A rural physician who served his patients for more than four decades, Dr. Orlan Pflasterer approached the practice of medicine with understanding and kindness as he cared for the community of Coulterville and the people of Randolph County.
Orlan Walter Pflasterer was born on September 27, 1927, in the village of Darmstadt in St. Clair County. The small town was named for the German city of Darmstadt, and Orlan was one of many residents who could trace their ancestry back to Germany. He was the elder of two sons born to Philip Pflasterer, a teacher, and his wife, Meta Kirchhoefer Pflasterer. Orlan’s younger brother, Philip Jr., was born in 1930.
Orlan’s earliest years were spent in St. Clair County, but the Pflasterer family soon moved to Tilden, where Philip Sr. began teaching in the local schools. Orlan and his brother were educated in Tilden’s elementary schools before attending high school in Marissa. There, Orlan played on the school’s basketball team. He was also nurturing a pair of ambitions: to serve his country, and to care for his fellow citizens.
In December 1941, when the United States entered World War II, Orlan was fourteen years old. Like so many of his generation, he felt compelled to do his part. Immediately after his graduation from Marissa High School in May 1945, Orlan decided to enlist in the military. Even as he started his college studies at Southern Illinois University, he was intent on serving his country. After initially considering enlisting in the navy, he ultimately signed up for army service. He signed up with the reserves in December 1945, and the following July, he enlisted in the army. He served for a little over a year, gaining his honorable discharge in August 1947.
After returning from his time in the service, Orlan refocused on his second goal: becoming a physician. He’d known that he wanted to be a doctor since he was a young teenager, he later recalled, but he “didn’t really tell anybody.” He explained, “I kept it to myself for a while. I realized there was a lot involved, including the finances.” With the added maturity gained through his time in the army, he was able to commit to the intense course of study required.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University, he enrolled in 1950 at the University of Illinois medical school in Chicago. He was quickly inducted into Alpha Kappa Kappa, the professional medical fraternity. He completed his medical degree in the spring of 1954, and he soon began his year-long internship. Before the end of the year, though, a medical mentor came calling from close to home. Harry B. Dickinson, a physician who had been practicing in Coulterville for almost 25 years, asked Orlan to come and pitch in at his office. Dickinson, who was in his late 50s, was dealing with worsening personal health issues. He died in July 1955, less than a year after Orlan had begun working with him.
Orlan didn’t know it then, but that call from Dr. Dickinson was the beginning of a career in medicine in Coulterville for the young Dr. Pflasterer that would last for almost half a century. In those days, doctors were less specialized in their practices, performing many more services for their patients. For Orlan, that meant everything from treating infections and illnesses to diagnosing heart attacks, performing minor surgeries, and delivering babies. Over a span of 25 years, he helped to bring more than a thousand babies into the world in Randolph County. In 1995, he reminisced, “I delivered babies for $75 for several years. I delivered close to 1,500, give or take a few. That counts those delivered in training. I delivered five sets of twins one year. That doesn’t happen very often. It all turned out well.”
Many of the deliveries Orlan attended were house calls, and he recalled one particularly memorable birth. In the 1960s, he received an early morning call to attend a laboring mother in a rural farmhouse. He hopped in his ’52 Plymouth and navigated the familiar rural roads to the home. “I delivered a baby with the help of a 3-year-old and a puppy biting me on the heels,” he told the Belleville News-Democrat. Some of the children he delivered would become life-long patients at his practice, and eventually, he delivered some of their babies as well. His obstetrics career ended in the 1980s, when more specialized care began to be available locally.
For two decades, Orlan lived in the apartment attached to his small medical office in Coulterville, bringing him in very close proximity to both his patients and anyone else in town who wanted a medical opinion at odd hours. Because a popular tavern was located across the street, he recalled that patrons would decide at closing time that they suddenly needed to chat with him about various health conditions. “They’d bang on the door, wanting me to check their blood pressure,” he sighed. “I’d tell them to go home, but I still had to get up.”
In the 1970s, a necessary expansion of the practice led Orlan to finally purchase a home of his own in Coulterville. Early on, he had run the practice with only the help of an office manager, Margery Wisely, who had been working at the office since Dr. Dickinson’s days. She remembered the young doctor as kind but mature. “He came in with a good caring attitude and he’s been the same through the years.” She added, “He has a good sense of humor, but he can be very, very serious when he wants to be.” The two quickly decided to expand the staff, hiring a registered nurse to extend their ability to provide patient care. By the 1990s, the practice had a staff of nine. And, like many doctors practicing in the area, Orlan also shared shifts as the emergency room physician at Sparta’s hospital, which did not then have a dedicated doctor for the role. He also served on the staff of St. Clement’s Hospital in Red Bud.
Orlan prided himself on his connections with his patients and his ability to meet the medical needs of the people of Coulterville in ways that made them feel comfortable. He was one of the last physicians in the area who still made house calls. “Sometimes that’s the most convenient thing to do,” he told the Southern Illinoisan in 1995. “You can get acquainted with the family situation, and see how they live.” Patients often showed their appreciation by bringing extra gifts to supplement the $25 office visit fee: homespun items like produce from their garden, deer sausage, and apple butter.
But even as he continued older and more traditional ways of practicing medicine, Orlan understood the need to evolve, especially as medical technology improved and new innovations became more readily available. In the 1990s, as he neared retirement, he reflected on some of the biggest changes he’d seen during his four decades on the job. The first “good, big change” he identified in an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat was the polio immunization. He remembered caring for local children with the disease when he first began practicing in Coulterville: “I dreaded that late summertime when a kid showed up with a fever.”
He mentioned better vaccines, better anesthesia, and better medications as major advancements he’d witnessed during his time. He also adopted the use of computers to manage the medical information and paperwork in his small practice, keeping up with the quick pace of technological change. But he also believed that the basics of communicating with patients hadn’t changed much at all: “You still have to see a patient, take a history, do a physical examination. There’s no way to take a short cut there.”
Orlan’s ability to adapt while maintaining the trust of his patients earned him the recognition of his peers as well. Notably, he served as president of the Southern Illinois State Medical Society. He also contributed his time and expertise to numerous local boards, including the Coulterville Care Center Board, the Fire District Board, the Coulterville Ambulance Association, and the Randolph County 407 Mental Health Board. And he watched the expansion of medical services in Coulterville, welcoming the arrival of a new doctor in the 1990s and the construction of a clinic by Sparta Hospital. “All of this was done with my encouragement and approval,” he noted.
Though his primary dedication was always to his practice and his patients, Orlan also managed to find time to enjoy a wide range of hobbies. He read voraciously, especially thrillers by Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum. He was an avid fisher, taking trips to Florida to try his hand at deep-sea fishing and going on annual trout fishing vacations to Montana. And he loved playing the fiddle. In the 1980s and 1990s, he could be found playing with a bluegrass band with friends at the Randolph County Fair or at local nursing homes and sheltered workshops. “We don’t even have a name,” another member of the group, Bob Moeller, told the Southern in the summer of 1995. “It’s pretty informal.” Along with his fiddle, Orlan also sang and played the harmonica with the group as they performed songs like “In the Good Old Summertime” and “The Tennessee Waltz.”
In the spring of 1995, not long before his 68th birthday, Orlan received an especially important and meaningful award: he was named the Rural Health Practitioner of the Year by the Illinois Rural Health Association. With the honor came significant attention from the local press, including several extensive profiles in the papers. “The award was a complete surprise,” he told the Southern Illinoisan. “I think there are hundreds of other physicians just as deserving.” He explained to a reporter from the Belleville News-Democrat, “Somehow or other I was chosen. I tell people it was probably an endurance contest because I stuck it out for 40 years.” Though Orlan tried to downplay the award, his patients and friends were enthusiastic in sharing their praise of the doctor, noting that his kind manner, his dedication, and his careful attention made him more than deserving of the honor.
With the award, and the recognition of four decades of work, came questions about retirement. “I enjoy my work,” he replied. “I still look forward to coming to work every day.” He admitted that he wouldn’t mind slowing down just a little bit, to give himself more time to devote to fishing and fiddling and reading. Five years later, when he was in his early 70s, the time for retirement finally came. But it coincided with a happy new chapter as well. Just before his 73rd birthday in September 2000, he married Ardith “Dardee” Zollers Ervin, a social worker from Colorado, at the Methodist Church in Coulterville. The marriage brought him three stepchildren, Mark, Daniel, and Ann, and four grandchildren as well.
Orlan and Dardee divided their time between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Coulterville in the final years of his life. In retirement, he even still occasionally paid house calls to patients who were too old or sick to travel. Three years after his marriage, on September 17, 2003, Orlan passed away at the age of 75 at St. Louis University Hospital. To accommodate the large number of people who wanted to remember and celebrate his life, the funeral of their beloved “Doc” Pflasterer was held in Coulterville’s school gymnasium. “He was a brilliant person,” his wife, Dardee, remembered after his death. “He was a well-loved man and a fantastic doctor.”
“It has been a great life,” Orlan told reporters in 1995. “I have made some real good friends among my patients and my peers.” For almost fifty years, his simple philosophy of serving others—extending kindness, understanding, and serious concern to his patients and to his fellow citizens—helped Dr. Pflasterer to build a lasting legacy in Coulterville. His example of service to his community provides us all with a challenge to continue that legacy today.
Dr. Orlan W. Pflasterer was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2022.