Dr. John Jenkins, a beloved pediatrician in Henderson who cared for generations of family members during his more than half-century career, died Friday afternoon at St. Anthony’s Hospice’s Lucy Smith King Care Center following a lengthy illness. He was 90.
His passing came just six days after his 68th anniversary with his wife, Beverly, and five days after her 90th birthday.
In strictly biographical terms, Jenkins had a distinguished career.
A native of Webster County and the son of the late J.E. Jenkins, M.D. of Sebree, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky and his medical degree from the University of Louisville. His postgraduate training was performed at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville.
Jenkins opened a private practice in pediatrics in Henderson in 1960. He remained in that practice until 2007, when he became medical director of Methodist Hospital’s Community Access to Child Health (CATCH) program. He remained in that role until 2015 when the CATCH program was absorbed into the Methodist Hospital Family Medicine Program.
When he retired in September 2016, Jenkins had the distinction of being the longest-tenured member of the Methodist Hospital medical staff at 56 years.
During his tenure at Methodist Hospital, Jenkins chaired the Department of Pediatrics and the Credentials Committees several times and also served as president, vice president and secretary/treasurer of the medical staff.
In 2005, he was honored by the Henderson Chamber of Commerce as its Distinguished Citizen of the Year.
‘The most amazing man’
But those bullet points don’t begin to capture the man and the physician described by patients, employees, colleagues, friends and others.
“I would rank him right among the very top in terms of sacrifice for others,” said businessman Chase Fulcher, for whom Jenkins was a lifelong father figure.
“He was just the most amazing man I’ve ever known,” Jenkins’ longtime nurse, Vicki Pennell, said.
“My more than 50 years friendship with Dr. John Jenkins is one that I cherish like few others,” retired banker and businessman Dale Sights said.
They and others paint a remarkably similar portrait of a kind physician who knew how to connect with young patients, who saw patients on weekends and on house calls — long after house calls became virtually extinct — and often refused payment.
Fulcher cites Jenkins as being the strongest role model of his youth outside of his own family.
“Mom was his nurse and he asked, ‘Would you mind if your son helped me train dogs” – Jenkins’ black Labrador hunting dogs, he said. Young Chase was just six or seven years old.
“There was excitement and we were outdoors, and I was around a man that I looked up to because of the way he treated other people (well) more than he did himself,” Fulcher said. “There was the excitement of travel and shooting guns” from the time Fulcher was a youngster until he enlisted in the Army at age 19.
Jenkins set an example for Fulcher.
“I was not attracted to parties or drinking with boys of that age,” he said. “I was not attracted to any of that.” Instead, Fulcher was motivated “to make him proud and to make something of myself.”
Weekends and house calls
Vicki Pennell was “Dr. Jenkins’ nurse forever,” recalled Dawn Kelsey, who as a child was a patient of Jenkins as was her own daughter, Kate. “We affectionately called her ‘Sticky Vicki’ because she always gave the shots!”
“One time, Kate had to have a steroid shot which Vicki gave and Kate didn’t cry,” Kelsey said “I guess the shot is supposed to hurt. (Pennell) called to Dr. Jenkins that Kate didn’t cry, and he came in and gave her a dollar! I love that man!”
Many people tell of Jenkins repeatedly going beyond the call.
“Kate was not quite a year old when she got sick in the middle of the night one Saturday night,” Kelsey said. “On Sunday morning, I called (Beverly Jenkins). She said, ‘I’ll have John call you.’ I told him Kate had a fever and was vomiting. He said to meet me at his (office) side door in 45 minutes.”
When Dawn and baby Kate arrived at about 9 a.m. that Sunday, “I was not the only person going in the side door. There were several other parents with sick children. We went in and he took care of her. When he was finished, I said I need to pay. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
“So the next day I went in to pay and told them, ‘I saw Dr Jenkins yesterday and I need to pay.’ They laughed at me and said, ‘Weekend visits are free.’ This gentleman gave up his Sunday morning and he wouldn’t let me pay.”
“I can’t tell you how many people he met with sick kids on weekends,” Fulcher said. “He’d say, ‘Meet me at the office.’ All his nurses would come to me and say, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ I would say, ‘Look, it’s what makes him happy. You might as well talk to that telephone pole. He’s not going to change.’ That was Doc.”
So was Jenkins’ tendency to not charge.
“He only charged about half his patients,” Pennell said. “He would be a wealthy, wealthy man (had he charged everyone). He’d just say, ‘Oh, don’t charge them.’”
“If you said, ‘Doc, here’s $10,000 if you charge that mother,’ he would not charge,” Fulcher said.
Often his generosity extended beyond waiving his fee. “He had an account at Barry’s Pharmacy his whole life,” Pennell, his nurse, said. “He’d say, ‘Call in this prescription and charge it to me.’ I can’t tell you how many hundreds and hundreds of children he did that for.”
“I watched him give and give,” Fulcher said. “Poor kids would come in often (and) he would send his wife to get them shoes.”
“Some of his patients, he and Mrs. Jenkins bought clothes, coats and shoes for them and wouldn’t tell them,” Pennell confirmed. “She’d deliver and wouldn’t tell them who it was from. He was just that way.”
There were times when a mother would call to report that their child had a fever but they had no means of transportation to bring them to his office. “He’d say, ‘Vicki, go to their house’ and I’d drive and pick up and bring them to office and bring them home. That’s just who he was.”
‘Genuine, kind soul’
Most people referred to Jenkins as “Doc,” but Pennell often called him “Jenkins” to his face. That belied a deep affection she felt for him.
“He is probably the most genuine, kind soul on Earth,” she said. “He definitely ranks with Dr. Cantley. Dr. Jenkins literally made house calls. I was with him for 28 years. He did it through those 28 years, and it’s unheard of.
“He generally made house calls to special-needs kids – cerebral palsy kids, many with Down syndrome,” including patients who were well into their adult years. “He did not want those mothers, who were older” to have to bring their child to his office. “I would load up in the van with him and he would prescribe a prescription and have it delivered to their home. He loved all his patients.”
That was only one of many ways that Jenkins went beyond the call — and he expected the same of his staff, insisting they come to work even if they were under the weather — or if weather was uncooperative.
“He didn’t believe in (giving in to) illness, unless you were contagious,” Pennell said. “He didn’t believe in snow.”
And Jenkins didn’t much believe in strict office hours. It might have been something he came by honestly. The sign outside his father’s medical office in Sebree said, “Open 8 a.m. ’til close,” she said.
“We didn’t get home until 7 o’clock some nights,” Pennell said.
“He made me love my patients even though sometimes I didn’t want to,” she said. “Most (doctors) send (a patient) to the ER to be sutured or if a foreign body was in the body,” but Jenkins would care for them personally in his office. “He was highly skilled. He could have been a surgeon but he chose pediatrics because that was his love. He didn’t want to inconvenience the child. He’d say, ‘At the ER, they won’t know this patient.’”
And yet, his employees were fiercely loyal to him.
“(Receptionist) Betty Grant worked for him 29 years … Kimberly Woods still does his books” and Vicki Brown, who handled his insurance filings, likewise spent decades with Jenkins, Pennell said.
“If you accumulated all the years we worked for him … It totals over 100 years – that’s how great a boss he was,” she said. “Nobody wanted to leave.”
Even with a running joke Jenkins had with Pennell. “At the end of the year he’d say, ‘I’m going to double your bonus this year: Nothing times two equals nothing!’”
There were times when Jenkins had a partner or intern in his practice and he would receive a call from the hospital’s intensive care nursery or neonatal unit about a seriously ill newborn who needed to be rushed to a specialist. “He would close his practice for the day” — turning his patients over to the other doctor —”and would ride in the ambulance to Louisville to the children’s hospital,” Pennell said. “He did that so many times until the practice got so big he couldn’t do that anymore. It didn’t matter if he knew the family or not.”
Indeed, she said, “He never saw color; he never saw wealth.”
There were times over the years when Jenkins had a young patient who was seriously ill and would be scheduled to receive specialized treatment elsewhere, but he would make sure he would be around.
“There are not many physicians who plan their vacations around their patients who have leukemia and need their chemotherapy,” Pennell said.
‘You’ve got to get … a grownup doctor!’
Patients were known to want to keep seeing Jenkins even when they weren’t children anymore.
A running joke was how many adults that Jenkins — who, as a pediatrician, by definition would expect to care for patients from infancy until no later than age 21 — treated. It was not uncommon for a mother to ask him to see, say, their 35-year-old child. “He’d say, ‘I’m a pediatrician … but have them stop by,’” Pennell said. “His policy was, once you got married, he wanted you to have family practice physician.”
But even after they married and were bringing their own children see Jenkins, “They would do the famous, ‘While I’m here, Doc, would you look at my throat? Would you look at my poison ivy?” she said.
“Howard was one of Dr. Jenkins’ patients,” Pam Moran, who held a series of executive positions at the former Methodist Hospital here, said of her husband. “When he got his blood test for our marriage license, Dr. Jenkins said he probably needed to be finding a new physician” — as in, a doctor for adults.
Dawn Kelsey had a similar experience. “He had been my doctor (while growing up),” she said. “When I got married at 27 he told me, ‘You’ve got to get a real doctor – a grownup doctor!’”
Howard and Pam Morans’ children, Chase and Clay, would go on to become second-generation patients of Dr. Jenkins, who she said had remarkable bedside manner. “Dr. Jenkins just had that — talk about horse whisperer — with children,” Pam said. “He could just bring them in with his calm and trust. You could just see it. That’s just how he was …
“I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it,” she said.
Moran had ample opportunity to see Jenkins at work.
Her son, Chase, had so many mishaps and sutures as a youngster that Jenkins called him “Stitch Moran,” she said.
And, she said, “There’s a reason there’s not a high dive (at the swimming pool) at the country club: Clay,” who fell off the old high dive when she was five or six years old. “She just hit the concrete. Who came over the fence but Dr. Jenkins?” The young girl came away from the mishap okay.
“I see pastors and physicians both as (following) a calling” to heal “body, mind and soul,” said Moran, who formerly served as director of planning and development for Methodist Hospital (now Deaconess Henderson Hospital).
Henderson’s long line of legendary pediatricians
Moran has been particularly in awe of some of Henderson’s legendary pediatricians. “I’ll forget someone, but Dr. Jenkins, Dr. (Don) Cantley, Dr. (Fred) Barnett, Dr. (Larry) Crick,” she said.
“We had a Level II neonatal unit at Methodist in 1981, which is pretty remarkable because we didn’t really have a neonatologist until 1993,” Moran said. “It was the quality of the pediatricians in this community; they were in charge of it every day and every night … The specialists in Louisville recognized their expertise.”
Some of them were also involved in Methodist Hospital’s CATCH (Community Access to Child Health) program, in which the hospital partnered with local schools and other sites to have a pediatrician and nurse make periodic visitors to provide medical care to children who weren’t receiving it.
Dr. Cantley was its original medical director. “There was always, not in writing but an understanding that … when Dr. Cantley was ready (to step aside), Dr. Jenkins would continue that. He was excited about doing that,” Moran said.
“I got to experience him from a very broad view – and to work with him on CATCH was perfect and wonderful,” she said.
She said Jenkins regularly went beyond the call of duty. CATCH provided a doctor and nurse, “but if there was a diagnosis of something, you have to get treatment for that child.” Often, Moran said, Jenkins would pay for prescription medicine for a child out of his own pocket. “If something was needed, he saw to it,” she said.
Jenkins was also a keen diagnostician, Moran said. Once, a teacher brought a child to him, worried about their mobility, thinking it was a case of delayed development. But once Jenkins observed the child, he recognized something. “That child had a very, very rare condition” that he quickly and expertly diagnosed, setting the stage for successful treatment by a specialist,” she said. “He just knew.”
His other passions
Away from the office, “Doc didn’t really spend a lot of time with other people.,” Fulcher said. “He wasn’t much on parties. You see 30, 40, 50 people a day — kids and adults — you want to get away.”
Which isn’t to say he didn’t have fun.
“He was full of life, really full of life – a great joke teller,” Pennell said.
“He was so humorous,” she said. “That’s a side that only his close friends saw.
“He was a crazy avid UK fan,” Pennell said. “He had several signed pictures of (legendary Kentucky basketball coach) Adolph Rupp, even (current coach John) Calipari, we had signed pictures of him as well.”
Over the years, many doctors became more casual in how they dressed. Not Jenkins. “He dressed to the nines every day,” Pennell said. “Even when many doctors wore a Polo shirt and their doctor’s coat, he wouldn’t. I never saw such an impeccable dresser in my life. He just believed in that.”
A great passion outside medicine was his dogs — the black Labrador retrievers he trained at his farm near Onton and took to field trial competitions around the country.
“He loved the dogs and talking about them and the farm.” Fulcher said. “… He came and got me every weekend to train dogs.”
“He had labs he loved as much as his patients,” Pennell said. “Mrs. Jenkins knows that.”
The doctor who would come to the office to see patients on weekends could drop it all to take his labs to compete. “For his dogs, he’d close the office for two days,” Pennell said.
‘Never an unkind word’
“Of all of John’s simply wonderful and generous qualities, the most notable, I think, is through those years of association, I have never heard him express an unkind word about another human being,” Dale Sights said. “Now, that hasn’t always applied to his interaction with his beloved Labrador retrievers when they ignored his commands while training or field trialing.
“John is simply one of a kind in the best possible fashion, and one who never sought recognition for his generosity and kindness, however, one who deserved the greatest measure of it,” Sights said.
“He’s one of the finest people I’ve ever known,” Dr. John Logan, who left his private practice to become medical director at Methodist Hospital.
“He’s the reason I came to Henderson,” Logan said. “I knew his father very vaguely. I was in Toledo when his father died. John called me and said, ‘We need you here.’ I turned to my wife, and she said, ‘I can be ready before morning.’
“John and I been such close friends all these years. No one is better than John Jenkins. There’s a number of children in this community who have a good life because of John Jenkins,” whether because of his care or getting shoes for a poor child.
“He has a big heart. He’s a good guy. You won’t find anyone any better.”