Compassion of country doctor still being felt 26 years after his death
It’s not hard to find someone in Annandale and the towns and country around it who came into the world with a helping hand from “Doc Bendix.”
Dr. L.H. Bendix is still remembered affectionately as “Doc Bendix” in Annandale and the surrounding area, where he looked after people’s ailments for more than 50 years and delivered thousands of babies. Photo courtesy of Zahler Photography, Annandale.
Dr. Lester H. Bendix delivered thousands of babies during more than a half century as a general practitioner and surgeon in the western Wright County town and nearby communities.
Twenty-six years after his death, some of those Bendix babies and others still revere the memory of the country doctor, who often visited them in their own homes and never pressured anyone to pay their bill.
And two former patients say they owe their lives to him.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to say he was the most respected man in Annandale,” said longtime friend and neighbor Doris Miller, whose eight children were delivered by Bendix. “Everybody thought the world of him.”
Bendix died at age 85 in 1988 after devoting 53 years to the care of people in Annandale and thearea. He also served as Wright County coroner from 1935 to 1987 and was a member of the Annandale School Board from 1936 to 1967, 27 of those years as chairman.
He came to Annandale in 1930, a day after completing his internship at a Minneapolis hospital, to join Dr. Alfred Ridgeway, another local legend, who practiced medicine there for 60 years starting in 1890.
Bendix and his wife, Molly Donahue, met when he came down with scarlet fever while studying medicine at the University of Minnesota, and she was his nurse. They had two children. Mary Absolon lives in Rockville, Md., and John Bendix is retired in Waseca after teaching high school history there for more than 50 years.
By the early 1970s, Dr. Bendix had delivered more than 3,000 babies, John said, and their pictures covered the walls in his office.
“It seems like in my mind he was always off to deliver a baby,” sometimes three or four a week. “A lot of them were in the homes.”
And many of them were named Lester in his honor.
“I imagine there are a few people still walking around Annandale and that area who were delivered by him in the ’40s and ’50s,” John said. “It’d be quite a few.”
He didn’t perform deliveries during the last decade of his practice as his workload wound down, according to an Annandale Advocate story when the doctor retired in 1983.
Home births were common in the early years, John said, but Bendix later persuaded most expectant mothers to have their babies at St. Cloud Hospital, where he was on staff.
Sometimes John drove Bendix and the mother-to-be to the hospital in the doctor’s car. On one occasion, “he delivered the baby in the back seat of his car on the way to the hospital.” After arriving in St. Cloud, John’s next stop was the gas station, where he had the ’42 Mercury cleaned up.
Jan Strand, of Kingson, a Bendix baby herself, recalled that hospital staff got the doctor out of bed about midnight to deliver her second child. The nurse reassured her, saying it would take him 28 minutes to drive from Annandale and three minutes to scrub up, she said.
Doc Bendix’s last delivery — during the “Super Bowl Blizzard” of January 1975 when snow blocked Annandale roads for three days — may have been his most difficult. The storm stranded Sam Harmoning in her Annandale home as she was about to give birth to her second child.
As snow began piling up Friday afternoon, the day before her due date, doctors at St. Cloud Hospital told her to stay put because no one has a baby on their due date, Harmoning recalled. But she woke up about 2 a.m. Saturday and “realized I was in serious trouble.”
Her husband, Denny, called for help, but Annandale police and firefighters couldn’t arrange to get her to the St. Cloud or Buffalo hospital because of the storm, so they called Bendix. “They picked Dr. Bendix up in a snowplow, and they picked Sharon Peterson up because she was a registered nurse.”
Bendix, who hadn’t delivered a child in a while, examined Harmoning about 4 a.m. and discovered the baby was in the breech position, bottom instead of head first. He tried to turn him but couldn’t. “He had nothing to knock me out; he had nothing for the pain.”
The doctor called around looking for any way, like a snowmobile or helicopter, to get her to a hospital, but without success. “He told Denny he was going to lose one of us,” she said.
When, more than 10 hours into the ordeal, a frustrated Bendix left the room, “I thought, I am not going to lay here and not let this happen,” Harmoning said. “So I just grabbed the headboard and pushed.” When he returned, the baby’s head had emerged, and Bendix quickly removed the umbilical cord, which had been wrapped twice around the neck, before it could do any damage.
The doctor, who had given up smoking and drinking, later leaned against the dresser by her bed with a drink in one hand and a smoke in the other and told her: “Sam, don’t you do this again!”
“I was just eternally grateful that he had the experience that he had,” Harmoning said, referring to the many home deliveries he had presided over. “I owe him a lot.” If he hadn’t been there, “I don’t think I’d be having this conversation with you.”
“I’m not an overly spiritual person,” she added, “but I think there was somebody else in that room on that day too.”
The newborn, Mitchell Harmoning, has grown up to be a teacher and coach in the St. Michael-Albertville school district and just celebrated his 39th birthday. His mother later became the mayor of Annandale for several terms.
Ridgeway was still making house calls by horse and buggy when the new doctor came to town and drove his Model A Ford from house to house and farm to farm.
People often came to the Bendix home on Park Street where the doctor would remove fish hooks from their hands and other places at no charge. Photo by Chuck Sterling.
“He did quite a bit of house calls throughout his career,” John Bendix said. He would start a typical day making rounds at St. Cloud Hospital, return to Annandale by noon where he would eat lunch standing up, then see patients in his office on Main Street, make a few house calls in the late afternoon and drive out to visit people on their farms at night. He did that almost every day, John said.
Besides that, people would often come to the big brick Bendix home on Park Street, not far from Pleasant Lake. Every summer, usually on weekends, “they would come to the door with fishhooks in the hand and cheeks” and the doctor would remove them free of charge. “It got to the point where I even removed one once,” John laughed.
Bendix was adamant about not collecting bills his patients owed him, John said. “He said if they could’ve paid it they would, but don’t go hound them.” He has three ledgers from the doctor’s office, and half the entries were never paid, including many 50-cent bills for office calls.
Doc Bendix always said he was living the good life, John recalled. He didn’t want people to hesitate to come to the doctor because they couldn’t afford it.
“When he’d walk the streets of Annandale it was quite gratifying for him to know he knew everybody and he’d probably delivered their baby,” he said. “He was just quite happy in Annandale.”
Another Bendix baby, Chris Lantto, who owns Lantto’s Store in French Lake south of Annandale, said the doctor was instrumental in preventing him from being paralyzed with polio.
Bendix made one of his house calls to the Lantto home in 1951 when he diagnosed 2½-year-old Chris, the youngest of 11 children, with the dreaded disease and his sister Greta with a slight case of it.
“I was put in Sister Kenny’s (a Minneapolis hospital) for two months,” he said. “I can remember being in the iron lung.” He also recalled a nurse in a white dress and cap who he still thinks of as “my angel” because she coaxed him to eat Jell-O and ice cream.
When he came home, “I was stiff as a board.” Lantto said. “They stood me up against the wall like I was this plank of wood, but I was home.” The hospital had told his mother he would never walk, but Bendix advised: “Give him all the exercise he can take.”
His six older sisters carried out the doctor’s order by motivating him to hang from a broomstick they held in the air and to do somersaults to loosen up his muscles. “Eventually I came out of it with only minor obstacles to overcome.”
He believes without that activity he would have been paralyzed from the neck down. “I basically owe my life to Bendix, . . . my mother . . . and the sisters for doing the physical therapy part of it.”
His father, Ernest, had been Bendix’s first patient back in 1930, and the doctor in later years came to the store to give him his physical examinations, Lantto recalled. “You couldn’t find a much more pleasant guy,” he said. “He really served the community unselfishly” and had compassion for its people.
The community thought enough of the doctor to name Bendix Elementary School after him in 1972, but when it was demolished and replaced by a new building in 2013, the school board decided to call it Annandale Elementary School and named the resource area the Bendix Media Center.
“I think a lot of people were upset when they took the name off,” said Doris Miller, whose husband, Lee, was the doctor’s close friend and golfing buddy. John Bendix, however, said he was unfazed by the change, and Doc Bendix would’ve had a laugh about it.
Mike Dougherty, school board chairman at the time, said he understands Bendix’s significance to Annandale. “When I was in high school he would always give our sports physicals. My impression of him was one of dedication and kindness.”
He didn’t explain why the board didn’t name the new school after Bendix but pointed out the media center contains a prominent memorial to him. “I have talked to many community members who were discouraged that we did not name the new building after Dr. Bendix but were very impressed by the dedication of the Media Center,” he said.
According to Deanna Bendix, John’s wife, the doctor used the initials L.H. professionally rather than Lester, but his grandchildren started calling him “Paka,” and the rest of the family followed suit. “By whatever name, John’s dad was truly a great man. He was capable, hard working and intelligent in the extreme,” she said.
“He dedicated his life to that town,” she said, but he also had a world view. He loved to travel and read about history and was devoted to education. “Even though he was a small town doctor, he had a cosmopolitan outlook on life. He saw the big picture.”
Retired Wright County Sheriff Gary Miller remembered being at the Harmoning house with Bendix the night of the 1975 blizzard. “That was typical Doc Bendix,” he said. “Doc was open to do anything, go anyplace. He was your typical country doctor.”
One of Doris Miller’s Bendix babies, Gary got to know the doctor well when, as a county deputy, he accompanied him on coroner calls and they talked over coffee afterward. “He was a very wise man, and a lot of the things he said I still keep to memory today,” Miller said. “He was kind of a mentor.”
Miller on one occasion asked him whether jogging, which was becoming popular at the time, was bad for one’s knees. “Doc says you just run all you like because most of the people in my experience die of rust, not from being worn out.”
Another time Miller was complaining about all the changes happening in the county. “Doc says if you don’t like change, you were born into the wrong world because this one keeps changing. This one has been changing since the good Lord made it and it’ll keep changing as long as there is a world. Every generation thinks it’s changing too fast.”
Miller understood as he got older, he said. “He was right on the money, which he usually was.”