Tuesday was Dr. Albe Watkins Sr. Day in La Canada Flintridge, in spite of the curmudgeon doctor’s determined wish to squelch it.
Watkins, who is also called Dr. Albe by friends, has been practicing family medicine at Verdugo Hills Hospital since 1949 and is its oldest physician.
Watkins’ age was not widely known around the shop, however. Jane Woolley, an anesthesiologist who has worked with him 30 years, only learned in April, four months after his birthday, that Watkins was 80.
Ever since, she has been trying to lure, pester or cajole him into a celebration.
“What I wanted to do was call it Albe Watkins Day and invite all his patients,” Woolley said. “He said, ‘I won’t have any part in it.’ ”
Watkins is more than just modest. The Missouri native, in his own view of himself, is shy, self-doubting and one-dimensional.
“The more people know about me--see me--they might find something wrong about me,” he said. “I don’t like too much exposure. I’m the type that would rather get off in a corner.”
All he really likes to do is practice medicine.
He has been doing that these past 50 years with a single-minded drive that must have been rare even when he began in 1936 with the U. S. Public Health Service in Chicago.
Watkins joined the Coast Guard in 1941 and was stationed in San Francisco as a medical officer. After his release in 1944, Watkins followed an old friend from his marble-shooting days in Missouri to the foothill community. The friend told him the climate would ease his asthma.
The advice was sound. Watkins’ condition improved so much that he was able to work almost without respite right up to today.
He worked in his clinic seven days a week and made calls at night.
His wife, Geraldine, minded the house in an expensive neighborhood of La Canada Flintridge and raised the four kids in an emotionally frugal setting.
“I’ve never gone on a vacation that I didn’t have a medical meeting at the other end,” Watkins said.
The children never heard their father complain about rising in the middle of the night to go on call.
“I think that he enjoyed medicine so much that the opinion, or the feeling, I got from him was, that’s the only thing to do, the only profession,” his son Leland said.
The feeling reached all three of the boys.
Eldest son, Gregg, is a pharmacist. The next, Albe Jr., is a pediatrician practicing in Glendale. The youngest, Leland became a family practitioner, like his father and, before long, with him.
Watkins, it is rumored, was disappointed that his young partner balked at working with him seven days a week and holidays. But they worked out a compromise.
“We split the weekends, split holidays,” Leland said. “I come in on Saturdays, 9 to 12. My wife comes in. She’s the nurse and receptionist. On Sunday he’ll come in.”
The father’s day off is now Thursday. He uses it for personal business. Because he doesn’t play golf or tennis, he’s also likely to drop by the office or the hospital, Leland said.
Watkins’ approach to life is simple:
“I worked, I think, ever since I was 6 years old,” he said. “I’m not particularly proud of it, and I’m not ashamed of it. I just did that. I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t working. I really don’t consider it work.”
All of this self-examination, of course, was stirred up by the party which did come off, at last, Tuesday afternoon. It took all the hospital’s family practitioners working together to construct a convincing ruse.
It was a meeting of the the family practice staff, a monthly affair.
This month’s meeting was so boring that the doctors began to leave before it was over.
Actually, they were slipping off to an adjoining room where balloons, a cake, dozens of Watkins’ friends, several reporters and a video camera awaited.
The key was to be Leland Watkins.
As a fellow practitioner, Leland had a legitimate reason to be at the meeting. He was supposed to find a pretext to lead his father into the room. Naturally, it didn’t work.
Hospital administrator Ron Davies strolled by in time to make a rescue.
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he said a few minutes later, recounting the incident as he presented Watkins to the crowd, “Leland has been trying to lead you for years, and that just absolutely does not work.”
As the short and sprightly doctor, in an olive polyester suit, stood by restlessly, Davies offered a touching detail about his life.
“I don’t know how many times he and his wife have been coming here for dinner,” he said. “How often do you do that?”
“About four nights a week,” Watkins said.
“Neither one of them have to cook that way, and he doesn’t have to do the dishes, either,” Davies said.
After that, La Canada Flintridge Mayor Edmund Krause read a proclamation, Geraldine Watkins cut cake for all, and Watkins’ friends talked for a while.
Then it was time to get back to work.
Before he left, Watkins answered one more question about himself.
He has no plan to retire.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t working,” he said.