By KATHLEEN SWANSON, Islander Contributor
In the early 1980s, Grand Isle was a county without a doctor.
“People would go to Milton, St. Albans or Burlington,” said Patsy Robinson of South Hero. “It was hard.”
That changed in 1982, when a soft spoken doctor, named Dave Hobbs - whose demeanor was more like the laid-back California surfer that he was - arrived in town with his wife, Gwen, four kids, with a fifth on the way.
Their route to Grand Isle County was circuitous and filled with adventures and journeys that most families never experience.
And for 30 years, from 1982 until he retired in 2012, Dr. Dave Hobbs served the community as its sole doctor; first in Grand Isle in the old Deo house on the corner of U.S. Route 2 and East Shore, and then in South Hero at his Keeler Bay Health Center.
The practice treated entire families, including multiple generations of Islanders. Like a bygone era of the small town doctor, he made house calls, sutured wounds, set bones, treated sick babies and octogenarians, alike.
He would meet patients any time at his office, often skiing there from his home across the bay, even when it only meant to reassure a worried mother that her 8 year old daughter’s stomach pains were probably more to do with a new baby in the house than an appendicitis.
Many folks thought he looked like a hippy, with his bushy, red beard. Rather than a white coat, he wore Hawaiian shirts, khaki pants with Birkenstocks or clogs. In colder months he might wear wool socks or a hand knitted sweater.
He was never late, although he didn’t wear a watch. He rarely drove to work, preferring to walk, ski, skate or ride his bike - even if it meant riding to Alburgh from South Hero in the winter for a clinic. He embraced acupuncture as a treatment beginning in the 1970’s while most Western medicine was still skeptical of it’s effectiveness.
Today people bandy about the word sustainable in almost a glib manner, but Dave has walked the walk. They grew their own food. He embraced foraging and eschewed the internal combustion engine. He is a man who has no attachment to material things.
“He has never wanted to need much,” said Linda Forrer (formerly Coffin), who worked as a nurse practitioner for Dave at the Keeler Bay Health Center from 1986 until 2012. “People in town would say, ‘he’s not a real doctor,’ because he didn’t look like a doctor in their eyes,” she said. Ironically, he dedicated himself to family medicine.”
Once people got to know him, the medical practice flourished. The Health Center had office hours six days a week and someone was on call 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week. It essentially served as a mini emergency room and a medical lifeline for Islanders.
“People were cautious at first, maybe because they thought he wouldn’t stay long, but Hank went to Dave right off,” said Patsy Robinson of her late husband, a lifelong dairy farmer whose family owned Islandacres Farm in the village of South Hero. “It was such a good thing for the community. And I just remember we had this new family in town. The kids were always happy and polite. How could we not accept them.”
The Hobbs arrived here in August 1982 after a Dave served more than 10 years in the U.S. Public Health Service, a stint that began in 1970 and brought the growing family to federally funded health clinics in Alaska, Washington State and Hawaii.
From the 49th State to the 50th State to the 14th State
The first posting was a clinic that served the Alaska’s indigenous Inuit people in a remote Alaskan island called Kotzebue, located above the arctic circle. Their first daughter, Caitlyn “Caitie”, was born there in 1971.
After a year there, they were sent to Nome, Alaska, where Dave worked at a hospital for 2 1/2 years before deciding to move the family to Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle to stay with his parents, while he worked at a clinic at an Indian reservation north of Seattle.
But rather than flying, Dave thought it would be an adventure to ride their bikes from Nome to Seattle - an ambitious goal considering they had a three year old and Gwen was pregnant.
So, with Dave on one bike with a child’s seat on the back for three-year-old Caitie; a pregnant Gwen on another bike and their dog (a half lab and half St. Bernard named Ukluk), walking behind they began their journey.
They had meager provisions, but Dave was into foraging, procuring food from the natural world as they camped along the way. Meanwhile, Gwen was suffering from morning sickness and Ukluk the dog’s feet started to hurt. At Cordova, Alaska, a nearly 700 mile distance as the crow flies from Nome, they called it quits and flew to Bainbridge.
After a year in Bainbridge they applied to a health clinic in Waianae, a working class town of native Hawaiians, Samoans and Tahitians, located on the western side of Oahu, Hawaii - the opposite side of the island from Honolulu.
Israel Kamakawiwole, the Hawaiian singer songwriter who recorded the sweet version of over the Rainbow, was a patient.
After seven years in Hawaii Gwen and Dave were contemplating their future there. By then they had four children: Caitie born in Kotzebue in 1971, Bronwyn “Minner”, born in Bainbridge, Washington in 1975, Cara and Tristan were both born in Oahu 1978 and 1980, respectively.
Quality of education was an issue, along with the fact that Caitie would need to travel to Honolulu for middle school. Dave and Gwen decided it was a good time to return to the mainland.
They looked into the recently created ‘Rural Health Network’, which placed doctors in rural, medically underserved areas.
Dave literally scanned a map of the United States and put his finger down on New England. His parents had roots in the Boston area, but other then that it was new territory. When he and Gwen looked more closely at the six New England states, Dave decided: “Vermont sounded good.”
They were offered three options in Vermont: Hardwick, Mad River and Grand Isle.
From the Hawaiian Islands to the Champlain Islands
Being close to water appealed to them. So they left the Hawaiian Islands for the Champlain Islands, and settled in South Hero.
Like all their assignments, it wasn’t easy. Gwen - who was expecting their youngest son - Sam, arrived alone with the kids, while Dave drove their circa 1965 blue gray Volkswagen bus, shipped from Hawaii to Los Angeles, across the country.
She arrived in August 1982 with the kids and lived in a variety of summer camps on Keeler Bay before settling in Winona Robinson’s house next door to the hardware store. In all they lived in six different houses in 18 months. Sam was born in April 1983.
The four older kids all spoke with a Hawaiian pidgin accent and they had no winter clothes.
They were able to buy a three-acre lakefront lot off Lombard Lane soon after, and knowing they needed to be out of Winona’s house by summer, built an octagon barn on the property with the help of a local volunteer barn raising crew. With a rudimentary kitchen, bathroom and laundry, the family of seven moved into the octagon in June 1983, while their house was being built next door.
The barn wasn’t insulated, but there was a small wood stove that Gwen constantly stoked to keep her newborn warm.
“I was so worried about the family,” said Patsy Robinson,“ that I remember bringing blankets and blankets and blankets to the barn. A lot of people donated winter clothes for the kids.”
They moved into their new home on December 15, 1983, despite the fact it was not completely finished and the budget was exhausted. It was better than a barn, and the cement floors were great for kids riding tricycles and skating around the house.
“We were incredibly fortunate to land where we did,” said Minner, who was seven when her family moved to South Hero. “I felt embraced by the community and I was very proud of my father because he loved serving people.”
Meanwhile, Dave was able to assemble his medical staff for his clinic. The core staff began with nurse Sandy Hodgson in 1983, and receptionist and bookkeeper Janet Horican in 1984. Later in 1986, Linda Forrer would join the practice as a nurse practitioner. The fourth silent partner in the medical practice was Dave’s wife, Gwen, who did all the paperwork and billing.
“Working with Dave was incredible,” said Sandy Hodgson, who began working with him at the Grand Isle office. “He is a walking encyclopedia. If he didn’t know the answer he knew where to find it. His life
experience gave him so much knowledge.”
Linda, herself with five children, was already a registered nurse and working part-time at the schools, and for another doctor, when she was offered a fellowship at the Brighams and Women’s hospital in Boston to become a nurse practitioner with a focus in pediatrics.
She graduated in May 1979 and was working for $7 an hour for a doctor, while continuing to work as a school nurse.
She remembers Dave calling her and saying he wanted to interview her for a job for his new South Hero clinic.
“Dave is very wise, quietly brilliant,” said Linda. “He is respectful of the patient and a good listener. He treats every person as an individual, almost as a friend.”
In her new job, Linda was able to work under Dave to learn suturing and gynecology, so that she could help provide women’s health services to the community. But more importantly, she said, it was the culture of the office - its holistic approach to the patient - that made it such a great place to work.
“There was such a need out here for women’s health and minor emergency services like stitches,” said Linda. Dave also used to perform vasectomies.
Linda and Dave developed a close professional relationship. If the doctor needed some medical attention, he would consult Linda.
“He would make an appointment to see me at the end of the shift if he had an issue,” she said.
Janet Horican was working in Burlington at the University Health Center and, because of the commute, her car had high mileage and she said she was facing the reality of buying a new car.
“There was an ad in The Islander for a secretary and receptionist for the medical clinic here,” Janet said. “I thought to myself, if I get this job I wouldn’t need a new car.”
But like all his staff, Janet said the job transcended just the tasks that needed to be performed. The atmosphere was so caring, almost family-like.
“He was great,” Janet said. “It was like a family there. He was so laid back, but so committed to the patients. He often stayed in the office until 7 or 9 taking patients.”
Janet, who retired to Florida in 2001, but continued to work summers for Dave in the clinic until 2005, still marvels at the care people received from Dave. Lisa Tourville took over the front desk position from Janet and still continues to work for Community Health Center, which took over Dave’s.
“I’ll tell you, medicine has come a long way, but patient care has gone to the devil,” Janet said. “There are no more Dr. Hobbs anymore.”
But the genesis of this story actually began in the spring of 1965 on the campus of Pomona College in Claremont, CA, when Dave, who grew up in Alhambra, just outside downtown Los Angeles, was a senior studying pre-med and Gwen was a freshman. The relationship blossomed and they married in 1967.
When Dave started applying to medical schools, Gwen doubled down on her studies and graduated from Pomona - one of the country’s more academically rigorous institutions - in three years. She quickly earned a graduate degree in teaching from Claremont College so she could support the two of them while he was in medical school.
Dave was first accepted with a full scholarship to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, but after one academic year there he realized it was not a good fit when his academic advisor suggested he come to class in a tie and jacket.
The native Californian promptly applied to UCLA and USC and was accepted to both. He decided USC, with its affiliation with the Los Angeles County Hospital, would give him the practical experience of medicine he craved. He eventually was Board Certified in two speciality areas: family and emergency medicine, which served him well in his medical career.
As with his practice here, he took all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Sandy recalls dozens of people coming in over the years with fish hooks in their fingers or cuts on their feet from clams or sharp rocks at the beach. People would say, “I don’t have my wallet with me. I don’t have any money.” He took care of them anyway. Dave would say, “just come back later with the money.” Some did, but most didn’t.
A family practice in a rural area isn’t lucrative and with five kids to put through college, Dave supplemented his income by working overnight shifts in the emergency room, first in St. Albans and then for about 25 years at the hospital in Plattsburgh. After the shift he would come home for a nap and then go to the office. But, of course, the medical practice would not have flourished without Gwen holding down the fort and carting five active kids hither and yon for sporting events, music lessons and high school.
Behind the scenes, Gwen managed the business side of the practice and worked hard to keep the reimbursements adequate enough to keep the clinic afloat.
Later Gwen, along with her daughter Minner, started a cut flower business called Flowers in Season. It was a successful operation that existed from 1998-2015 that also helped to put the last two kids through college.
Both Dave and Gwen were very active in the community - he a long time member of the Recreation Commission and a lifelong advocate for walking and biking trails - she on the zoning board and school volunteer. For Dave, some of the finest accomplishments of the recreation committee were the pedestrian crossing light at South Street and U.S. Route 2, the improvements to White’s Beach, and upcoming completion of the connection of the trail from Folsom’s School to Route 2.
This Renaissance man never stopped exploring.And continues to practice acupuncture, which he learned while in Hawaii. He got his pilot license in the late 1990s. Today he volunteers at the migrant health care clinic in Addison County. But mostly these days he enjoys time with his nine grandchildren.
One of his hobbies is writing limericks. He recently testified before a legislative committee in favor of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board budget with a limerick.
Reflecting on his career and life here in the Islands he said: “It was an honor to be part of people’s lives, and all the details of our complicated existence on this earth.”