Mike Dunbar

Dr. Allen, helping God (and us) better understand our condition

Dr. C. V. Allen was influential in bringing hundreds of qualified physicians to the Sutter Gould Medical Foundation over the years.
Dr. C. V. Allen was influential in bringing hundreds of qualified physicians to the Sutter Gould Medical Foundation over the years. jlee@modbee.com

Charles “C.V.” Allen once used his column in The Bee to write a memo to God. It didn’t seem out of line.

Like Judy Sly before me and Dick LeGrand before her, it was my duty, as editorial page editor, to edit C.V.’s columns. It didn’t surprise me that C.V. thought God was a regular reader. And here he was, telling God (and us) that one of God’s creations (humans) is, well, defective. C.V. would know; he was a doctor.

That was far from being C.V.’s most controversial column. He would call out local officials, TV hucksters, Congressmen, pharmaceutical companies and even presidents. Through nearly 140 columns, his voice could be authoritative, comforting, scalpel-sharp, humorous or gently sarcastic. Whatever voice he chose, it could not be ignored.

That voice is now silent; Dr. Charles Van Nuys Allen, 85, died of lung cancer last Saturday.

He was a top-notch doctor and a true medical expert – demonstrated in dozens of columns, speeches, lectures and even in testimony before Congress. But writing solely about medicine was too limiting.

With a calm fervor, he wrote of welcoming refugees – because helping people was his calling and because some of them could become our doctors.

He wrote with sorrow over the death of a revered friend; with humor, not anger, when his car was stolen; and with vague annoyance at having “Alexa” invade his home.

He minced no words about Dr. Oz: “As a TV host, he is a huckster. As a physician, he is an embarrassment and as a scientist an incompetent.”

C.V. even wrote a treatise on a leaky toilet, in which he was the target of his own sarcasm: “... a man with (probably) no advanced degrees, armed with special experience, talent and only pliers knelt before the offending fixture and with a deft twist (reversing a piece I had placed upside down) installed the mechanism, which worked perfectly. Nine minutes flat.”

The repairman served a broader purpose, illustrating the necessity for having medical specialists nearby.

Bringing docs to Modesto was one of C.V.’s passions. At his retirement dinner in 2008, it was said he had coaxed, cajoled and convinced some 562 doctors to move here. More would follow. And when something interfered with those efforts, he spoke up. In talking to young docs, he realized many had already Googled Modesto, finding www.modbee.com stories that painted an often unflattering picture. He wanted us to provide more balance.

His love of this region was real. He wrote that in 1966, “when I had the choice of most anyplace to practice, my wife and I chose Modesto. And we have no regrets.”

So proud of our medical community was he, that he once emailed The Bee from London to let us know that for the second year in a row Sutter Gould Medical Foundation had finished first among 100 organizations in a quality survey.

But most of all, he was a crusader for reform and an advocate for single-payer healthcare. A man of mostly Midwestern, conservative values – when conservatives acted with compassion and honest charity – he knew what needed to be done. And that didn’t include abandoning the already ill.

Just before Christmas in 2016, he wrote, “our president-elect is on track to preside over the premature and preventable deaths of 16,000 Americans – each year.”

Such strong statements elicited strong reactions from Trump-supporting readers and unconvincing rebuttals from medical companies. Didn’t matter. C.V. had the data; he never backed down.

Many more readers wrote to thank him: “I feel I know you, but I have never met you,” wrote one. “A well written and enlightening piece,” wrote another. After his embrace of the Affordable Care Act, one wrote: “I agreed with everything he said and how well he said it.”

Then this, “Clearly the best column in The Bee today.”

After a column about Medicare for all, a reader wrote: “I hope your column somehow gets wide distribution beyond The Modesto Bee. It’s worthy of much attention.”

C.V. once noted that his views made him “too controversial” to speak to one of Modesto’s Rotary clubs. He found that amusing, since he had spoken before the Stockton Rotary, the League of Women Voters and in college classrooms “with no resulting riots.”

Not everything he wrote was pure gold. Judy Sly once rejected a column predicated on the story of a preacher, a reporter, a child in danger from an onrushing train and a heroic hen. He called it his “shaggy chicken” story.

When Judy retired, he resubmitted it. Like Judy, I found it too, uh, subtle and sent it back. We’ve reconsidered, you can read it at modbee.com. And you can read nearly all his Bee columns in “Keeping Score,” a collection published in 2015.

My memories of C.V. will include his brilliant grasp of policy and discussions over word choices. But it will also include the day I spotted him, already semi-retired 16 years, standing outside the Sutter Gould building on Coffee. For 5 minutes he spoke to a patient, his hand on her shoulder, his voice calm, his smile reassuring. Intent on her, he didn’t notice me. But as he spoke, she began to stand straighter, her face brightened. She appeared, well, healthier.

Yes, C.V. Allen wrote a memo to God detailing the design deficiencies of mankind; deficiencies C.V. spent his entire life addressing.

I envision him talking to his new (and infinitely better) editor who is just now hearing the pitch for the “shaggy chicken” story. And I’m not sure that even God will get it.

Mike Dunbar is editorial page editor of The Modesto Bee. 209-578-2325.