I first met Dr. Alonzo Peeke – also known as Doc Peeke – when he was already in his late ’80s. It was 1982, just before the holidays, during a District Medical Society meeting in Flandreau. The meeting started with Christmas carols that were accompanied by Doc Peeke playing on his violin.
I later learned how Doc Peeke had been one of South Dakota’s truly rural doctors, practicing his whole professional life in the small town of Volga. He was entirely familiar with delivering babies at home and performing minor surgery on kitchen tables. He had to drive early automobiles on dirt roads and figure out ingenious ways to make house calls during dreary winter storms. He was famous for inventively transforming a car into a snowmobile so that he could provide home visits to patients when other doctors couldn’t make the trip. There are many stories about how he earned the trust and respect of many families in that small town and the surrounding farming communities; how he even started a hospital in Volga so that patients could receive their medical and surgical care there. The picture of his life was almost like a Terry Redlin painting.
It was a time when doctors knew their patients from the cradle to the grave and had a general knowledge of all medicine, only referring to specialists for especially complicated or peculiar cases. For Doc Peeke, this meant consulting the experts at Mayo Clinic, the now world-renowned Minnesota-based medical center.
Doc Peeke was a general practitioner who provided rural health care in the Midwest. It was the end of an era. When many of these small-town doctors retired, there was no new doctor to replace their practice. And though the rural landscape has changed, the lack of competent doctors has remained the same. Patients now have increased mobility; the general practitioners have become family practitioners, pediatricians, and general internists; and in this new era, we have expert sub-specialist doctors right here in South Dakota with specialty care centers in our cities, providing some of the finest advanced health care there is.
But with all this good, something important has been lost. The picture of a rural, all-knowing, and personal Doc Peeke is not to be painted again except by memory.