On Dec. 1, Kenneth Paul Mauterer, M.D., was to have had his big day in his tiny hometown of Olla, La.
The auditorium at his alma mater, LaSalle High School, was booked. A couple of congressmen and local officials were scheduled to appear. And probably a goodly percentage of the 1,370 souls in Olla would have turned out to honor Mauterer, known about town since his schoolboy days as Kenny Paul.
A couple of weeks before, Mauterer had been named Country Doctor of the Year in a national contest sponsored by Staff Care, an Irving, Texas-based locum tenens firm. The 57-year-old family physician was cited for a career of dedication as a rural medical practitioner.
But around 9 p.m. on Nov. 23, a tornado struck Olla, ripping the roof off the auditorium, damaging more than 50 homes, sending about 25 people to the hospital and killing an 89-year-old woman Mauterer had known all his life.
Mauterer said Audrey Hinton had been watching TV in the den of her home when her 93-year-old husband got up and went to the kitchen to take some medicine. She called out to him, asking why the TV had gone out, and the tornado smashed into the couple's home. Mauterer said he pronounced her dead at the scene. Her husband, badly injured, survived.
Part of the rest of that night, Mauterer rodded around town on a neighbor's three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, checking on the welfare of other townsfolk, including his two daughters and a baby granddaughter. Then he headed home, changed into some dry clothes and drove to Olla's 41-bed Hardtner Medical Center to help treat the injured.
Mauterer got home around 3 a.m. Later, he phoned to have the award ceremony postponed. It's been rescheduled for Jan. 21.
His recognition "has given the people around here a little boost, and it takes their minds off the devastation and that's good," Mauterer said. "What I'd like is if it would get some recognition to the area and get some help in here. That's what I'd like."
In 1975, just one year out of medical school, Mauterer returned to Olla to go into private practice at age 27.
"I had a chance to do a residency in surgery or pediatrics," Mauterer said. "But the town really didn't need anybody to specialize, so when I finished my rotating internship, I came back here."
When Mauterer graduated from LaSalle High School, the Kiwanis Club took up a collection to loan the book-smart son of a local carpenter $2,000 a semester to help put him through Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport.
The deal was that after he became a doctor, for every six months he practiced medicine back in Olla, a town tucked into the pine forests of central Louisiana, $2,000 of his school debt would be wiped clean.
Mauterer started paying back those loans in 1975 with country doctoring. He has long since worked off the debt, but money was never the real issue for the man who said he decided in the sixth grade that he wanted to be a physician.
Like George Bailey in the Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life," Mauterer said he contemplated other paths.
"I sometimes wonder, what if I had specialized? Would I have had more impact on people, or where would I be? But I think as a general practitioner, I'm very happy about doing what I did. We're from an area that's real close-knit. If you come out into a rural area and you become part of community, you still get that feeling. It's very satisfying."
"We've had some good times. We've had some bad times, too," Mauterer said, recalling how one week he spent 132 hours on call at the hospital. He remembers that two long-planned European getaways had to be scrapped when a local physician got sick and another left town and the hospital needed a physician to cover.
"So yeah, I regret some of that, and my kids have had to suffer, because there were places they would have liked to have gone, or activities of theirs I would have liked to have seen, but I couldn't. I've had chances to go other places, but when I thought about all the plusses and minuses, there were always more plusses to stay here," he said.
For example, before medical malpractice insurance forced him to curtail his obstetrics activities, Mauterer figures he helped bring between 1,500 to 1,600 children into the world. "At one point, I went to a T-ball game and realized I'd delivered every player on both teams," he said.
"As a rural physician, I'm told we don't make as much money as urban physicians, and I'm sure that 's true. But around Christmastime, I get pies and cakes from all my patients. I get ducks and hot tamales and all kinds of jellies and jams.
"I got three heifers and one of those had a bull calf. I got that for treating a person with severe burns. I delivered a baby for a case of Asti Spumante. If I wanted to go deer hunting this weekend, all I have to do is call up one of my patients and they'll make room for you.
"I also did a lot of free work, and that's a part of it, but that's a great sense of satisfaction, because most of the time they're very grateful.
"The downside is a lot of patients I began with, who are my age now, you have to deal with taking care of them not only in their prime, but in their final hours. But that's not all bad, either. If you can take care of patients -- them and their families -- that's just as important for a physician to take care of them then as when they are healthy."
Mauterer and his wife, Pam, have raised six children.
"I've got a beautiful family. As long as you've got a roof over your head, something to get you around, a wonderful woman to share it with, and kids that are healthy, all the trappings, the things and the big cars, there're not the important things in life.
"So, I would say I've got a good life. I've got a good life because of all the friends and things around here."