My wife tossed in her bed; she groaned and cried in pain. She begged for me to get her doctor to come see her. I tried, but her doctor was away, and the other doctors at his clinic refused to do house calls. I pleaded for them to come. They told me to take her to the emergency room. She felt so miserable that she couldn’t stand to be moved. I was desperate.

I saw my neighbor outside, and panicky, I asked for her help. She told me that she thought her doctor would come to our house to see Shirley. I called, and he agreed to come, arriving in less than a half hour. How fortunate I was that at least one doctor in town showed concern for a person in need.

The doctor examined Shirley, proclaimed that she had a serious case of the flu, and gave her medicine to relieve her pain. She lapsed into a coma and never recovered.

Years earlier, I’d broken my hand while playing in a high school football game. The doctor, whose son had been injured playing football a while before, asked my mother if she wanted me to play more football that year. She shook her head no, so instead of putting my hand in a small cast where my fingers could move, he placed a roll of gauze in my palm, clenched my fingers around it, and wrapped the hand with a long elastic bandage. My mother thanked him for being kind enough to consider her feelings and my welfare.

I couldn’t use that hand for six weeks. When I returned to the doctor, he removed the long bandage, but he couldn’t remove the gauze roll from my hand. My fingers were frozen in place around the roll; my hand bloodied wherever a bone pressed the surface. The doctor clenched each finger with both hands, all ten, and straightened them out one at a time—a far more painful experience than the original break. To this day, sixty-eight years later, I have one crooked finger and scar tissue all over that hand.

I was beginning to learn a lesson. I’d like my friends to be nice, but when it comes to professionals, I’ll take good over nice, every time.

I’d told the kindly doctor who left his practice to come treat Shirley that she had liver cirrhoses. The liver, in addition to other functions, detoxifies chemicals like those found in medications. Any doctor should know this, but this doctor still gave her strong medication, which poisoned her and threw her into a coma that ended in death.

Shirley had been found to have cirrhoses when, right after high school, she was operated on for a gall bladder condition that wasn’t there at all. In those days, 1958, cirrhosis was believed to be caused by alcoholism, but Shirley had never consumed a drop of alcohol in her young life. She was a complete teetotaler.

Knowing that we could never have children and that her life would be limited, both in quality and time, we began life together. Fortunately, her Janesville doctor, Dr. Snodgrass, consumed all the available information about cirrhoses and consulted regularly with a University hospital doctor considered to be one of the nation’s foremost authorities on liver disease. After Shirley’s death, this Madison physician wrote me a long letter in which he praised Dr. Snodgrass for his competency and for his diligence in staying abreast of the newest information about the disease. I still have that letter today. Because of Dr. Snodgrass’s Herculean effort, he was able to pull Shirley through several near-death episodes—but not that day, not the day the nice doctor arrived to help.

I hear people demand a doctor with “good bedside manner.” I see TV ads where financial companies claim their greatest interest to be “you.” I hear friends talk about how they like their professionals, how they’re a good friend from church, club, or neighborhood. That’s all well and good—but they’d better be competent, too. I’ve found there aren’t as many excellent people in the professions as you’d think.

I left Janesville in 1970 and traveled to Logan, Utah, to begin a doctorate degree program. During my first meeting with my psychology advisor, he sat behind his desk; I sat in front watching him peruse my credentials. I could see that he was scanning the results of my GRE exam, an exam in which I’d scored at the 98th percentile. I may have looked a bit smug, but he grabbed hold of that arrogance and dumped it on the floor. He dropped the exam papers on his desk, leaned toward me and proclaimed, “GRE scores don’t mean a damn thing.” He wasn’t a bit nice.

Later, I sat in my first research class, facing a professor known nationally for his excellence, but also known as a difficult grader and one who gave vicious critiques. With all the students in place, he walked to the front and proclaimed, “Some people think I’m the biggest SOB in this university—and I am. If you can’t take that, get out now.” And part of the group did. He wasn’t a bit nice, either.

Near the end of my program, I was required to take an oral exam where three professors asked questions for a couple hours. I didn’t know much about international education, but when my major professor, who was from Australia, asked me that question, I tried to BS my way through. That was a mistake. He ripped me apart and scattered my pieces across the floor. He, too, wasn’t a bit nice.

I had twenty or probably a few more professors during my two years at Utah State and several years at UW Madison. But 75 percent of the information I used in my own university teaching and research derived from those three not-so-nice professors.

It’s great to work with nice people, but just because they’re nice doesn’t mean they’re good for your welfare.

 

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When a sibling unexpectedly inherits his grandfather’s dairy farm, Will O’Shaughnessy turns to selling Fords in rural, pre-World War I southwestern Wisconsin.

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