The town knew the doctor who roamed their streets on house calls, mended their broken bones and healed their sick was one of a kind.
He always made time for his patients. He never overcharged. He stayed in the same office — a one-story faded-brick building with a white screen door — for his entire career, and he kept practicing medicine long after most men his age had retired.
For 60 years, the sight of Philip L. Stevens opening his doors to patients was as sure as the sun rising. But last Thursday, the day after he celebrated the start of his seventh decade as a doctor in Tonganoxie, Stevens died in his sleep at age 87.
“He’s the only doctor these people have ever gone to,” said Barbara Hardisty, his office manager. “Everyone comes in here and the only thing they say is, ‘Where do we go now and what do we do now?’”
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Last week, as the loss of the doctor swept through the Leavenworth County town with a population of about 5,000, memories began to fill his absence.
Up the block from Stevens’ office at 605 E. Fourth St., Charles Conrad works at the Flashbacks Cafe. At the front of the restaurant, a picture of Stevens hangs on a wall along with images of family and friends. After he heard Stevens had died, Conrad carried a poster board down the street and placed it in the doctor’s office window for people to sign. He wanted to thank the doctor, the first of dozens to do so.
“He was the truest of gentlemen there ever was,” Conrad said.
It took only a few hours for the poster to fill up with gratitude and handwritten thank-yous as families from across the area wrote about how much their doctor meant to the town. The message from the residents of Tonganoxie was short and sweet.
He is loved. He is missed. He is remembered.
“He’s just an icon,” Conrad said. “He had the greatest of bedside manners. Just the greatest. He made you feel like you were part of the family.
“He didn’t try to act like he cared. He did care.”
Stevens took care of generations of residents, the kids he helped deliver taking their own children and grandchildren back to the doctor decades after their parents had done the same for them. One of his points of pride was a wall of photos in his office showing most of the roughly 300 children he helped deliver early in his career.
While paying his respects to Stevens on Monday, Kevin Finch spotted his baby photo on the wall among those of classmates and childhood friends. He said the doctor was full service, helping him with everything from school physicals to X-rays, even if it was outside normal working hours.
“We just got used to it,” Finch said. “He was always taking care of everybody.”
Stevens made a point of never being fully booked. If a patient called wanting to see Stevens that day, the doctor could get him in. Insurance or no insurance, the prices at his office were always low and affordable, former patients said.
Some regarded him as the Norman Rockwell of Tonganoxie. It could be because Stevens proudly hung the artist’s work in his waiting room. Or maybe the intensely personal care and attention Stevens gave each patient seemed like something straight out of Rockwell’s America.
Kelli Stevens, general counsel for the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts (and no relation to the doctor), said it would be hard to determine whether he was the longest serving doctor in Kansas history.
“My guess is he’s probably right up there, if not the longest,” she said.
As the doctor got older, he changed his schedule from working six days a week to five. His office closed from noon to 2 so he could eat lunch and take a nap.
Sometimes people would ask Stevens if he ever felt an urge to retire. He’d tell them he couldn’t — too many people in the town were depending on him.
“People told me they felt better just going in, greeting him and shaking hands,” son Charles Stevens said.
There’s talk of painting a mural of Stevens on his office’s outside wall. That way his face would never fade from the town he spent a lifetime mending.
“Now that he’s not with us, he’d be very proud,” son Matthew Stevens said. “He would have been delighted.”
Monday night, not even the scare of a tornado and flash flooding could keep the doctor’s friends and patients away from his visitation, which filled a room at the funeral home and spilled across the street into the doctor’s office. While rain raged outside, generations of people shared stories about how Stevens had always been there for them. Stevens’ wife, six children and grandchildren were approached by strangers and friends, old acquaintances and lifelong patients who recounted how the doctor had helped shape their lives.
Lee Smart said it was the doctor’s compassion that set him apart.
“There’s a lot of people he didn’t even charge,” Smart said. “If they couldn’t afford it, he still wanted them to be well.”
Stevens loved music, going out of his way to watch broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. As he was laid to rest, his family brought the opera to him. A student from the University of Kansas School of Music sang two arias at his funeral Tuesday afternoon. The first was about the love a father feels for his child. The second was about a life of love, a life well lived.
As the people of Tonganoxie paid their final respects to the one they called Doc, the town wondered what they’d do now that Stevens, after decades of helping them feel their best and treating them at their worst, had finally been forced to close up shop. Though he wasn’t the only doctor in town, he was a constant, friendly face.
At the visitation on Monday, daughter Lisa Scheller said she knew how much Stevens meant to family and to the townspeople, “but I never truly had an idea of how important he was to them until today.”
“I guess I never understood how deeply he was involved in so many people’s lives,” she said.