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Transportation 20

       


Alan Douglas Rich

February 28, 1945 ~ January 21, 2019 (age 73)

Dr. Alan Rich  1945 - 2019

Dr. Alan Rich, as most of you surely know, was a plainspoken man, whether it be as a physician or friend. In
keeping with that, his motto of hoping to do more good
than harm was simple and straight forward. It is a mark of
a life well lived, that Alan Rich lived up to that motto
every day he spent in Thompson from when he first
arrived back in the Hub of the North to practice medicine
here in September 1972.

I say back, because Alan had spent several summers here before that working
underground for INCO to pay his way through medical school. He graduated from
the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine, established first as the
School of Medical Sciences in 1926, and later as the College of Medicine in 1953,
in Saskatoon, as a Doctor of Medicine on May 13, 1971.

Prior to that, he had earned two undergraduate degrees at the school: a
Baccalaureate in Liberal Arts in 1967 and a Bachelor of Science in 1969. He started
practicing medicine in Thompson the following year, after completing his
residency internship at Queen Elizabeth Hospital of Montreal in June 1972. Even
during that brief stay in Montreal, young Dr. Rich made a Thompson connection.
"I met Dr. Rich in Montreal before he finished his training and went back to
Thompson,” Sharon Piett recalled. “I came to emergency with a broken foot and
no money. He was on duty. The hospital told me that they would not accept my
Manitoba medical as payment because Manitoba didn't pay their bills. Dr. Rich
said that he would put the cast on my foot and pay for it himself if he had to. He
said that working at INCO for my dad, George Piett, in Thompson had made it
possible for him to be a doctor. He was a great compassionate person."

This is the kind of doctor Alan Rich would be for more than four decades to come,
making him along the way the longest-serving and most beloved doctor in the
history of Thompson. Dr. Rich arrived in Thompson slightly more than two years
before Dr. Blain Johnston, a member of city council, died suddenly on Dec. 3,
1974. Blain Johnston was not the first physician to ever work in Thompson, as is
sometimes mistakenly thought to be the case, but he was most certainly the
premier pioneer founder of the local medical community with his selection by
INCO in May 1957 for the permanent position of medical officer for Thompson.

“There wasn’t much of an overlap between them, sadly,” Tim Johnston, one of
Blain’s sons, and a former Thompson mayor, recalls of the time between 1972
and 1974 when both Dr. Johnston and Dr. Rich practiced in Thompson.

However, Dr. Rich would remain lifelong friends with the Johnston family,
particularly his mother, Joan, a nurse, and himself. As a young boy, Tim recalls
many a Sunday supper with Dr. Rich at the table. Many years later, as a father,
Tim recalls Dr. Rich would ask after his own son and how he was doing in medical
school in his training to become a doctor. Dr. Rich rented office space for his
medical practice from Tim’s family in what had been his father’s office in the
Professional Building, a doctor-owned and built clinic in the 1960s, until last
November, when at the age of 73, and living in Swan River these last few years,
he finally hung up his shingle there. Ponder that for a moment.

In the hundreds and hundreds of tributes that have poured in from former
patients of Doc Rich, as many called him, since he died in Swan River last Monday,
with a little paraphrasing they can be boiled down to this: Alan Rich was the most
unorthodox doctor they ever met. And the most loyal to his patients. If they
missed an office appointment, he was very likely to show up at their house later
the same evening, roaring up their driveway on his motorcycle, clad in leather
jacket, boots and jeans, to check up on them. And maybe (unofficially, of course),
to tend to a family pet, too, while he was there. These stories are legion. “He
loved pies and that was the payment he demanded when helping with sick pets,
after hours, which he did often,” recalls one Thompson pioneer.

“When I moved to Thompson in 1980, I experienced an issue with one of my
eyes,” recalls Dan McSweeney, who retired in June 2007 as superintendent of
public and government affairs for INCO and, finally Vale, after 27 years with the
two mining companies. McSweeney, a Halifax native, had first worked as a
reporter at the old Halifax Herald, then got a taste of public relations work at
Canadian National Railway in Moncton, before coming to Thompson in 1980 to
work for INCO. “Dr. Rich attended to my problem with care; compassion and a
genuine curiosity about this new arrival to the North from the east coast. A month
later when my family arrived, my wife Sandra was somewhat taken aback when
this leather-jacketed fellow pulled into our driveway on his big motorcycle. “It
was of course Dr. Rich – checking up on me to make sure the issue had been
resolved. We all have only so much time on this earth. Some people make the
absolute most of it by helping others and serving their community. That to me is
the story of Dr. Al Rich. He will be missed; but he will never be forgotten.”

“One of the hardest working men that Thompson has ever seen,” is how longtime Thompson resident Leona Mayer describes Dr. Rich. “He would go down into
the mine when no one else would. He would tend the sick and injured wherever
they were: in the hospital or in the cells. Controversial? Yes but not afraid to stick
to his guns if he felt there was a wrong to be righted.”

Yes, indeed. Sent packing from Thompson General Hospital into retirement in
2011 after a high-profile dispute with two other doctors on the old Burntwood
Regional Health Authority medical staff, just three years later he was presented
with an infrequently bestowed Key to the City of Thompson in recognition and
honour of his long commitment and dedication to the people of Thompson and
neighbouring Northern Manitobans. The presentation was made by then Mayor
Tim Johnston, and then Coun. Stella Locker, a registered nurse, who was council’s
longest-serving member at the time. Dr. Rich had moved to Swan River a number
of years ago after the BRHA controversy, where Prairie Mountain Health happily
granted him hospital privileges at Swan River Valley Hospital, but he also
continued to see patients here also in his office in the Professional Building.

On April 9, 2013, he was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee
Medal, created to mark the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession to the
throne, by then Swan River Mayor Glen McKenzie. “It was a surprise,” Twyla
Machan, editor of the local Swan Valley Star & Times, quoted Dr. Rich as saying in
receiving the award. “In Thompson, I was on the wrong side of political decisions,
but I am a doctor with no limitations.” Discussing his move to Swan River where
he set up a practice, Rich told the Star & Times he was enjoying it there. “It’s a lot
of fun. This is a very good place. I retired here, and I will spend the rest of my days
here I think.”

One of his Swan River patients recalled a few days ago: “I was one of Dr. Rich’s
many patients here in the Swan Valley area, and I always appreciated his honest,
straight forward, no BS approach to medical care. One late afternoon, I managed
to sneak in the door of his office, and was surprised to get an appointment to see
him right then. I asked Dr. Rich what time he finished up in the evening. His
response was, “When I’ve seen the last patient of the day.” Simple as that.”

Over the course of his long medical career, Rich worked as a general practitioner,
worked in CancerCare, was an anesthetist, oversaw dialysis, and worked as a
medical examiner. He served as team physician for the Thompson Hawks, a senior
amateur men’s hockey team. Their best season was in 1974-75 when they won
the Edmonton Journal Trophy (Western Canada Intermediate Championship) but
lost in the Hardy Cup Championship (Canadian Intermediate A Championship)
that season to the Moncton Bears, the Eastern Canada champion

Wayne Morrissey recalls that “I worked in the Thompson Fire and Emergency
Services for 18 years. I remember on more than one occasion when we were in a
tough situation either on the highway or at a fire scene when Doctor Rich was an
invaluable asset to us to provide on scene care for accident or fire victims. I
remember one incident in particular when we were dealing with an accident
victim in a muddy ditch out on the highway when Doc Rich showed up, grabbed
the person in his arms and ran for the ambulance losing both of his boots in the
mud without slowing down.

“On a personal note my wife had an appointment to see him in the clinic but due
to doc’s overbooking we couldn’t wait to see him. Our doorbell rang at about 11
p.m. that night and there was Doc Rich there to examine her.”

“As far as doctors were concerned,” says Ron Strnadka, “his old ford truck had ‘A
Rich Thompson Man.’ on the door I always thought that was definitely what doc
was about not money but rich in every way.”

Outside of medicine, Dr. Rich’s two best known hobbies were being an avid
motorcycle rider and old truck and car restoring enthusiast, and a judo sensei.
While many of his judo students can attest to his skills, which were in the mid1970s very close to Olympic calibre. His 80-year-old friend, and another mentor,

Dr. Arthur Iverson, from Central Butte Saskatchewan, recalls that he and his wife,
Grace, studied judo with Al for a time, and after greeting them some years later,
when she extended her hand for a handshake, he reached out, and “flipped her
on her back.” Perhaps only Al Rich could do something like that and remain
friends with both of them, who recalled the incident Friday with great warmth
and humour.

Dr. Iverson says he was a bit older than most of his classmates in university
because he had spent some years prior to that as a rural school teacher in
Saskatchewan. “I met Al in 1966 at the University of Saskatchewan when we were
starting out,” Dr. Iverson recalls. “

Majoring in physics? Yes, indeed.

While he would wind up becoming a doctor of medicine, young Al Rich had a
passion for the hard sciences. He also loved physics and geology, and had things
been different in the Alberta oil patch of the early 1970s, he may well have
wound up as an oil geologist farther west out instead of a medical doctor here.
While he may have been a medical doctor more by default than original choice,
Alan Rich’s work ethic meant he gave it 110 per cent all the time. Geologist,
medical doctor, plumber, carpenter, farmer. It wouldn’t have mattered. The work
ethic was the same, seemingly embedded in the man’s DNA.

One of Dr. Rich’s early mentors and friends in Thompson was INCO geologist Carl
Goddard, who was about 20 years older than him. Born in Montreal, Goddard
attended McGill University where he received an undergraduate degree in
geology. He started his career with INCO in Sudbury, and in 1958, Carl moved his
wife and young family to Thompson, as one of the pioneer families. As well as
serving on the Thompson General Hospital Board, Carl Goddard was also elected
to serve as a school board trustee , as well as being active in St. John’s United
Church.

The two men shared a love of geology and everything connected with trains,
among other things, and as chair of the Thompson General Hospital Board, Carl
Goddard kept Dr. Rich out of trouble more than a few times, Al later recalled. It
was also Carl Goddard, who lived down the street from the Johnston family, and
who wrote and delivered the eulogy at Dr. Blain Johnston’s funeral in December
1974.

"I was one of Big Al’s lab partners in medical school; he was unique and smart,”
recalls Dr. Alex Rezansoff. “He came from a very poor family but had strong
values. U of Saskatchewan medical school made the right decision to allow him to
become a doctor; clearly, the people of Thompson benefited greatly from his
dedication to medicine. A most amazing classmate.”

Dr. Rezansoff added: “A friend of mine told me that had it not been for Dr. Rich,
he would not have passed his calculus exam as Dr. Rich helped him throughout
that class.

“While taking his science degree, Dr. Rich worked in the food services cleaning
dishes and floors to make ends meet. He truly was a remarkable person. He
always made an effort to come to our medical school reunion every five years; it
was always a delight to see him again as we all paid respect to our university
medical school” in Saskatoon.

While motorcycles, old cars and trucks and judo were all passions with Dr. Rich,
less well known is that he was an avid conservationist, buying parcels of land
across the country in his own very personal contribution to preserving wildlife and
wildlife habitat.

Born in Brighton, an English seaside resort town about an hour south of London
by train, Alan Rich was born on Feb. 28, 1945 in the closing months of the Second
World War, his mother a war bride.

He grew up in rural Saskatchewan, in Stoughton, a small community southeast of
Regina, and also near Yellow Grass and Creelman.

“When I was a little girl,” Sylvia Herriman recalls, in 1964, “Alan as I knew him,
worked for my mom and dad on the farm at Creelman, Saskatchewan … The one
thing I remember about Alan was his big hands and a big appetite. My mom loved
to cook for him and she could put on a spread." He was 19.

Trent Kolbe, a nephew of Alan's in Saskatoon, remembers going to the Rich family
home in Stoughton as a boy. His mother, Judy Kolbe, was the youngest of Alan's
five siblings (three boys and three girls in total in the family). Both of Trent's
parents were tragically killed in a drunk driving accident in 1975 when he was only
six. “Both of my parents were married by 16 and died at 25.” Trent said he grew
up after the accident with his paternal grandparents, and Alan "was the only
relative from my mom's side who stayed in touch with me." He said Alan
"mentioned one time that he was also a pilot."

“Alan would just show up unannounced, only every several years, recalls Trent.
“In the early years he was always on a Harley dressed in full leather, later on [it]
was in his old truck, often passing through regarding something to do with an old
car.

“All of my life I heard these stories about him … from time to time I would
overhear random strangers talking about this doctor from Thompson, if I
enquired they would always say, ‘Oh yes, Doc Rich.’ Sometimes they would say,
“He delivered my son or daughter; saved my mom”; how he had no patience for
self-infliction or stupidity (e.g. being busted up from a bar fight), how he used to
always buy two sets of boots at a time because one foot was a different size as a
result of a bike crash somewhere along the way. The encounters and stories were
so random and almost hyperbolic, I'm sure my wife thought I was always making
that stuff up. In person he seemed to humbly confirm them.”

John Barker
Thompson, Manitoba
Jan. 28, 2019

In lieu of flowers, if friends so desire, donations may be made in Alan's memory to Make-A-Wish Foundation, 520-4211 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, M2P 2A9 or at https://makeawish.ca/waystogive

Or to Childrens Hospital Foundation of Manitoba, CE 501, 840 Sherbrook Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3A 1S1
or at https://goodbear.ca/why-give/

 

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