Dr. John M. Higgins (1890-1967)

By Eileen Higgins McCarthy and Rita Higgins Wolf

The following article appeared in the Summer 1990 issue of the Sayre Historical Society Quarterly.

John Mark Higgins was born November 17, 1890 at the family home at 120 N. River Street in Sayre. He was the only child of William P. and Mary Cuneen Higgins.

He attended grade school less than a block away from home at the East Side School and the school’s playground was the popular gathering place for the neighborhood games.

When John and his contemporaries transferred to the Sayre Central School (where the Sayre Savings and Loan now stands), they would make a game of trying to cross the old foot bridge “between trains.” That means there were so many trains passing through the “Sayre Yards” spitting out the black soot that it was a feat to get across the bridge without being covered with soot.

About this time, Mrs. Higgins shared her secret with her son. Since his birth she had been saving so that he might have a college education. And now it was time for him to get a job and start participating in this dream. So far-fetched was this ambition they told no one, not even his father.

The first job was sweeping out a newspaper office after school. This office was on the second floor over Catarisano’s clothing store. After a few weeks it became evident to John that his employer did not respect paydays, so he resigned in order to pursue a more profitable occupation. His next job was sweeping out a meat market, also on West Lockhart Street, before and after school, and delivering meats on Saturday.

Soon Dan Leahy, of D.J. Leahy Dry Goods, offered John a job – one which he kept throughout the high school years and full time for a year after graduation while the education fund grew. Another benefit from this job was a life-long friendship with Mr. Leahy and his family.

Finally, in September 1909, he boarded the Lehigh Valley train for Washington, D.C. where he was enrolled in Georgetown University Medical School. At that time, college was not a prerequisite for medical school. He lived in a boarding house and walked to classes and Georgetown Hospital each day. He was desperately homesick that first year, and in order to experience familiar sights and sounds, would often visit Union Station in Washington just to watch the trains come and go.

The boarding house where John lived was close to the Immaculate Conception Church and here John met some other young people. The church held an annual Pre-Thanksgiving dance. John was pleased to see a classmate from medical school, Bill O’Donnell. Bill’s entire family was in attendance including his 16-year-old sister Eileen, who would, twelve years later, come to Sayre as a bride. We still have his dance program from that Pre-Thanksgiving party and “Miss O’Donnell” is written-in many times. At one point during the evening the musicians played “Happy Birthday to You” and John wondered how in the world they knew it was his birthday. Seems the song was dedicated to someone else – it was also Eileen O’Donnell’s birthday.

Four years later, on Friday, June 13, 1913, John Higgins received his medical degree from Georgetown and returned to Sayre where Dr. Guthrie welcomed him as an intern at the Robert Packer.

As the internship came to a close, John realized he would need a car in order to make house calls as he entered private practice in the community. John Kasper had the Ford Agency at 233 Desmond Street and John Higgins bought a car from his side window. Not much Driver Education was required. A salesman got in the car with him and drove with him as far as Keystone Avenue and Stevenson Street – and then said, “Well Doc, you are doin’ fine. I guess I’ll get out now.”

So he took his new prize home to his parents, who were now living at 202 Chemung Street in Sayre. All went well until he approached the garage and momentarily forgot how to stop the car – and it went through the garage wall! Another tragically humorous incident happened one cold night when he left the hospital, went to his car and cranked it up. Then the crank slipped, hit him and broke his leg. So two men carried a stretcher out and carried him right back into the hospital.

These incidents were only the beginning of a long love – hate relationship between John Higgins and cars. He never learned to be a good driver, but the people in Sayre learned to stay out of his way. He never parked a car, he simply left it; and this was the subject of a humorous commentary in the Evening Times in the late 1940’s edition.

The Valley apparently welcomed the young doctor and cooperated with him, too. Telephones were scarce then but there was a regular network helping him. For instance, while making house calls in Milltown he would stop at one of the homes which had a phone and collect any messages waiting for him; and so on in other parts of the Valley.

And he was more than willing to give of himself. More than one family has told of his sleeping on a sofa when a child was very sick, and one lady tells that he carried her sister from their home in Athens to the hospital.

In October of 1921, John Higgins returned to Washington and married Eileen O’Donnell. During the next few years their hopes for a family seemed doomed when their first and second pregnancies ended n heartache. One particularly poignant incident occurred a few hours after the birth and death of a baby girl.

A heavy snow storm shrouded the Valley and he was called to assist a woman in labor. His car struggled through the unplowed roads until he reached the Susquehanna River Bridge. At that point he left the car and walked across the bridge and trudged nearly a mile further to a poorly heated cabin where he helped deliver a healthy baby. Years later, he told me that he cried all the way back to his car – thinking about that baby and of the baby he and his wife had just lost.

There was a spiritual dimension to John Higgins which is rarely seen. He told me that each child he touched he would say a prayer that he would see, or recognize whatever the Good Lord would wish him to see. Considering his years of delivering and caring for children, that was a lot of prayers.

The early 1930’s were difficult for the people of the Valley as many people were out of work. As with many other Depression-era doctors, he was often paid with bags of tomatoes or green beans. And many a house call was explained away because “I was in the neighborhood.”

Remember hearing about the night in May when the Packer Hospital burned? He was delivering a baby and completed this by flashlight.

The war years were very difficult on the older doctors because the younger ones were in the service. Sometimes there would be standing room only in his office waiting room. Some nights he would deliver as many as three babies, come home – shower, shave and a quick trip to church – and he’d start another day of the same.

During this time, by way of post-graduate courses, he became a member of the American Academy of Pediatricians and, with Dr. Guthrie, they achieved certification of the Pediatric Department of the Packer Hospital.

Dr. Guthrie persuaded John Higgins to join the hospital staff and work full time as Chairman of the Pediatric Department. Although encouraged by family and friends that this was the right direction, it was difficult to leave his practice of so many years. Actually, no one was surprised when, in his early sixties, he resigned as head of the department at the hospital and re-opened his old office.

His letter of resignation to his old friend, Dr. Guthrie, said something about “feeling confined” and feeling “bogged down with paper-work,” but it probably had more to do with missing his patients of many years and the freedom to charge $1 per office visit if the situation warranted it.

In 1967, at the age of 77, Dr. Higgins died - having worked up to the day before his death. He left his widow of 46 years and two daughters and nine grandchildren. But to many of us, he never really left at all.

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