Revered Morehead doctor dies at 86


Caudill delivered 8,000 babies, worked to improve their lives


By Jennifer Hewlett, Frank Lockwood and Art Jester



Dr. Claire Louise Caudill, a well-known doctor and civic leader in Rowan County and the surrounding area, died yesterday at University of Kentucky Hospital, apparently of a heart attack. She was 86 and lived in the Forest Hills subdivision in Morehead.


Dr. Caudill, a family practitioner in Morehead for about a half-century, delivered about 8,000 babies, many in rural homes with no electricity, during her career.


Although she stopped delivering babies at age 70, she continued to practice medicine because her patients would not let her retire. She was a tireless advocate for full modern health care for the people of northeastern Kentucky.


"She had such a vital spirit it seemed it would never die, and, of course, her spirit never will," said James McConkey, a retired Cornell University English professor who once taught at Morehead State University, and wrote extensively about Dr. Caudill in his 1992 book Rowan's Progress, which was excerpted in The New Yorker magazine.


"I've thought about how much of a model she was for everybody -- not just as a woman, or as a woman doctor, but for everybody. She was just one who never gave up in her belief in human beings to do what was best in them. She captured people's minds and imaginations and made them see what is possible and what they can do."


McConkey said the radiance of Dr. Caudill's nature not only helped in the healing of her patients, but also united Rowan Countians in civic efforts. Dr. Caudill and her longtime nurse and friend, Susie Halbleib, struggled to improve health care in the region. They were devoted to women's health issues and pushed for better prenatal care. As a result, many babies born in Rowan were named Louise or Susie after them.


Dr. Caudill was instrumental in establishing Morehead's St. Claire Medical Center, which was named in her honor. She helped raise $294,000 in 1960 to build the facility and helped secure staffing for it. The hospital, which opened in 1963, was named Outstanding Rural Hospital in the United States in 1993.


Dr. Caudill was the first chief of staff at St. Claire Medical Center, serving from 1963 to 1972. She also served on the hospital's board for many years.


Yesterday, there was a framed portrait of Dr. Caudill with a pink ribbon draped over it in the foyer at St. Claire.


Beneath the painting sat a large basket of flowers: snapdragons, daisies, roses and carnations.


"Thank you Dr. Louise for a lifetime of care," an anonymous note said. "It's hard for me to believe that Doc's not here," said Bob Bishop, a retired pharmacist and a lifelong friend. "She was just a marvelous person, a brilliant person ... anybody that knew her admired her."


"I just don't feel like I can say enough to emphasize what she's meant to me and the community. I don't have the words," Bishop said. Bishop said he had asked her if she'd thought about retiring. "She just said, 'Well, I like what I'm doing. I've taken care of them this long. I've got to keep it up.'"


Her death stunned many.


"We were devastated," said Morehead Mayor Brad Collins, one of Dr. Caudill's patients since childhood. "She probably saved my life three or four times when I was growing up," he said. Dr. Caudill delivered three of Collins' children and his stepdaughter. "She really is a special lady to us and we're going to miss her."


He remembered Monday mornings in the 1950s when patients lined up in a stairwell outside her Main Street office above a pool hall.


"There'd be a line all the way from the top of the stairs to the bottom," he said.


"She truly cared about people," Collins said. "It's a great loss for this town."Outside Citizens Bank, the flag was lowered to half-staff. And at Coffee Tree Books, customers looking for Dr. Caudill's biography were turned away.


The store's 50 copies had sold out before Christmas.


"I'm sure she doctored a lot of patients completely free of charge. She put her whole life into the medical profession," said Rowan County Judge-Executive Clyde Thomas. "She delivered four of our children and the standard delivery fee was $75,"
Thomas said. "That'll get you about 15 minutes in the emergency room now."


The book about Dr. Caudill, Country Doctor: The Story of Dr. Claire Louise Caudill, was written by Shirley Gish and published by the University Press of Kentucky. Although it was being sold in Morehead, it has an official publication date of Jan. 11.


In 1993, Gish, also an actor-playwright, performed a one-woman show about the physician and her nurse in Morehead. Me 'n Susie, based on interviews Gish conducted with Dr. Caudill and Halbleib, was a hit in Morehead. It was performed the next year at Lexington's Opera House. Gish, now retired as a Morehead State professor and living in Taos, N.M., said: "I know of no greater person -- living or dead. Dr. Louise was absolutely phenomenal. There was an energy from this woman you could literally feel. And there was a radiance about her.


"She had courage, and she was an inspiration to others. All of it was done in the most genuine way, and with great spirit.


"I really believe Dr. Louise was a healer. If she put a hand on you, you felt that."


Last year, Dr. Caudill's sister, Lexington philanthropist Lucille Caudill Little, established an endowed professorship at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Dr. Caudill's honor. The UK board approved setting up the Dr. Claire Louise Caudill Professorship in Family Medicine, which is supported by Little's $500,000 endowment.


Earlier in the 1990s, Dr. Caudill was chosen from more than 100 nominees as Country Doctor of the Year. The award is given by the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, N.C., and Staff Care Inc., an Irving, Texas, firm that provides fill-in physicians to clinics and hospitals.


Dr. Caudill, the daughter of a Morehead banker and lawyer, received a bachelor of science degree from Ohio State University in 1934, a master's degree from Columbia University in 1936 and taught physical education at Morehead State for seven years. She went on to attend the University of Louisville Medical School, where she was one of two women among 100 graduates to receive a medical degree in 1946. She did an internship at Women's Medical College in Philadelphia in 1947.


Louise, Swimming coach at Morehead, 1937


Through the years, she treated three, sometimes four, generations of families. Her office walls held not only plaques and certificates honoring her, but photographs of children she delivered and cared for. In early years, she did not send bills. In later years, she sent bills only twice a year.


Early in her career, Dr. Caudill and her nurse worked out of the small office above the pool hall. They opened a new clinic equipped with a delivery room and two labor rooms in 1957.


Even in her 80s, Dr. Caudill was still working four days a week and swimming every day in a small pool at her home. But she had lost the speed needed to play tennis, a lifelong passion.


She had been president of the Northeast Kentucky Hospital Foundation and was a charter member of the Academy of Family Practice. She also served on the Kentucky Council on Higher Education from 1972 to 1980. She was a past president of Peoples Bank in Sandy Hook, and had been chairman of the board of Peoples Bank in Morehead and Sandy Hook. She received the Citizens Award for "Doctor of the Year" from the Kentucky Academy of Family Practice in 1974 and a Woman of the Year award from the Kentucky Federation of Business and Professional Women in 1979.


Survivors include two sisters, Lucille Caudill Little of Lexington and Patricia Caudill Eubank of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and a brother, Dr. Charles Milton Caudill of Somerset.


Services will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Morehead State University Academic Athletic Center. Visitation will be after 2 p.m. Saturday at Northcutt & Son Home for Funerals in Morehead, and after noon Sunday at the athletic center.


Published Monday, January 4, 1999, in the Herald-Leader


Honoring a healer


Doctor's pioneer spirit, generosity remembered


By Frank E. Lockwood

MOREHEAD -- Dr. C. Louise Caudill, who delivered 8,000 babies, founded a hospital and practiced medicine here for more than half a century, was laid to rest yesterday.


Caudill died Thursday in Lexington at age 86.


About 500 friends, family members and patients attended Caudill's funeral at Morehead State University's Academic-Athletic Center before her burial at her family's cemetery.


They remembered a practitioner who cared more about patients than profits and never turned a poor person away.


They honored a gifted healer who spent a lifetime helping others. They praised a pioneer who studied medicine when women doctors were almost unheard of in northeastern Kentucky.


``Louise can never be replaced,'' said Frankie Calvert, Rowan County's librarian and one of Caudill's patients. ``She wasn't just a doctor; she was a friend.''


In this Appalachian town of 8,400, Caudill was sometimes referred to as ``the Mother of the Community'' because she had helped deliver so many of its babies.


She delivered about 2,000 babies in homes, traveling to often-primitive dwellings -- some of them lacking electricity, running water and floors. She'd carry her own delivery table.


Later, she had her own clinic and then, in 1963, a hospital delivery room: St. Claire Medical Center.


She never lost her enthusiasm or sense of awe. ``I think every delivery is a miracle. I really do,'' she told an interviewer in 1993.


At the funeral, Caudill's casket was surrounded by 35 floral arrangements containing hundreds of roses.


Eight rows of seats were filled by employees of St. Claire Medical Center. The hospital was named after Caudill (her first name was Claire) after she spearheaded the drive to bring a hospital to Morehead in the 1960s. She also served as its first chief of staff.


When Caudill opened her practice in 1948, there were no interstates. For a time, funeral home hearses and the dogcatcher's van were used as ambulances.


The nearest hospital was two hours away. Caudill and her nurse and loyal friend, Susie Halbleib, spent the next 50
years working to improve health care in the region.


Caudill's pastor, the Rev. Bill Watson of Morehead's First Christian Church, said he has met two presidents, a pope and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, but the ``most significant person who has ever come into my life'' was Caudill.


During his closing prayer, Watson said Morehead's loss is heaven's gain. ``God,'' Watson said, ``You're getting a good one with Dr. Louise.'' Doctor's spirit of caring lives on after her death.




The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY

Copyright 1994

Saturday, December 17, 1994




   MOREHEAD, Ky. -- Yesterday began as a typical day for Dr. Claire Louise Caudill: She saw her usual run of patients and dispensed medical and other requested advice.

   But it didn't end typically.

    Its conclusion was befitting someone whom many in Rowan County call their No. 1 citizen, with throngs of her friends and admirers turning out to honor "Dr. Louise" for being named the nation's Country Doctor of the Year.

   Caudill, 82, a short, sprightly woman who laughs easily but works hard, took the recognition in stride and thought maybe people were making too much of it. "There's nothing to it. I've just done my job. I've worked every day," she said in an interview.


Louise, Age 25

  Caudill, one of Kentucky's pioneer female doctors, doesn't work as hard as she used to. Since 1990, she keeps office hours only four days a week, instead of also working half-days on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Also, her patients now come to her Main Street clinic, which they find easily even though there's no sign identifying it.

   "We used to have one years ago, but it's back there someplace," she said matter-of-factly, pointing at an apparent closet.

   Caudill opened her general practice in her hometown in 1948, when female doctors were rarities in Eastern Kentucky. For years, she and Susie Halbleib, her longtime friend and nurse, traveled the area's back roads treating ailments and delivering babies. Caudill has delivered about 8,000 babies.

   Her exploits, including spearheading a drive to bring a hospital to Morehead, were a focal point of the book "Rowan's Progress," written by former Morehead State English professor James McConkey.

   Today, the St. Claire Medical Center, named for Caudill, is one of Kentucky's major regional health-care facilities.

   The center, and Caudill, are what brought Dr. Shelley Bennett, a Union County native, to Morehead to begin his surgical practice 20 years ago. Caudill was the catalyst for modern medicine in Rowan County, he said, and is an outstanding role model.

   "Before the hospital was here, she just had a rural practice of medicine that people don't do today," Bennett said. "But she had a vision for a better type of medical community and just really felt like the people here deserved better.

   "She didn't have to do that. She could have just stayed around and done the routine things that a lot of physicians do. But she went one step further and put everything together."

   Bennett, president of the medical center's staff, nominated Caudill for the Country Doctor of the Year award. It was bestowed by the Country Doctor Museum of Bailey, N.C., and by Staff Care Inc., an Irving, Texas, firm that provides interim doctors for hospitals and clinics, mostly in rural areas. Caudill will receive a bronze plaque, and Staff Care Inc. will provide her with an extra doctor for a week, which it said is worth about $10,000.

   The award honors the dedication, spirit and skills of rural physicians.

   "She's worked really hard for our community," Bennett said. "Everyone here loves her, and I felt like we needed to kind of share her with other people."

      About 300 people attended last night's award ceremony at Morehead State University, which included skits and musical tributes to Caudill. At one point, members of the audience who were delivered by Caudill were asked to stand, and about three dozen people did so.

    Caudill's patients are fiercely loyal.

   "To me, she's the best," said Bertha Gearhart, who lives in nearby Haldeman and who was treated yesterday for an ear allergy.

   Billie Jean Clayton, an assistant superintendent with Rowan County schools, said Caudill's "warmth and true love for Rowan County people" make her a gifted physician.

      "It's the personal touch. When you've been raised in a small town, you expect that. I just can't imagine not having that kind of relationship with a doctor," said Clayton, Caudill's patient for 43 years.

   While she has cut back on her workload, Caudill still sees an average of 20 patients a day. She still keeps all their records on paper.

   "They're reliable," Halbleib said of the paper records, noting that a computer crash once brought another local clinic's operations to a halt. "We're too old to learn computers," she added.

   Caudill began her career as a physical-education professor at the former Morehead State Teachers College after graduating from Ohio State University in 1934 and Columbia University in 1936. She later chased her dream to be a physician to the University of Louisville medical school.

   Caudill has received many other awards and accolades and has honorary degrees from several universities. She said other people make too much of it, but "if they think I've done a good job, then I'm awful proud."

   Now in her 48th year of practice, Caudill is asked whether she expects to retire soon.

   "I'm asked that a lot," she said. "Real often, I decide to retire. I've been doing that for years, and I imagine I will continue to do it."


Return to Home Page