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South End recalls doctor who made the rounds across rural Whidbey

Longtime friends of Dr. Donald D. Purdy, at times the only doctor serving residents of South Whidbey, still shake their heads at his intrepid devotion to the job.

“He was basically on call all the time,” recalled Ron Lind, owner of Linds Langley Pharmacy, who got to know Purdy and his family when the Linds moved to Langley in 1970.

“When we arrived, he was the only doctor south of Coupeville,” Lind said. “Often we’d be over at his house, and he would get two or three phone calls.”

“I thought he was an outstanding person,” said Judy Yeakel of Langley, whose daughter, Joan, married the Purdys’ son Jim.

“He always came across to me as patient, understanding and willing to listen — at least up to a point,” she said.

Dr. Purdy, who alone served as the South End’s only doctor between 1954 and 1976, died Oct. 22 in Seattle. He was 82.

“It’s been a job and I’ve tried to do the best I could,” he told the Everett Herald in the summer of 1976, shortly before leaving the island after 22 years to run a physicians residency program in Georgia.

He and his wife, Gwen, and their two children came to Langley in 1954 expecting to stay only a few months. He was filling in for another doctor, and expected to be called back into the Navy.

The call never came, however, “so I just stayed,” he told the newspaper.

At the time, South Whidbey had a population of 4,000, and no hospital. Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville was built in 1968. For most of 22 years, he was the only doctor on South Whidbey.

“I had to practice a different kind of medicine,” he said in 1976.

That same year, he told The Record before heading to Georgia:

“I didn’t like to leave the island unnecessarily. If I left, then people would have to go out of town for a doctor, to Everett or Coupeville. Not counting the medical meetings, I think I’ve had two vacations in 22 years.”

He recalled his adventures in making house calls at night in a rural area, searching for mailboxes hidden among the thick firs along dirt roads with a spotlight he had mounted on his car.

Delivering babies was another challenge. One infant was born by lantern light in the doctor’s Langley office; another in the back seat of his car while on the ferry trying to get the expectant mother to an Everett hospital.

Wounds and broken bones were stitched and set in his office or out behind the barn where the injury occurred.

For 15 years, he rode to medical emergencies in ambulances, he told the newspapers.

Born Dec. 27, 1926 in Inglewood, Calif., Dr. Purdy attended Whitman College and the University of Washington, and graduated from the University of Washington Medical School in 1953.

Always partial to the small-town practice of family medicine, he got a chance to practice it in its purest form on South Whidbey.

As the island population grew, and its character began changing, the Purdys looked for a new challenge. He decided to move to Georgia to run a doctors residency program.

He and his wife had raised six children on the island, and everyone had a vote on the move, he told The Record.

It was a tough decision, and he joked to the Everett Herald that he must be nuts for “leaving a paradise kind of thing.”

“But 22 years should be long enough in paradise,” he said.

He was active in his community, was an avid sports enthusiast and he liked to climb mountains.

“He got me involved in softball as soon as I got here,” Lind, of Langley, remembers.

Dr. Purdy was especially involved in coaching youth recreational softball in Langley. He did it for 18 years.

“He was a very good coach,” said Yeakel, who one summer coached a rival team from Freeland. “Every kid had a chance to play.”

He also was an avid fan of South Whidbey high school sports, whether his children were involved or not.

She and Dr. Purdy served together on the South Whidbey school board from 1968 through 1970, at a time when there was the beginnings of a growth spurt on the island. Dr. Purdy himself was a member of the board for 12 years.

“Don was a superb, intelligent and well-informed leader,” Yeakel said. “He could take charge of a meeting without creating unhappiness. He had a real good sense about him.”

When his stint in Georgia was complete, Dr. Purdy returned to West Seattle, where he ran a private family practice until 1997.

While the Purdys were in Georgia, Lind remembers staying in their Macon home when he went to Georgia to attend a gift show in Atlanta.

“Don even went shopping with me, but he didn’t take any of my suggestions,” Lind said. “He was a great guy, but he had bad taste in giftware.”

Dr. Purdy is survived by his wife of 56 years, Gwen; daughters Joan, Dana, Dona and Jann; sons Jon and Joel; and 10 grandchildren.

There were no services, at Dr. Purdy’s request. The family said that anyone wishing to share memories can do so at donandgwenpurdy@quidnunc.net.

The family said donations can be sent to one of his favorite charities, Friends of the Seattle Public Library, click here, 206-386-4098; or Room To Read, click here.

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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