Dr. Verner Johnson
Dave Lowell called a couple of weeks ago (August 2010) and asked if I’d heard of Tiny Johnson. I
hadn't, but then he said he was referring to a Dr. Johnson who practiced in Hopedale years ago. Yes, I
had a vague memory of a Dr. Johnson being in Hopedale back in the fifties. Johnson had written his
autobiography, and after his death in 1987 his family had it published. Dave had obtained a copy on
Johnson describes himself as the product of a mixed marriage. His father was Swedish and his mother
was Norwegian. That was mixed enough so that their parents weren’t happy about it. “When it became
apparent that my mother was pregnant, my parents both wished that their offspring be born in the land
of opportunity, namely America.” They settled in Worcester and Verner was born a couple of months
later. His father, who had done foundry work since finishing fourth grade, found employment at the
Moen Works of American Steel and Wire. He was soon able to buy a few acres in Millbury and start a
pig and fox farm. That’s where Verner grew up.
Here’s a bit from the Hopedale years, starting with his selection of Hopedale.
We visited many places, saw much of the country and actually ended up in our own back yard in
Hopedale, about 20 miles from Worcester and near Milford…..We moved to Hopedale, Mass. January
1949. Nancy was pregnant with #1.
part of the country, we knew sort of what we wanted in that we felt priority came in raising a family in a
good atmosphere and a good place to live.
Here again Dr. Kirkendall was a factor. He was the one who had heard about the opportunity in
Hopedale. Dr. Marble had retired and had sold his home on 41 Adin Street to the Draper Corporation.
At that time the Draper Corporation was the world’s largest manufacturer of textile looms and it was a
booming business. There was only one doctor in town, Dr. Kleiber Campbell, who was about 88 or 90
with an invalid wife. His son, incidentally was a lawyer in Worcester and subsequently became our
attorney. They were a tremendous family.
Dr. Campbell had been there for some 40 years and had suffered bad times when he over-extended
himself in the stock market buying “on margin” and then came the Depression. He was a true
homeopath who believed in one or two grains of aspirin instead of five, but a fatherly type, beautiful
man who obviously welcomed the thought of someone coming in.
The Draper Corporation could not have been nicer or more cooperative. They stated they would suit the
Marble house to our directions and did. It was a large yellow house with a garage-barn behind on the
nicest street in Hopedale. In fact it had been the home of Governor Draper years gone by (41 Adin
Street abuts the land where the governor's home, The Ledges, had been. The house on the property
now was built by the governor's son, Eben.) and was surrounded by various exotic, foreign trees
including a gymnosperm tree or so called ginkgo tree from Japan. (China, actually, and it's still there,
along with one or two more on Adin Street.)
The house had five bedrooms upstairs and when converted had a brand new kitchen put in, a fine
office with a consultation room, two examining rooms and a waiting room and a separate entrance
away from the house along the driveway. It was an ideal place to start a family. We arrived there
January 1949 and Nancy was to be my bookkeeper-nurse-wife and soon-to-be mother in about seven
Moving was no problem and was all done in the back of Carl Ecks’ truck. We took some furniture from
Millbury, Nancy’s cedar chest that I had given her on our first anniversary. Dr. Kirkendall had given us a
large couch from his house, the house was mainly furnished with unusual opportunities.
One of my patients, during my internship, was a furniture buyer and seller and he, especially, desired to
help. As I told him of my plans, he told me where to go in Gardner and to pick out whatever furniture I
wanted and have the bill sent to him. This Nancy and I did, buying all the furniture that still remains in
our waiting room, the loveseat that daughter Martha, still has and many other parcels of furniture still
scattered in the family such as coffee tables, end tables, etc. these were then delivered to Hopedale
and after about a month of waiting I finally saw the bill. “Less 50% of the total.” Sincerely yours,
whatever his name was. What a break!
The Draper Corporation built my examining tables, which, son, Dr. Kirk still uses. Draper Corporation
also bought us a new range, a new refrigerator, and I believe a washer. Maybe we paid for the washer,
but they could not have been more helpful.
I would work at the plant as the industrial physician from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. every day though our living
expenses were paid for right from the start. I would then make house calls for a few hours, visit my
hospital patients and have office hours from 2 to 5 in the afternoon. This would often extend into the
supper hour and then I would again have office hours from 7 to 9 in the evening four nights weekly as
well as having hours all Saturday afternoon and if needed on Sunday. It was hectic but fun. The going
price, at that time, was $4.00 for an office visit and $5.00 for a house call. This was quite illogical and
for an extra dollar many people would rather have you come to their home rather than sit in the waiting
room and compete. How things have changed.
During our first few interviews much of our time was spent with a Mr. Fitter FitzGerald who was
personnel manager and who lived across the street from us and who was married to a nurse. She was
very helpful after Bill was born and Fitter could not have been nicer to get us going. Nothing was too
good for the Doc.
A Mr. B was treasurer of the company and was especially nice. He was a short man, as round as he
was tall, with a deep voice. He was particularly knowledgeable of the heritage of the house and took
pride in the fact that he had secured it from Dr. Marble and was especially galled that Marble had left
the place with “all those God damn dog hairs.” Apparently Marble had a kennel and raised long –haired
collies that would walk in and out of the waiting room, in and out of cars, leaving their trail of long hair.
B was especially entertaining with the same stock of jokes. One that I recall he told in the attic of the
home upon seeing in the corner a large crock, which was under the bed commode. “My God, that is an
asset in anybody’s house,” and then roared at his own joke. His wife, a large rotund woman who was
about 6” taller that he, was equally as obnoxious as he was pleasant.
One incident remains in that after Bill was born, Nancy had to quit her nursing and to have her appendix
removed by Dr. Joseph Askins, who was my favorite surgeon at Milford Hospital. It was a trying time for
the both of us but with the help of Mrs. FitzGerald and Nana we weathered what seemed to be a
hopeless story without event. In any event, after a month or two it seemed reasonable that Nancy and I
go away for a weekend and leave Billy with Nana. We took off on Friday night and were there again on
Monday morning, but during the weekend Mrs. B apparently had a cold or something minor. She called
Monday morning to have me make a housecall and made a viscous crack to Nancy to the effect that
“Dr. Johnson is getting like all the other doctors. He gets a few dollars in his pocket and takes every
weekend off.” We had not had a day off for the first eight or nine months of practice.
All in all, Hopedale was a wonderful town. It had been started, more or less, as a socialistic experiment
a century before when the local factory built hundreds of company owned houses, mostly duplexes
throughout Dutcher Street. (Actually, the socialistic experiment would have been in the Hopedale
Community years, not the Draper and duplex building era.) They rented these houses at incredibly low
rates and actually it was a company town that originally had a company store. (Company store? That
would have to have been Patrick’s, but it wasn’t Draper owned. I’ve heard that Henry Patrick didn’t get
along with the Drapers at all.) It offered maintenance of the houses and a good life for the people.
During the high point of employment it built a similar housing area in nearby Milford and brought over
boatloads of industrial people from Italy to serve in the foundry and factory. The company was also the
financial mainstay of the Milford Hospital which was about a half mile away.
It was, and is, an excellent little hospital that practiced good surgery, not excellent but good, but I
thought only fair medicine. Some of the medical doctors were obviously working hard without much
opportunity or effort to further study of teaching. Another young physician who was trained at Worcester
City Hospital, Dr. Francis Berry and I turned out to be the best of friends. His wife, Mary, was a City
Hospital nurse graduate and we were quite close. Another GP named Dr. Eugene Smith was like a big
uncle to both of us, and would send us patients. He preferred to take care of the healthy ones and the
sick ones could be taken care of by the young fellows. He referred me my first patient, a Mr. Hague who
gradually developed necrosis of his distal legs and just sort of dried up and died.
It was also Gene Smith’s downfall to such extent in that I would take care of his problems, but Gene
would go by every night at about 9:30 or 10 and give Mr. Hague a shot of Demerol to sleep for the night.
It was only after months that we realized that Smith himself would give a small shot of Demerol and
take a large dose for himself. Finally having injected 45 ccs of Demerol intravenously he passed out
and had to be sent to the detoxification center in Kentucky and subsequently was placed on probation
and remained for the rest of his life a teetotaler and a non-addict as medical director at the Westboro
State Mental Hospital. He is one of the few beautiful people I have known but has always stood out in
my mind as how weak our mortal soul can be.
Another incident that confronted me early in practice was a local undertaker who was extremely cordial
but a diabetic and probably an alcoholic. One day he presented himself in my office at the end of the
day with a problem. He stated he had a pregnant 16-year old baby sitter in trouble and wanted her
aborted. He laid down three crisp $100 bills on my desk. I couldn’t believe it. I joked that the price was
right but that I had not the slightest idea how to do it, which I didn’t. She subsequently had a “coat
hanger job” in Providence and came back infected and had to be taken care of by Dr. Ashkins, I am
sure with long term dastardly results to her ovarian tubes. This is the same undertaker that gave my
son Bill his silver napkin ring.
Many other frightful memories remain. I recall being in the nearby town of Upton one morning and I
sensed the possibility that a little girl might have acute meningitis. This haunted me during the day and
before I went to bed that night I drove back to the farm house, about 8 miles away, and found the girl to
have a fever with a rigid neck and sent her into Worcester for treatment. She did have meningitis. I had
a similar experience with two acute polio patients, but fortunately things went well even though I
seemed to practice by the seat of my pants, intuition and hunches. Many of those acute things I had not
seen in medical school or during my internship and only then secondhand. Now that the decisions
were mine I would have to make the house call, go back to the hospital to pick up a spinal set, go back
to the home and do a lumbar puncture, bring the fluid back to the hospital and have it looked at under a
microscope and then go back to the home with the bad news. However, these experiences put me in
good stead in subsequent residency years that were heavily involved with poliomyelitis in two severe
epidemics yet to come.
There were many other events in our years in Hopedale. Gladys and Gus were married during that
time. Nana was a frequent visitor to see “my Bill.” “Uncle” Emil, lonely and living on Belmont Hill would
enjoy coming down on the bus with a package of pork chops so stay for the day and an evening meal to
visit the only offspring he knew in Bill. He was a kindly old bachelor by then.
Several of my old Swedish friends from Worcester used to come down and have me as their family
doctor. One couple in particular, Mr. and Mrs. Karl Ribb used to diet during the week and then come
down on Saturday afternoon to be weighed in. Mr. Ribb was so cute in that he used to take out his
wallet and his teeth and place them on the counter to hold his weight down and then try harder the next
week. None of this ever worked and right after his office visit, which was the last one of the day, he and
Mrs. Ribb would join Nancy, Bill and me in the kitchen for Danish and coffee.
My two years in Hopedale were mainly that of working day and night. There was very little home life and
the summers were brutal in that the older GPs took off for their homes at the Cape and I often covered
for as many as six or seven men.
I continued to go to Memorial Hospital to my clinic each weed during the fall months and one haunting
memory still remains. As I would pass through North Grafton, I would go by the Edward Goyette
Veterans of Foreign Wars post. This was the same Ed Goyette that I worked with at Leland-Giffords
along with Emmett Ludy. I still felt guilty about my nil contribution to World War II, but it was becoming
apparent that doctors were still going to be needed in another brewing war. The Memoirs of Verner S.
"Tiny" Johnson, 1916 - 1987.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, Johnson decided to go into the Air Force. He was assigned to
Travis Air Force Base in California. He bought a house near the base and Nancy joined him there. He
had an interest in orthopedics, but minimal training or experience in the field. Nevertheless, he was
named Chief of the Orthopedic Service at the base hospital. After the war, he continued his training in
orthopedics at Children’s Hospital in Boston and later at Massachusetts General Hospital. The
autobiography ends with that, but it appears as though Dr. Johnson became an orthopedic specialist at
Memorial Hospital in Worcester and resided in Holden. He and Nancy had two sons and two daughters.
Both sons became doctors. He died in 1987 and she passed away in 2007.
41 Adin Street
|Finally I Am a Real Doctor
In the Valley of Hope
Nancy G. Johnson, 83
SUDBURY — Nancy G. Johnson, 83, formerly of Holden, passed away peacefully
surrounded by her family Thursday, September 13, 2007 in her daughter’s home.
Nancy’s husband of forty years, Verner S. Johnson, M.D., passed away in February of
1987. She is survived by her two sons, William R.K. Johnson, M.D. and his wife
Patricia of Hampton, CT and Kirk H. Johnson, M.D. and his wife Linda of Northborough;
two daughters, Linda Krouse of Harrisburg, PA and Martha J. McDermott and her
husband William of Sudbury; one sister, Elizabeth Davis of Maryland; eleven
grandchildren and ten nieces and nephews. Two brothers, William and Thomas
Green predeceased her. Nancy was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the daughter of Roy M.
and Norma (Kidd) Green and had lived in Holden most of her life before moving to
Nancy was a graduate of University of Nebraska, receiving her Bachelors of Science in
Nursing and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa Society. While in Holden she was very
active in the community, the P.E.O. Sisterhood, and The First Congregational Church.
During her retirement years she volunteered as a hospice nurse in Worcester and
West Palm Beach, Florida. Nancy was involved in many philanthropic endeavors,
particularly Habitat for Humanity.
A memorial service celebrating her life will be held September 29th in the Memorial
Congregational Church, 26 Concord Road, Sudbury at 2:00 p.m. There are no calling
hours. Memorial donations may be made to one of the following: UMass Memorial
Hospice, 650 Lincoln Street, Worcester, MA 01605, Wayside Hospice, 266 Cochituate
Road, Wayland, MA 01778 or Habitat for Humanity – Gifts from the Heart, 121 Habitat
Street, Americus, GA 31709-3498. MERCADANTE FUNERAL HOME & CHAPEL, 370
Plantation Street, Worcester is assisting the family with arrangements. Worcester