I am old enough to remember when a quarter was a lot of money. In the late 1940’s when I was a young boy I could buy a ticket for a dime to a Roy Rogers’ movie at the Majestic Theater in El Dorado. When I reached the ripe age of twelve I had to shell out the exorbitant price of a quarter for that same movie. One piece of Fleer’s Double-Bubble gum was a penny, and one could get a Payday candy bar and a Dr. Pepper for a nickel each. Some mighty pleasurable things could be purchased for a quarter. My friend and medical colleague Dr. George Burton taught me his evaluation of the worth of a quarter, but that lesson came in the 1970’s when I was a relatively young physician El Dorado.
Dr. Burton was twenty-five years my senior and had been in practice in El Dorado as a radiologist for twenty-four years when I began my practice in 1971. He had the reputation for being eccentric and opinionated but far ahead of the times in terms of x-ray technology. For years El Dorado had only one hospital, Warner Brown Hospital which was operated by the Sisters of Mercy, but there was growing discontent in the community with the services they provided. Along with a small handful of physicians he helped establish the Union County Medical Center in the mid 1960’s. The hospital is now known as The Medical Center of South Arkansas. A bond issue had to be passed, and this small group of doctors were cutting across the grain of the vast majority of the medical community, and these men were not very popular with the other doctors. Approximately ninety per cent of the doctors had placed an article in the El Dorado News-Times opposing the building of a second hospital, but the vote of the public was overwhelmingly in favor of building. By the time I began my practice both hospitals were operating to capacity, and Dr. Burton was the head of the Radiology Department at the new facility. He wouldn’t even consider a staff position at Warner Brown.
Despite the fact George’s professional life was strong and growing, his personal life was less than ideal. After more than twenty-five years of marriage he and his wife divorced because of irreconcilable differences. George lived alone in the large house in which they raised their now grown three children, and to say he didn’t maintain it neatly is a gross understatement. He seldom had guests and when he did, he didn’t spend much time tidying up. One of his hobbies was building airplanes, and he told me he assembled his latest plane in the living room. When he finally had to attach the wings, he was forced to move the assembly line to his back yard.
I once helped him assemble a grandfather clock at his home, and prior to beginning the project, he dumped all one thousand small and large pieces out of the their boxes onto the floor of this same living room. According to him he was more comfortable working there. We had a lot of fun working on that clock, and when it was finished, he gave it to me. Cathy and I had placed the clock in the entryway of our home on North Madison, and when we moved to Florida we gave it to our son John Aaron.
George’s economic lesson was taught to me early one morning in the cafeteria of the hospital. Dr. David Yocum and I were having breakfast prior to our scheduled operation later in the morning. Dr. Burton came through the line, placed the food items he desired on his tray and was standing at the cashier’s station to pay his bill. He seemed to be slower than usual trying to get the correct change from his front pocket, but I attributed it to the fact he was sleepy and not fully awake. From his overall appearance it looked as if he had only been out of bed for ten minutes or less. As he fumbled in his pocket a coin fell to the floor and rolled around a number of times coming to rest within three or four feet of George. Everyone in the cafeteria including George heard the rattling sound. He paid his bill and without looking down for the coin came to our table and sat down.
I stood and walked over to pick up the coin which was a quarter and gave it to George. He thanked me and started eating his breakfast. I said, “I’m just thankful to have breakfast with a man who is so wealthy when he drops a quarter on the floor he doesn’t even bother to pick it up!” Without looking up George responded, “I learned about a year ago I don’t pick up anything less than a dollar. It’s too expensive.” “Help me understand it George”, I said. “Last year I dropped a nickel on the floor, and when I stooped to get it, I ripped the seat out of my britches. It cost me a dollar and a quarter to have them stitched up. I was out a dollar and twenty cents, so now I don’t bend over for less than a dollar. It is too expensive!” According to Burton’s current economics a quarter wasn’t worth so much as a stoop or even a squat. Now when I see a quarter on the floor I wonder if it is worth the risk of retrieving it. I suppose it is my Scottish heritage which compels me to take the risk and pick up any coin and especially a quarter.