Still Al: Remembering a Pendleton psychiatrist

East Oregonian, June 8, 2015

Dr. Al Baxter

Dr. Al Baxter

He was still Al.

The movie “Still Alice” follows the decline of a college professor with Alzheimer’s disease who, despite her deteriorating brain, finds ways to convey her inner spirit. That’s Albert Baxter, too, says his family.

“He was joyful up until the last,” said his wife, Lorie Baxter, of the longtime Pendleton psychiatrist. “He was cheerful and other-oriented in the midst of the disease.”

Case in point: About two months ago, after he had moved from his North Hill home to the Ashley Manor care facility, he banged on his table and called out, “Attention. Attention. Attention, everyone,” and tried unsuccessfully to rise. When residents and staff turned to listen, Baxter looked at staff members and said in a strong voice, “Thanks very much for all this.” His audience cheered and clapped.

The Pendleton psychiatrist — for decades the only psychiatrist based in the city — died last Tuesday of suspected Alzheimer’s disease at age 88. He had faded in recent months.

“He couldn’t put six words together and he had begun mumbling,” said his wife, Lorie. “Then he had this moment of clarity. Everyone was in shock. He didn’t string the words together perfectly, but the meaning was clear. The (staff members) were crying.”

The psychiatrist closed his private practice at age 86 after 30 years. A World War II veteran, he earlier served as superintendent at the Eastern Oregon State Hospital and medical director at the Eastern Oregon Alcohol Foundation and at Pendleton Academies, which served children with mental health challenges. Over the years, he also was chief of staff at St. Anthony Hospital and acted as a psychiatric consultant for Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center and the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. He was Oregon State Surgeon for eight of his combined 39 years with the Oregon National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve.

The Ohio native started his career in general medicine in Salem, delivering more than 1,000 babies before switching to psychiatry. Baxter accepted a job in Pendleton in 1975, Lorie said, to move close to hunting and fishing and the Pendleton Round-Up, which he attended every year wearing boots and a Stetson hat. First he worked as something of a circuit rider between numerous Eastern Oregon mental health clinics before moving on to the Eastern Oregon State Hospital and, later, to private practice.

Dr. David Conant-Norville, a Portland child psychiatrist who flies once a week to Pendleton from Portland, remembers Baxter as a friend and mentor. After finishing psychiatrist training, Conant-Norville needed to find a rural practice for two years of service. He drove his family to Pendleton to check out a possible placement with Baxter. Upon meeting, the two formed an instant bond. Conant-Norville was so ecstatic about the encounter that he forgot to fill his Subaru wagon with gas before heading back home with his wife and two small children.

“We ran out seven miles from Arlington,” he said.

Eventually, Baxter asked Conant-Norville to partner in the practice. Conant-Norville described his mentor as a quiet, intelligent, problem solver who saw the big picture, respected others and never complained.

“He was always able to smile and make things better,” he said.

Lorie said he seasoned his life with family time (he had five children with his first wife, Yvonne), golf (including a hole-in-one at the Pendleton Country Club in 1989), his nightly crossword, hunting and fishing, opera, classical music and gardening with Lorie. He once built a kayak in the living room. He supported local arts and symphony.

Bruce Gianotti, who fished, swapped stories and sipped Scotch with Baxter, described him as a quiet and observant man with a strong sense of humor. Even after the dementia set in, Gianotti said, the wit emerged. Recently, when Gianotti visited Al at the care home, Baxter stayed quiet through a one-sided conversation. He had become increasingly non-verbal. Finally, Gianotti got up to go, flashing Al a grin and leaving him with a smart-aleck remark.

“Hey, Al,” he teased. “Glad you got to see me.”

Baxter looked up and launched the unexpected zinger.

“You’d be hard to miss.”

Lorie will miss her husband of 36 years.

“He stayed a kind man with humility to the end of his life,” she said. “He never lost his sense of humor. He stayed Albert right to the end.”