was in need of a physician. "Old Doc Riddle was having problems handling things," said Chuck. Doc opened his office upstairs in the Francis Hardware building (later Pursley's Furniture) and his family lived in the adjacent apartment.
After WWII, he built his own office building and apartment, still standing on Court Street in Grantsville.
In 1934, he married Iowa native Jean Mersch six months after coming to Grantsville, a short time later Charles and Emily were born..
THE TOEPFER CHILDREN - Son Charles (Chuck) Toepfer, 68,
resides in Pompano Beach, Florida, his sister Emily died in 1962 at age 20
(Photo courtesy of Eugene Shaffer)
Jean would faithfully get up in the middle of the night and make coffee before Doc left on a house-call, having a meal ready for him when he returned. Doc took the fenders off a Model A Ford so he could more easily put on chains, traveling to every nook and cranny of the county.
He died in 1976 at the age of 75, after getting a clean bill of health at the Mayo Clinic. He stopped his car for flashing lights at a railroad crossing. A runaway truck crashed into his vehicle, killing him and critically injuring his wife. She passed away in 1998 at the age of 90.
CHUCK AND EMILY
His son, Chuck, now 68, resides in Pompano Beach, Florida with his wife, Yvette. He has suffered debilitating injuries from a motorcycle accident in 1978. They have two sons, Jeff of Pompano Beach and Devon of Costa Rico. Chuck attended grade school in Calhoun, but went to Lindsley Military School in Wheeling, where he graduated in 1956, later attending college.
His sister Emily, a juvenile diabetic, was a bright and shining light in the community, having graduated from Calhoun County High School in 1959 at age 16. She immediately started college to obtain a degree in medical technology, passing away eight days shy of graduation in 1962 following surgery on an ulcerated bowel.
"Emily was a loving sister, who worshiped me," Chuck said, always fun, smart and never wanting her friends to know that she was a juvenile diabetic. "She didn't want to be different, or looked at as somebody who had a problem," he said.
In 1962, Doc donated $2,500 to launch the construction of Calhoun's only public swimming pool, a project supported by his daughter Emily. The pool was in operation until it was demolished in 2004, 42 years later. Now, the county is without a public pool.
LIFE IN SUNNY CAL
Chuck said his dad always loved beautiful automobiles, everything about them. He had one of the first Volkswagens in WV, on which he placed over sized tires to get over Calhoun's muddy roads.
In 1952 he bought a hard-topped Jaguar X-K roadster, after having a 1949 Town and Country Chrysler convertible, a vehicle he used for high school parades, transporting the queens and princesses. Later he went to Europe and imported a Mercedes convertible.
"My dad taught me to drive on Calhoun's back roads when I was really young, and I too got pretty car crazy," Chuck said, "Gas was 23 cents a gallon and it was a great deal, taking my girlfriend to John Cook's drive-in theater. I had a pretty simple but very happy childhood."
Chuck said he learned about guns and sport shooting from his dad, shooting them in the Calhoun hollows, mostly crows and groundhogs. Doc took the groundhogs to families who liked to cook them.
In Grantsville it was a big deal to go to the drug store and play the nickel pin-ball machine and have a milkshake, or go to the Kanawha Theater, he said.
Doc was quite a hunter, going to the mountains, usually Spruce Knob, with his friends John Cook and Dewey Howe. "Dad would come back with fish, turkey or bear meat," Chuck said, but he also hunted and fished through the western states, "Trout fishing was best in Wyoming."
"My family took us to the 48 states throughout our childhood," said Chuck, by the time he was 15, "They sent me to Lindsey Military School in Wheeling when I was 13, a little concerned I needed extra guidance."
A PHYSICIAN'S LIFE
Dr. Toepfer responded to the first school bus accident in the county in 1936, according to the Calhoun Chronicle. The small bus was driven by Johnny Snider, and carried 19 high school and grade school pupils. It upset on Town Hill in Grantsville. Dr. Toepfer was called and went to the scene to tend the injured.
Chuck Toepfer recalls eating dinner in their apartment overlooking Court street. "A car pulled up, with the driver yelling "Doc! Doc! Help! Help," he recalled. The man's son had been badly burned when a gasoline motor blew up, and Doc provided emergency care and sent him to St. Joseph's Hospital in Parkersburg.
Chuck recalled how badly his dad took the death of an infant who died with its umbilical cord strangulating it. "My mother looked into my dad's eyes and knew something terrible had happened," causing him to be depressed and non-verbal for a month.
Chuck said his dad's method of discipline took "only a look."
"My mother was a Catholic, a fact she kept quiet in Calhoun, and dad was a Presbyterian, attending church in Glenville," although we went to a local church in Grantsville.
Jean Mersch Toepfer grew up on an Iowa farm, her dad a German immigrant and plasterer and her mother was a nanny for a wealthy local family.
"She was a mild-mannered school teacher who wanted us to speak English well," said Chuck,
Doc sprung from Tarentum Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, were his father, Robert J. Toepfer (1869-1944), was a well-known civic leader, banker and businessman, operating Toepher's Feed and Grain store. He was inducted into the Allegheny Valley Civic Hall of Fame in 1985, and served in the Pennsylvania state legislature.
He and his wife, Anna, raised four children, Robert, Grace, Nora and Howard, the doctor.
"Calhoun was really good to our family," son Chuck concluded.
"After retiring, my parents fondly recalled memories of their Calhoun life," a time and place that would be difficult for most people to understand today.
NOTE: Dr. Toepher's son Charles died about three years after this article was first published.