Back and Forth: Driving the doctors Mayo
"They wanted big, well-equipped, expensive personal cars" said the late Ben Stephan, a Plainview resident and longtime driver for Dr. Charles H. Mayo.
This column is from a KROC radio interview on the "Rog and Harley Show", noon hour, Aug. 30, 1971. On Sept. 2, we followed the Stephan interview with Fred Dahle, driver for Dr. William J. Mayo. Now, over 43 years later, I've dug out the cassette tape from my vast collection. Ben drove for Dr. Charlie from 1920 until Dr. Charlie's death in 1939. Fred drove for Dr. Will more than 32 years, until Dr. Will's death two months later July 28, 1939, continuing to drive Dr. Will's widow Hattie for some time after that.
In 1971, Roger O'Day and I interviewed dozens of local and national guests Monday through Friday. In today's story you're seeing either a Packard or Buick driven by Dahle carrying Dr. Will, his son-in-law Dr. Donald Balfour and the Mayo Clinic business manager, Harry Harwick.
"We traveled all over the country, when there were mostly gravel roads, with an open car using side curtains" said Fred. "When it rained we put up the curtains and maybe 15 minutes later we opened them up for the sun shining."
Ben Stephan met Dr. Charlie in an unusual manner. "I was sitting at the hospital because my son was recovering from appendicitis. I overheard Dr. Charlie telling someone his car wouldn't start. I went over and told him I'd try and get it going. Apparently, Charlie was impressed with me because he told the clinic folks to contact me for an interview and I got the job" Ben recalled.
Both Ben and Fred were about 75 years old when we visited. "The doctors had been driving Packards, and I told Charlie I drive a Buick," Stephen said with a chuckle. "They are less expensive at $2,500 to $3,000, compared to a Packard at $7,000. And it wasn't long 'til they were driving Buicks."
The Mayo doctors had 11 cars. Charlie and his wife, Edith, each had a car, their two daughters had cars and there was a guest car, plus two seven-seater limos. Associate Dr. Christopher Graham, brother-in-law to Dr. Charlie, had a Pierce Arrow, which cost $9,000. Not much re-sale value on "the Pierce." When it was traded in they got $300 for it.
"The Mayo doctors traded cars every two years or sooner if something went wrong," Ben said. "Dr. Charlie wanted expensive cars that were heavy, to pull their travel trailers across country, east to west and to Tucson, their winter homes. Sometimes I drove my Chrysler Imperial, very heavy vehicle, to pull a travel trailer."
I asked Fred if he might have been driving one of the cars on Sept. 13, 1938, when President Franklin Roosevelt took the road tour that eventually passed my sister Elaine and me walking home from school.
"Yes, I was driving one of the three convertibles filled with laughing young ladies as we headed easterly toward Chatfield," he said.
I asked Fred to freshen up my memory of their trip to Lake City in 1934. "Yes, we did go to Lake City but did not get on their boat "The North Star;" the secret service didn't think it was advisable," Fred said.
"They were wonderful men to us" said Ben. "They never wanted to hurt you in any way. I was with Dr. Charlie in Chicago six days before his death from pneumonia May 26, 1939. Will, upon hearing the news was devastated. They were so very close. Dr. Will was already suffering from stomach cancer and died two months later, July 28, 1939. Dr. Charlie loved storytelling and laughter while Dr. Will was very serious. That's probably why they got along so well," Ben said.
Next week: Remembering the 1931 fully dressed "Harley giveaway," April 1, 1993.