Lebanon says adieu to ‘Dr. John’

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Dr. John Ratliff remembered fondly by family, friends, patients

By Stephen Lega and Stevie Lowery

John Ratliff — “Dr. John” to his patients — was a throwback to a bygone era.
During his 41 years practicing medicine in Lebanon, he made house calls, he was sometimes paid with country hams or chickens, and, according to Pam Moraja, it was common to see Ratliff sitting in his office with a pipe in his mouth.
When Ratliff, 93, passed away May 30, it was personal for Moraja. Her mother had worked for him for 30 years.
“He delivered me. She was working for him when I was delivered,” Moraja said. “He was like a second father because he was such a part of my life.”
She admitted her family was a bit spoiled by “Dr. John.” She recalled that he visited their home if someone was sick, or if they came to his office, they could go in the back door.
“We didn’t know what it was like to sit in the lobby,” Moraja said.
After Ratliff graduated from Lebanon High School in 1941, he joined the Army and served during World War II from 1942 to 1946. After his time in the military, Ratliff completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky and then completed medical school at the University of Louisville.
Nevertheless, he always “bled blue,” according to his step-daughter Ellen Benton.
Ratliff’s office was once located in the top floor of the old Masonic Lodge in downtown Lebanon. Bill Parman recalled that his wife went up and down the stairs to Ratliff’s office many times when she was pregnant.
“He used to laugh about it all the time. He said that made her better,” Parman said.
Parman and Ratliff were friends for more than half a century.
“When we moved to Lebanon, he had just moved here to practice,” Parman said.
In addition to their professional relationship, Parman said they took vacations together, including a trip to Spain. He added that Ratliff was an avid Kentucky sports fan, and they travelled often to watch the Wildcats’ football away games.
“We were always at the UK home games to tailgate,” Parman said.
While Ratliff had a “ton of personality,” he was also a good and thorough physician, according to Parman.
He recalled a time when Ratliff had learned that a woman was sick. He was going to make a house call, but he wasn’t sure where she and her husband lived. The husband told Ratliff that he would hang a lantern from the mailbox to help Ratliff find the house.
Ratliff drove for hours searching for the house, but never found it. He called the husband the next day to see how his wife was doing. The husband told Ratliff that his wife started feeling better the previous night, so he’d taken the lantern off the mailbox, according to Parman.
Ratliff’s concern for his patients was common through his decades of work in medicine.
Kathie Hilpp said that, in 1955, she became the first premature baby Ratliff delivered. He also delivered her siblings, and he was her doctor through her own pregnancies, both of which required C-sections. Hilpp recalled that she was nervous during her first pregnancy with her daughter Sara, and Ratliff helped calm her nerves.
After she’d been in labor all day, he explained she needed a C-section and that another physician from Springfield would be performing the operation. Then, he told her he was going to work a fish fry.
“I was in pure panic mode. As the tears came, he assured me that he would be back in time. And he was. He held my hand as they rolled me into the delivery room,” Hilpp said. “He never left my side.”
Six years later, when Hilpp’s son Paul was born, Ratliff was there for another C-section.
“He wasn’t just our doctor, he was family,” Hilpp said.
Ratliff also helped others pursue their dreams. According to Moraja, he paid to send some of his patients to college because he knew they might not be able to afford it.
“And he wanted no acknowledgement for it,” Moraja said.
Vickie Perkins was Ratliff’s patient throughout her life. Even when she lived in Lexington, she came back to Ratliff for medical care for herself and her family. Ratliff was a few years older than Perkins’ mother, and Perkins recalled that when they were in high school, her mother described Ratliff as the nice-looking guy in the older group.
“They never dated but did share a dance or two,” Perkins wrote.
As a child, Perkins did not like going to the doctor, but she’d tell her mother she would go if they visited “Dr. John.” She recalled that he cared for her when she busted her knee open to the bone in a bicycle wreck, cut her hand on a corn sheller and had an appendicitis flare-up, which led to her first overnight stay at the hospital.
Ratliff also pierced her ears without charge, and he was there to see her through a breast cancer scare.
“Dr. John was a caring doctor and person. He and his whole staff were so very kind. But believe me, he could fuss at ya if he thought you needed it,” Perkins said.
She recalled Ratliff getting on her for gaining too much weight during one of her pregnancies. She also noted that he correctly predicted the gender of all three of her children before they were born.
“In those days we did not have the ultrasound to confirm if the baby was a boy or girl,” Perkins noted.
She added that she was sad when she learned that Ratliff was retiring in 1997, although after that, she did run into him from time to time.
“He always made me feel like he was so glad to see me and would chat for a while trying to catch up on how everyone was doing,” Perkins said. “He will always have a very special place in my heart.”
Ratliff also will be remembered fondly by his family. Benton pointed out that while he may have been their step-father, she and her siblings did not see him that way.
“He was a wonderful father, grandfather and great-grandfather,” Benton said.
Ratliff also tried to give back to his community.
He served as the chairman of the Marion County Board of Health for 25 years. He was part of the Lincoln Trail Health District Board when it formed in 1995. He was the chairman of Spring View Hospital twice, from 1980 to 1986 and from 1987 to 1993, and he served a stint as the hospital’s chief of staff. He was also a member of the Kiwanis Club and Lebanon United Presbyterian Church.
Benton added that Ratliff loved Marion County and the people in the community.
“He had a great life,” she said. “He was a great man.”