CAREER DRAWS TO A CLOSE FOR ELGIN'S COMMUNITY PHARMACIST
There it is again. The slightest catch in Derv Fortenberry's voice when he talks about his customers.
"I've watched two generations grow up over the counter," the pharmacist says. "First you see just the tops of their heads. Then their eyes noses. Eventually you see their whole heads."
He smiles, but there's that catch again.
And a pause as Derv thinks back over all the children of Elgin lodged in his memories.
"Well, I suppose it's almost three generations now," he adds, sounding a bit surprised.
Although he says his only regret is not finding a buyer for Derv's Drugs, that telltale catch leads one to believe Derv's impending retirement comes with a bag of mixed blessings.
Which, after more than 39 years of serving his community, is understandable.
In 1960, Fortenberry graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in pharmacy. In those days, he says, it was every new pharmacist's dream to own his own store. Today, he says, only 2 percent of pharmacy graduates have that same dream. Today, they prefer to work for someone else someone big.
"The old community pharmacist is a dying breed," he says, counting on both hands the number of independently owned drugstores like his that have closed over the years. Small town traditions taken for granted and sorely missed once they're gone going the way of house calls and soda fountains.
By 1965, Derv and Peggy Fortenberry were living in Walla Walla, and Derv had a job as a pharmacist working for somebody else. Through a drug salesman, he heard about a little drug store for sale in Elgin and the couple came to see it. They thought Elgin would be a great place to start, not realizing they'd end up staying forever.
"Most of our family was in Colorado we just kinda thought we'd always go there," Derv explains.
But, after moving into the community, Derv joined the chamber of commerce and the Jaycees. He won a seat on the city council and eventually served as mayor. Before they knew it, the roots were deep.
"You grow attached to a community, the people and a way of life," Derv says. And there's that catch. The pause.
"We could have lived anywhere else and made more money, but that's not what life's about. The people you live with that's what it's all about."
Derv had a taste of what life is all about in the early 1980s after he thought he had sold the store once before and moved to Milton-Freewater. While working there, Derv realized he missed the personal contact he'd enjoyed in Elgin. His new customers at the big store were just numbers. Keeping his head down, he says, he filled bottle after bottle. Over one Christmas season, he remembers, he talked to two customers. And it was all business.
"You didn't feel like you were really serving anybody," he says of his time there.
So, they came home and took back the store thinking when the time came to really retire, he'd find another buyer. And he talked about retiring, but nobody really took him seriously until last summer when he put the business up for sale, says Sharon Glasson.
"They probably thought he'd be here forever," she jokes.
Glasson has worked for Derv for 30 years and says most days Derv is behind the counter all day even through lunch.
His bowed head a familiar sight, Derv takes time to visit and joke a little with customers dispensing more than pills from behind that counter.
Public response to the store's closing and Derv's impending retirement has been a mixture of disbelief, a few tears and some mock anger. But mostly everybody agrees Derv has earned this retirement.
The 1897 building which Derv has leased all these years will sit empty. The business was purchased by Rite-Aid. For six months, Derve will work with them part-time in La Grande, making sure his customers have as smooth a transition as possible. Rite-Aid has offered positions to Derv's employees Glasson and Joy Waters.
So what will Derv do in six months?
Well, it seems he likes to watch programs on horse training methods used by the likes of John Lyons and Pat Parelli. An outdoorsman who has ridden and hunted all his life, Derv says he watches RFD-TV and thinks maybe he'd like to try one of those new methods of horsemanship on a wild horse. He also wants to travel and visit family, too. And he says there are a lot of chores around the house that need looking into.
"I've got a lot of fences to build," he says.