Updated: November 4, 2013
Spencer H. Wagar, M.D.
Dr. Wagar's Memory Lives on Through His Endowment
An endowment in the Department of Family Medicine provides important opportunities for medical students and residents to work with unserved and underserved populations. Throughout the school year, an at-risk school in Ypsilanti offers health care services and education to its students and their families. Lives are eased and changed by this endowment. And it all started with that paragon of American culture, a simple community doctor in a small town.
Spencer Wagar was born on February 1, 1909, on the family farm in Berlin Township, near Rockwood, Mich. He was named after Dr. Spencer who delivered him and from that moment on, his destiny appeared clear: he would be a physician. Wagar's parents sacrificed to ensure his education. He grew into a quiet young man with a distinctive laugh, graduated from Monroe High School in 1927, and entered the University of Michigan.
His daughter Christine Stevens recently recalled her father talking about his interview for medical school. When asked why he wanted to be a doctor, he replied, 'I don't know, but I do.' He was accepted. Wagar's father was a banker and when the Great Depression hit in 1929, his mother helped out by driving each day from Rockwood to Detroit to fill vending machines. The family did not have indoor plumbing until 1940. Following graduation in 1934 Wagar remained at U-M for internship and residency in internal medicine.
In 1938, Wagar began his career as a practicing physician in Saginaw, but soon moved back to Rockwood to care for his dying father. During his eight years there, he was the quintessential country doctor. He served on the staff of three hospitals: Wyandotte, Trenton, and Monroe. A hernia kept him from active service in WWII but he served his country on the home front, donating his time as a medical examiner for the draft board. With his office in two side rooms of the family home, his wife, Lucille, assisted in every way she could: "nurse", accountant, short-order cook, provider of moral support, and mother.
Recalls Stevens, "There were many times my mother would be worried sick that my father had fallen asleep at the wheel after a late night house call as he often worked 16 hours a day. When he arrived home he explained he had been sitting at the kitchen table having coffee and conversation with the family following a visit to their sick relative. During these years, I had little time with my Dad, so he would let me ride along while he made house calls. I'd wait in the car while he made the visit. I never knew any of the patients' names or their diagnoses. My dad's code of confidentiality and ethics were unsurpassed." In 1948, Wagar moved from Rockwood to Monroe where he practiced until retirement.
An enthusiastic community volunteer and avid football fan, Wagar was the Monroe High School football team doctor for many years. He was also a board member of many organizations including Rotary Club, the Monroe YMCA, the Monroe County Board of Health, Monroe Bank and Trust, and an advisor to the Monroe County Welfare Department for Aid to Dependent Children and Adults. He was loyal to his alma mater and often returned to Ann Arbor for classes. For relaxation, he hunted deer, vacationed on Lake Huron each summer and cheered on the Michigan football team at each home game.
Most important, says his daughter, "He never denied treatment to anyone even in hard economic times. He was sensitive to his patients' emotional needs and knew how important it was to them to keep their pride. He would accept whatever they could pay for their medical care. Often, he was paid in food. Once, he received four hand-carved ducks signed in pencil by his patient, which I now treasure."
Wagar's generosity to his patients had a practical side. His daughter tells of a patient who was going to die without a blood transfusion. Because of the War, the blood supply was low. Knowing he had the same blood type, Wagar ran downstairs to the lab, had a pint of blood drawn from himself and ran back to give it to the patient. Chris remembers him saying, "...and you know what? She lived!"
Stevens says that the happiest part of her father's practice was delivering babies. In 1940, he delivered six babies with an average cost of $18-$25 per delivery. By 1958, he was delivering over 170 a year. In 1962, Wagar delivered a career total of 2105 babies; his biggest pride being that he never lost a mother.
"In 1979, a heart attack drove Dad into retirement," says Stevens. "Of course, he didn't do this the typical way either. On the day of his heart attack, he drove himself to the hospital, went to the EKG lab, read his own EKG strip, and diagnosed himself." In 1990, one year after his 60 th wedding anniversary, Wagar died of pneumonia after breaking a hip.
Stevens says her dad inspired her own interest in medicine; she graduated from the University of Michigan School of Nursing. Today, she tries to make a difference as a home care nurse, caring for patients and their families with her father as her role model. And the legacy continues: one granddaughter, Wendy, also a U-M graduate, is now a nurse practitioner.
On January 31, 2000, another Spencer was born 6 weeks early -- missing his great grandfather's birthday by only 16 minutes. Perhaps he, too, will follow the path of medicine.