SAN JOSE, Calif.
This wasn’t the way 92-year-old Dr. Richard Mahrer or his beloved patients wanted to see his career end: forced out of the cozy, bric-a-brac-filled office he’d worked in since 1956, when San Jose was still a sleepy agricultural hub, and Mahrer charged patients $4 for an appointment.
“Other doctors charged $6,” he recalled.
Yet, try as he might to remain upbeat, the day he dreaded had finally arrived: Mahrer was leaving his practice, tucked between a shoe store and an Ethiopian restaurant, inside a strip mall.
The cramped building Mahrer had called his second home for at least six decades had suffered water damage in April, flooding enough of the space that his landlord told the internist he had to vacate, for good, by July 31.
The era of the old-fashioned, independent doctor who still made house calls, lingered with patients during 45-minute appointments, befriending many along the way — was over.
“I probably should have stopped anyway,” admitted Mahrer, who has blood pressure and intestinal issues, and recently lost vision in one eye. “But it’s difficult to leave, because it’s been my life. And I was so attached to the patients.”
Nancy, his wife and one of his former office managers, called dozens of them to break the news.
“There was a lot of crying,” she said. “Nobody understands how someone could love his work as much as he did. You talk to doctors now and they cannot wait to retire, because it’s not like it used to be.”
Betty Holton is among his saddest fans.
“I love him as a doctor. He’s just wonderful,” said Holton, an 87-year-old former grocery store cashier who met Mahrer around 50 years ago when she picked his name out of the telephone book.
“He takes time with you . . . He listens,” Holton said.
Suzy Q, the Mahrers’ panting Pomeranian-Chihuahua, barked at every patient who walked through the door.
“It did wonders for the practice,” said Mahrer, though “there may have been some patients who turned around and ran out.”
Growing up, the doctor’s six children appreciated their father’s eclectic nature, though none pursued his career.
“It was a happy, interesting place,” said his son Jeff Mahrer, 55, who recently visited from North Carolina.
“It was kind of like his home away from home — he was there every day,” and often on the weekends. Even so, the son said, “he was getting to the age where one should retire.”
Mahrer isn’t entirely convinced.
The son of a Cleveland general practitioner who advised him not to become a doctor because “you’ll never make money in this business,” Mahrer pursued his love of aeronautical engineering in college instead, until his father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50.
His grieving mother then confided in him that Mahrer’s father had always hoped his son would follow in his footsteps — but wanted Richard to make up his own mind, without any pressure.
Mahrer switched his major to pre-med, graduating from Case Western Reserve University medical school in Ohio.
After a visit to the Bay Area with some buddies in the early 1950s, the thought occurred that its temperate weather might allow him to play golf year-round, so Mahrer and his wife moved to San Jose where he hung up his shingle. They later divorced; Mahrer remarried two more times.
Over the years, the internist earned a reputation as an iconoclast among colleagues.
At the time he started working in San Jose, the city of nearly 100,000 residents “was a very prejudiced town with a lot of very prejudiced doctors,” Mahrer recalled.
So when Dr. Paul Jackson, a new African-American internist arrived in 1962 to set up a solo practice, some prominent local white physicians urged him to consider Oakland instead.
Jackson thanked them for the advice, and promptly opened an office in nearby Santa Clara. But few if any white doctors were willing to trade weekend on-call duties with a black doctor.
Mahrer was happy to help, sparking a lifelong friendship with the now retired, 89-year-old Jackson.
“You don’t forget a thing like that,” Jackson said.
Their bond was solidified after a white patient of Mahrer’s expressed outrage at being diverted to Jackson’s care one weekend when Mahrer was out of town. Upon his return, the woman told Mahrer that she never wanted to be touched by a black doctor again.
“And I said, ‘Mary, you won’t have to, because you are no longer my patient,’ ” he recounted.
Twenty years later, when nurses at O’Connor Hospital went on strike for higher pay, Mahrer supported their efforts — though it cost him when the hospital temporarily canceled his staff privileges. He never regretted his actions.
“In my practice, I never made a whole lot of money,” Mahrer said. “I took time with my patients, I got to know the patients. They enjoyed the office, they enjoyed me, and my wife.”
He paused for a moment to gather one final thought.
“I guess if I had suddenly died, I wouldn’t have heard all the nice things that I have heard” these past months, Mahrer said. “It’s been very emotional. But it’s been very nice.”