A family doctor widely lauded for his advocacy of providing medical care to the poor is retiring after 57 years of practicing medicine in Columbus.

Dr. Charles Rau — who prefers to simply be called “Charlie” — was perhaps best known as the long-time medical director of the free clinic known as Volunteers In Medicine.

But prior to the clinic’s 1996 opening, Rau had utilized the same philosophy toward creating other community efforts that provided no-cost medical care.

“The two most important words in a doctor-patient relationship are trust and commitment,” said Rau, 82. “To create that trust, there must be a commitment on the part of the physician to do what is in the best interest of the patient, not the doctor.”

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Childhood

Young Charlie Rau was made to feel different from his classmates during his early years in the University Heights school district in Southport.

Since an ancestor was a co-founder of Fairmount Glass Works (1889-1968) and his father ran the plant, everyone in his home — including uncles and grandparents — kept a job during the Great Depression.

His father, Cedric Rau, had the foresight to purchase a foreclosed home for $9,000 that would sell several years later for almost 12 times that amount.

His childhood residence contained amenities such as a creek, two half-mile rows of fruit trees, and even his own pony. But after his peers labeled him “rich kid,” Rau recalled being a 6-year-old who was repeatedly beat up during the late years of the Great Depression.

“I went to school with kids from some pretty poor families,” he said. “It was a real lesson to learn to be accepted when you were looked at as being much better off.”

Family mantra

On fishing and hunting trips as a child, Rau became fascinated with what the organs did that were inside the fish and animals he cleaned. It was the spark of what would become a deep appreciation of biology and physiology.

But when his anger at rejection by some classmates’ began to manifest itself, his parents taught him a lesson he’s never forgotten.

“You are no better than anyone else, but you are every bit as good,” his eldest son, Dr. David Rau, partner in their medical practice, said. “That’s like our family mantra.”

When Charlie Rau tried extending friendship and respect, instead of aggression, bullies became best buddies. And when he became involved in school athletics, others began to take notice.

Among them was a young cheerleader for Southport’s Edgewood Elementary School named Joan (pronounced Joann) Eberhart, who was impressed when she saw him playing basketball for the team.

The two became a couple during their freshman year at Southport High School and have stayed together ever since.

As a junior quarterback, Charlie Rau was a member of the Southport team that went to the 1950 state finals. When he tried wrestling, his Southport team won the 1951 state championship.

But when graduation came, the athlete found himself taking a backseat to his sweetheart, who remains impressive in her own right.

“Mom was valedictorian,” David Rau said with a grin. “He was the dumb one.”

While her son’s comment was meant as a good-natured joke, Joan Rau admits she never noticed “the brighter side of (her husband’s) brain” until after they entered Indiana University together.

“But he was always sensitive and kind,” she said. “Always going out of his way to help people — especially those in the lower echelons of society.”

Rau, Ranck and Daughtery

After Charlie Rau entered medical school in 1954, his professors often sat students alphabetically. That frequently placed him next to Benjamin Ranck, a World War II Army medic and former teacher raised by a Quaker family in Richmond.

While Ranck was seven years older, “we kind of jived and had a lot of respect for one another,” Rau said.

After starting a second-year medical training program at Indianapolis Community Hospital, the two linked up with Forrest Daugherty, another World War II veteran who was in his final year of medical school.

A year after Joan became a certified medical technician and began working for LaRue Carter Hospital in Indianapolis, she and Charlie Rau married. Although he was still in his first year of medical school, she soon became pregnant with David. Not long after he was born, she was carrying their second son, Paul.

After Charlie Rau and Ben Ranck — who married Esther Allisbaugh — completed their internships at Methodist Hospital in Gary, they and their wives toured several Hoosier communities looking for a place to set up a joint practice.

Primarily interested in hospital facilities, the new doctors were partial to the Boonville area, which was close to what was then a new St. Mary’s Hospital in Evansville.

“They have a lot of good quail hunting down there, but the girls vetoed that,” Charlie Rau said.

Instead, the wives liked the schools in Columbus. And with the urging of friends, the two families moved to Bartholomew County in July 1959 to take over the medical practice of Dr. Bill Wissman.

Arrival in Columbus

Occupying one end of a grocery store near 22nd and Cottage, Rau and Ranck became the first new physicians to set up practice in Columbus in six years.

Since there was no requirement at the time, most of their peers had no interest in pursuing any post-graduate education in medicine, Charlie Rau said.

In contrast, Rau and Ranck had studied new surgical procedures and interventions. They knew antibiotics and anti-depressants were always evolving, and tried to keep tabs on new findings regarding cholesterol and blood pressure.

“You can’t get comfortable and say, ‘I know it all now,’ Rau wrote for the 2013 book “Family Practice Stories.”

“Medicine is always changing. It’s like trying to catch up with the horizon,” he wrote.

After completing commitments he made in medical school, Daugherty became the third partner in the medical partnership in early 1961.

Sandcrest

Business was so good that by 1963, the three physicians partnered with two local dentists to invest in the construction of a five-building medical complex.

Immediately after a storm had passed, they were examining the four-acre soybean field they had just purchased north of 25th Street near the Crump Estates area.

“The rainwater draining from the sandy soil had left these crests of sand glittering in the sun,” Rau said. “So I said: ‘Hey, let’s just call it Sandcrest.'”

It wasn’t until 1982 — almost 20 years after the complex opened — that Rau finally began to see a profit from renting those buildings, he said.

But after becoming a Columbus Regional Hospital affiliate, a $2.5 million investment allowed what is now called Sandcrest Family Medicine to move into an 18,000-square-foot office at 3255 Middle Road on Oct. 13, 1998.

Legacy

As Rau made house calls to an area known as Death Valley — where Mill Race Park now stands — in the early 60s, administering to sick children living in tar paper shacks with no electricity or running water tore at his heart.

While Death Valley may have disappeared later that decade, Rau knew the poverty remained. So he founded a child care medical clinic in 1970 with eight locations around the county.

But complications set in when profit-seeking companies including insurance corporations, pharmaceutical manufacturers and health maintenance organizations became significant stakeholders in the U.S. healthcare system in the 1970s.

“Dad could see the link between growing technology and cost,” David Rau said. “Prices went from a $4 office call in 1960 to well over $100 today. He saw people go bankrupt after a hospital stay.”

In response, Rau was instrumental in developing the Health Care and Referral Clinic, which connected patients with doctors who agreed to take those who couldn’t pay.

Nevertheless, when more than 200 people showed up for a 1994 community meeting regarding health care, Rau knew more had to be done.

When the Volunteers in Medicine clinic opened in September 1996, up to 8,000 residents of Bartholomew County did not have health insurance.

One year after the clinic opened, Charlie Rau received the 1997 Physician Community Service Award by the Indiana State Medical Association, as well as the Bartholomew County Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award for his efforts in establishing the Volunteers in Medicine clinic.

“Since Dad was always part of the leadership, he got pegged to be spokesman, cheerleader and motivator,” said David Rau, who has assumed a leadership role with the new VIMCare clinic that has evolved from Volunteers in Medicine.

While Charlie Rau seems content to spend his time gardening, fishing, hunting and wine-making, the retiring physician said he will sorely miss his practice.

“I’ve gotten all types of hugs, and have come in the past few months to realize how important I was to people over those years,” he said.  “They are my friends — much more than my patients.”

Dr. Charles Rau

Born: Jan. 29, 1934 (age 82) to Cedric and Evelyn Rau in Indianapolis.

Education: Southport High School, Class of 1951; Bachelor of Arts in anatomy and physiology from Indiana University in 1955; obtained medical degree from I.U. in 1958.

Arrived in Columbus: July 1959. Opened medical partnership with physicians Benjamin Ranck and Forest Daugherty near 22nd Street and Cottage Avenue.

Co-founder: Sandcrest Medical Center in 1963.  Known as Sandcrest Family Medicine at 3255 Middle Road since 1998.

Community: Opened a child care clinic in the early 1970s, and later established the Health Care and Referral Clinic in the 1980s. This eventually evolved into Volunteers in Medicine in 1996.

Honors: 1997 Physician Community Service Award by the Indiana State Medical Association, as well as the 1997 Bartholomew County Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award.

Family: Wife, Joan (married 1955):  Children: David, Paul and Steven.

If you go

What: A public celebration recognizing the career and contributions of Dr. Charles Rau, as well as to mark his 61st wedding anniversary to his wife, Joan.

When: 2-4 p.m. Aug. 28

Where: Mill Race Center, 900 Lindsey St.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.