Rodawig Doctors Brought High Quality Compassionate Medical Care to Region for Sixty Years
Dr. Don Rodawig, Jr. credits his father for his passion for medicine and love of the Iowa Great Lakes area.
“My father had a big influence on me; he taught me so much!” Dr. Don, Jr. shared. “Spirit Lake was my home, and it was my dream to come back here and practice. I never felt cheated that I didn’t go elsewhere.”
One of the first doctors and trauma surgeons in the region, Dr. Donald and Mary Rodawig moved their family to Spirit Lake in 1931, after Donald or “Dr. Roddy” completed medical school and played football at the University of Iowa, took his internship at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, and completed his Surgical Residency at the Lucas County Hospital in Toledo, OH. He also spent a year of post graduate surgical work at the University of Vienna. The couple fell in love with the community during a visit to the Arnolds Park Roof Garden for a dance.
“They didn’t have a lot of money at the time and my dad had recently graduated from medical school. They were hunting for a place to set up my dad’s practice. They came to Arnolds Park for a dance at the Roof Garden and loved the area so much, they stayed,” Dr. Don, Jr. recalls.
This particular dance in the 1930s was key to bringing high quality medical care to Northwest Iowa and Southwest Minnesota for the next sixty years. Dr. Rodawig, Sr. opened Spirit Lake Hospital in 1933, along with Miss Lydia Madson, a registered nurse. The following year he purchased the clinic on Lake Street from Madsen and established a surgical facility.
Passion for Medicine
Growing up, Dr. Don, Jr. spent many days and nights helping his dad as a physician. Later, in 1957, he and his wife Dienne joined his father’s practice and the two men worked together to provide compassionate medical care to anyone walking through the doors.
“Watching my father care for patients in a loving and professional manner made me always want to become a doctor,” he said. “I have so many memories of our times together, helping people and making house calls.”
In his younger years, Dr. Don, Jr. remembers one particular trip where he went with his father to Ocheyedan during inclement winter weather. It was 1936 and a patient needed an appendectomy, and the drifts were up to the telephone poles.
“I remember we were in Ocheyedan for a week because of the weather. On this house call at a farm, they met us at the road with a horse and buggy to help us get through the drifts,” he said. “We did whatever we could to help take care of people who were sick and needed help.”
Dr. Donald, Sr. not only knew medicine, but he was also an established trauma surgeon, growing more proficient after four years of voluntarily serving with a MASH General Hospital Group from 1941-1945 in Africa and Italy during World War II. For two of those years, he served as Assistant Chief of Surgery in the overseas hospital.
“They saw huge amounts of trauma during this time, and my father used his surgical skills to provide medical care and aid to the soldiers and people needing care,” Dr. Don, Jr. shared. “They were often on the front lines and worked in tents.”
When Dr. Donald, Sr. returned to the area and his family, he joined practices with Dr. Phil A. Scott and enlarged the hospital by remodeling the Madsen property into a seven-bed nursery and emergency room. The men were always open and would often sit outside on Saturday nights on the front porch waiting for people to come in.
“At that time, doctors didn’t make a lot of money, and they were often compensated in eggs, chickens, and other farm produce. Office calls were in the $3 range,” Dr. Don, Jr. shared. “At times, they traveled from Rock Rapids to Spencer or into Minnesota to provide care.”
The need for more medical space quickly became apparent to the men.
In 1945, Dr. Rodawig, Sr. purchased the “Pillar House,” which was across the street from the current hospital. Originally the mansion of the late Sen. L. E. Francis, the “Pillars” had passed onto the heirs of Marcus Snyder, a pioneer banker and founder of the first Spirit Lake bank in 1877. Under the transaction, the hospital was named the “Marcus Snyder Memorial Hospital.”
“The problem is my dad didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t really have a way to purchase the property from Marcus Snyder’s daughter,” he shared. “My dad asked his parents to sell their farm in Rockwell City, which later sold for $12,000 and it became the down payment to help pay for the new hospital building.”
The new space was beautiful and had three floors, including a slow elevator that Dr. Don, Jr.’s grandfather Frank later operated for staff and patients. Dr. Don, Jr. recalls entering the hospital on the first floor and using a beautiful open staircase that went up to the second floor where an opulent stained-glass window faced North. The lab and x-ray were located in the basement, while 16-beds were created on the first and second floors and the OB and surgical wing was established on the third floor.
At this time, Dr. Don, Jr. remembers a horrific accident that took place near Vick’s Corner. Funeral directors also served as ambulance drivers, so current funeral director Claude Harpole brought the young man quickly to the hospital. The critical care patient had blood pooling around the brain and blood flowing out of a ruptured artery.
Dr. Donald, Sr. used his large hands to clamp down the artery and control the bleeding. Then he quickly scrubbed up and immediately began operating to relieve pressure and stop the bleeding. He told Claude to go away; he wouldn’t be needing the services of a Funeral Director that day.
“My father was an amazing surgeon and did an amazing job,” Dr. Don, Jr. remembers. “At the time, we were in-between the two hospitals, so had some surgical tools at the old and other instruments at the new. We were running back and forth to get everything we needed. We could see the man was in serious shape, but the young man fully recovered under the expert hands of my father’s care.”
After graduating from Spirit Lake High School in 1945 and then serving in the United States Army Medical Corps in Germany, Dr. Don, Jr. received his B.A. from the University of South Dakota, Masters of Hospital Administration from Iowa, and then his doctorate from the University of Iowa Medical School in 1956. He was set to start practice at a VA Hospital, but his father needed his assistance for a brief time.
“I came back to help my dad and step in at his practice for a time, and I decided to stay,” he shared. “I’m so glad I stayed and joined the practice with my dad.”
In 1957, Dr. Don, Jr. took over obstetrics from his father and went on to deliver 2,000 plus babies in the area. The doctors handled all deliveries, including c-sections on-site.
“After a while, the little kids would find me and say, ‘Do you remember me!’” he laughed. “I couldn’t go bowling, golfing or sometimes even downtown because all of the kids would come flocking.”
Dr. Don, Jr. also said he taught all his nurses how to deliver a baby just in case he wasn’t available. He said one time he got stuck in a snowdrift near the Methodist Camp on the way to the hospital for a delivery.
“The snowplow came out to help but it was so icy that I ended up also running into the snowplow trying to get out of the bank,” he remembered. “But I still made it in time for the delivery!”
While not always understood, the gypsies played a crucial role at the Arnolds Park Amusement Park every summer. These groups of families would travel from Illinois and Waterloo areas to the region, running different booths and activities at the Park. Dr. Don, Jr. remembers these people with fondness.
“They had all types of businesses along the current Berkley Bedell Pier and lived in homes near the Gardener Cabin is now located,” he said. “While some didn’t understand their ways, they considered my father to be their family doctor and they were like family to us.”
Dr. Donald, Sr. gained the respect of Madam Bessie, when he told her the sex of her future grandchild. She was the matriarch of the group and ran the fortune teller booth.
“They were wonderful people, who were family-oriented,” Dr. Don, Jr. said. “People didn’t really know how good they really were; we respected them, and we treated each other like family.”
When Madam Bessie's husband, the King, passed away, gypsies came from several states to celebrate the passing, which included a bonfire and three days of celebration of life. “They came and got me to join them,” Dr. Don, Jr. remembered. It was quite an event!”
Establishing a Family
When Dr. Don and Dienne, moved their family to the area, they had four children. Dienne's’s father was a doctor in Sioux City, who later passed away in 1959 after drowning during a swim across West Lake Okoboji.
Dr. Don, Jr. and his wife Dienne had seven children, which three of them also pursued jobs in the medical field, gaining valuable knowledge at a young age from their grandfather and father.
Dr. Donald, Sr.’s parents helped him at the Marcus Snyder Memorial Hospital, with Frank running errands and running the elevator. His mother Elizabeth also helped at the hospital.
Dr. Don, Jr. remembers when his father was serving overseas, his mother decided to invest some of their funds into property in the area, as she truly loved the Lakes. “I remember the banker and the high school principal at the time criticizing her. ‘You are squandering your husband’s money!’” he said. “What she purchased was 11 lots for $1,000 each from the Methodist Camp to Pikes Point along the shores of West Lake Okoboji. I’m pretty sure they weren’t criticizing her business decisions later in life.”
He said his mother also did a lot of the laundry for the hospital. “She took the baskets of bloody clothes, uniforms, and outfits home to clean and returned them perfectly white.”
Increased Medical Care for the County
In the late 1950s, the doctors were feeling a need for more space and began pursuing the creation of Dickinson County Memorial Hospital. A group of community leaders like Fred Webber, Allen Arnold, Bob Foster, Berkley Bedell, and Jim Cravens began to explore the feasibility of opening a county hospital. A corporation was formed, a $1.7 million dollar fund drive was started, a bond issue was passed, and soon after the construction of the new county hospital began.
The seed money was given by area residents and the 15 acres of land was donated by Mrs. F. W. Swanson, in the current location of Lakes Regional Healthcare. Dr. Don, Jr. remembers the $1.7 million being a huge fundraising endeavor and another reminder of the amazing people in the area. In June of 1959, the doors of Dickinson County Memorial Hospital opened, fully equipped with updated equipment, doctors and nurses lounges, 48-patient beds, OB unit, surgical suite, and the addition of a fourth doctor.
With the help of a corporation, Dr. Don and Fred Weber were also influential in the creation of the first nursing home in the county, Hilltop Nursing Home, and the addition of a CATScan machine to aid medical care.
“We were especially blessed with some amazing nurses and staff. We considered everyone to be family and would do anything to help each other,” Dr. Don, Jr. said.
For countless years, there were limited specialists available. Instead, the local doctors were considered the specialists, which Dr. Don, Jr. felt blessed to have his father’s expertise and guidance.
“We did everything here, from cesareans to appendectomies, from serious injury or illness,” he said. “We also didn’t have all of the equipment like robotics and ultrasounds that are common now. My dad and then myself couldn’t see inside the body but used a lot of common sense and got to know our patients by listening and examination – we fully cared for them. There are wonderful things available to modern doctors today.”
Dr. Don, Jr. served as the Dickinson County Medical Examiner for 35 years but made sure any on-call doctor was always established as Assistant Deputy Medical Examiner. In 1989-1990, he served as the President of the Iowa Medical Society and spent several days a month in Des Moines that year, which he considered a huge honor.
He officially retired as a physician at Dickinson County Memorial Hospital in 1991, handing over the reigns to a doctor he helped bring into the world on August 8, 1960. Dr. Brett Olsen was one the first infants born at the new hospital and the son of Dwain and Donna Olsen, who owned a grocery store in downtown Spirit Lake. Dr. Olsen looked up to his mentor and pursued the medical field until officially taking over from Rodawig’s family practice in 1990.
Dr. Don, Jr. spent the next years traveling around the United States as a doctor, but always returned to the Iowa Great Lakes area when he needed a break. “I usually would find myself somewhere that had a good golf course, but my favorite place is always Okoboji and Spirit Lake,” he added. He took the position of medical director of Hospice until the age of 90.
Now 94-years-old, Dr. Don, Jr. is residing at Accura Healthcare of Spirit Lake, a residence he once helped establish. He has countless fond memories of serving the surrounding community and is so appreciative of the area who welcomed his family in the 1930s.
“I loved medicine, loved my patients and I have no regrets. I feel so blessed that I was a doctor here and was a part of this area; the people we saw and who also worked for us. They weren’t just employees or patients; they were family. I love our community and so thankful for all the people who contributed back,” he shared. “It was my true pleasure to serve others.”
Both Dr. Rodawig and Dr. Don Jr. were honored as Kiwanis citizens of the Year.
It may have been a dance at the Roof Garden that welcomed a visit, but it’s easy to see why the Rodawig family poured their lives into the Iowa Great Lakes area long after their first. The area was blessed to have their servant hearts and provision of high-quality medical care for sixty years—something many won’t forget even today!