Dr. James Ennis Sheehan — RIP
Note: For sure he’s a member of “America’s Greatest Generation.” Dr. Jim Sheehan (my family knew him as “Uncle Blackie”) was also an “anchor of common sense, decency and kindness.” And if there ever was a time when we needed those traits, it’s now. Read on and be inspired by this man for all seasons.
James Ennis Sheehan, MD, Connecticut Pediatrician
By Jack Sanders, Editor of The Ridgefield Press
Dr. James Ennis Sheehan, who brought pediatrics to Ridgefield, CT and practiced here for 43 years, caring for thousands of children and serving as an anchor of common sense, decency and kindness for countless parents, died in March 2003 at Danbury Hospital. He was 80, and leaves his wife of 52 years, Patricia Gallagher Sheehan, their 11 children and 21 grandchildren.
He was an old-fashioned doctor, visiting the homes of children with strep or the flu, black bag in hand, wearing just a rumpled suit jacket no matter the weather, dedicated to his patients, not worrying about the money. “There were only four other doctors in Ridgefield then, and we all made house calls,” he said in a 1996 interview, looking back at the town he’d come to from Brooklyn in 1955. “My automobiles used to last me two years — that was it.”
“He was extremely dedicated. He was extremely honest,” said Dr. Christine Guigui, his partner in pediatrics from 1965 to 1983. “He never made much money from his specialty. When I came here he charged $7 for an office visit and $12 for a house call. That was in 1965. One of his famous sayings was ‘as long as I have a roof over my head.’ He didn’t care about money.”
“He was just terrific. I went to him until I was 18. He took care of my kids,” said attorney Rex Gustafson. “I’m certain Dr. Sheehan could have been a very wealthy guy. But he took care of everybody, whether they could afford it or not.”
He was born in Brooklyn, NY, April 18, 1922, the fourth of 14 children of Dr. George and Loretto Sheehan. He grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and spent summers at The Reservation at Long Branch, NJ, where his family had a large seashore house. A love of the ocean stayed with him the rest of his life, and led him to take his own 11 children on family vacations to Rhode Island beaches.
“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
“He taught every one of us to ride a wave,” said his daughter Anne Doughty. “It was the place he was most relaxed in the whole world. It was truly the place he went to find peace. He loved the ocean. When everything got too much, he would go to the water.”
He graduated from St. Augustine High School in Brooklyn, lettered in track and went to Manhattan College on a track scholarship, running mile and two-mile relays at Madison Square Garden and in the Millrose Games. One of his brothers, Dr. George Sheehan, was also a runner and became the voice of the running movement through his philosophical writings.
The US Navy sent him to medical school, but World War II ended before he saw duty. He did his internship at Kings County Hospital and worked as physician with the Climax Molybdenum Co., a mining firm in Colorado, before returning to the Navy during the Korean War to serve as a division doctor, in California and then on a destroyer off Korea. After a year as doctor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard he began a residency in pediatrics at Kings County Hospital, and a year at New York Hospital.
He had married Patricia Gallagher on Dec. 31, 1949. “He was out in Colorado, and came back, and then we got married, and we went back to his job,” Mrs. Sheehan recalled. It started more half a century of New Year’s Eve wedding anniversaries.
After completing his residency in 1955, Dr. Sheehan came to Ridgefield to practice on the recommendation of Dr. Theodore Safford, whom he’d known in New York. Dr. and Mrs. Sheehan moved to Ridgefield with three children, buying a big old Victorian on Main Street, next to the library. His office was in the house for many years, and eventually he built an office addition in the back.
In 1978 he sold the Main Street house to the library, which knocked it down to make room for its expansion. Attorney Ed Dowling, who handled the closing on the sale, had raised a large family in town. He sent a note: “Here’s my bill. Take it off what I owe you.”
Dr. Sheehan moved his home and practice to Bryon Avenue, where he lived until moving to Casagmo about five years ago. “We all fought it,” he once said, looking the battle against the town’s first big apartment complex in the late 1960s. “Now we all live here.”
After practicing as the town’s only pediatrician for a decade, he started an 18-year partnership with Dr. Guigui. “Intelligence and humor and dedicated and honest,” Dr. Guigui said. “He took me into his practice. He had a tremendous practice at the time. He was very happy when I came — he was overworked. At one point he had practically all of Ridgefield. There were a few general practitioners who saw children, but he practically had them all. I would say when he was alone he must have seen 40 patients a day.”
“He had also hospital obligations,” she said, “indigent patients, where he did not get compensated. He did a lot of that work.”
Rex Gustafson recalled an example of Dr. Sheehan’s personal touch. At age six or seven he was hospitalized with pneumonia. It was before hospital rooms had televisions. “I was staring at the four walls,” Mr. Gustafson said. Dr. Sheehan came to see him — and dropped off the Sheehan family’s TV set for his young patient to watch.
Dr. Sheehan was affiliated over the years with both Norwalk and Danbury hospitals. At Norwalk he was a co-founder of the Pediatric Unit and served as its director. He was the Ridgefield public schools’ doctor for decades.
A man of deep and quiet faith, Dr. Sheehan was a member of St. Mary’s Parish for more than 50 years and had served on its parish council. For all his dedication to work, his children recall him presiding over raucous family dinners at 6 pm each night, and in summer piling them into a succession of family station wagons for an after-dinner swim.
“He took us all to Great Pond every night, because then we’d be clean and tired,” said his daughter Anne. His children remember a few all-purpose sayings that he employed periodically to cast light upon the mysterious workings of the world: “The higher the fewer.” “A week from Tuesday.” And, “Argue issues, not personalities.”
Over years of the tumult of raising a large family — daughters with worrisome boyfriends and troublesome pets, sons playing the drums or taking tramp steamers to Africa — he acquired a wisdom about parenting and life that he shared by example, and the occasional wry remark, rather than speechifying.
“If you got interested in anything, he’d make sure he knew how it worked,” said his daughter Anne. “If you got interested in pottery, he built you a potter’s wheel. When I was a chef, he read the food reviews. I said ‘Daddy, you never go out to eat, why do you read the food reviews?’ He said ‘I’ve found it’s the only thing I can read without questioning my morals.’ ”
He was a voracious reader, interested in everything from history, biography and science to all sorts of fiction. “Whenever you didn’t have something to read you could go to his room, and there’d be stacks and stacks of books by the bed,” said his daughter, Anne.
Besides his wife, he is survived by eight daughters, three sons, five sisters, three brothers, and 21 grandchildren. His children include three Ridgefielders, Patsy Knoche, Connie Cozens and Betsy Reid, and eight who live in neighboring New York state or farther off in Georgia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California — Mary Clark, James Sheehan, Annie Doughty, Kathleen Lill, Matthew Sheehan, Teresa Sheehan, Stephen Sheehan, Maura Sheehan. Of his 21 grandchildren, 10 are Ridgefielders.