Dr. Peter Schmitz loves a good story — he’s known as the family storyteller.
His staff at Northern Orthopedics know his time with patients usually lasts longer than scheduled during the hunting season since he’s often catching up on tales from the deer stand or the story behind the deer his patient may have gotten that year.
But the stories — and getting to know his patients — are what Schmitz says he’ll miss the most about his job.
On Tuesday, Schmitz will be retiring as orthopedic surgeon at Northern Orthopedics in Brainerd. He started the company when he opened up his own office at Essentia Health’s St. Joseph’s Medical Center in August 1975. He plans to continue to work two days a month until June by seeing a limited number of patients at the Northern Orthopedic satellite clinics at Lakewood Health System in Staples and Mille Lacs Health System in Onamia.
Schmitz, a Hastings native, had attended college and medical school at Loyola University in Chicago and was interested in four hospitals, including the one in Brainerd. He was invited to a luncheon in his honor one Saturday afternoon and he was amazed that at least 90 percent of the physicians at St. Joseph’s Medical Center showed up to greet him. It was one of the biggest reasons he decided to open his practice here.
“I felt I would have the support of the doctors and I did — and still to this day,” Schmitz said.
He and his wife, Goodie, also grew up vacationing in the Crosslake and Breezy Point areas and they felt it was a great place to raise their six children.
Schmitz was the first orthopedic surgeon in the Brainerd lakes area; the nearest other orthopedic surgeons were in St. Cloud, Fargo or Duluth.
His father-in-law thought he was insane for moving here and told him he would end up starving to death. By Thanksgiving of 1975, his father-in-law apologized, eating his words since Schmitz’s practice had taken off.
“It was the only time Barney admitted he was wrong,” Schmitz said with a laugh.
Schmitz was busy — extremely busy. He had one multi-tasking secretary who sat at a small desk in the hallway outside his small office where he would see patients at the hospital. He was on call 24 hours a day and would have office hours from noon until 10 p.m., performing surgeries in the mornings. He often would work until midnight to 1 a.m. He said he would go hunting for a few days and his children didn’t realize he was hunting, they thought he was just at work.
But 2-1/2 years later he was joined by his Loyola resident classmate and friend, Dr. Steve Bardolph, who had been in the U.S. Army. The two men had wanted to start a practice together when they were in school together. Schmitz’s wife, Goodie, in addition to raising their six children, was their bookkeeper and often worked late after the children were asleep. Even now she continues to help with the bookkeeping.
“She is an awesome woman,” Schmitz said of his wife. “I don’t know any physician’s wife who would do what she did.”
In November of 1978, nine months after Schmitz was joined by Bardolph, they moved Northern Orthopedics to the current building on South Sixth Street. Bardolph has since retired. Northern Orthopedics now has about 22 staff members, including seven orthopedic surgeons.
Dr. Robert Brown joined the practice in 1986, followed by Dr. Paul Rud in 1993, Dr. Christopher Metz in 1998, Dr. Paul Thompson in 2001, Dr. Benjamin Robertson in 2007 and Dr. Amy Lelwica, Schmitz’s daughter, in 2008.
Schmitz said he enjoys working with his daughter and his staff enjoys seeing her boss him around when he’s assisting in the operating room.
“She does an excellent job,” Schmitz said of his daughter.
Schmitz said he’s proud of all of his children. His youngest, Matthew, is in medical school at the University of Minnesota, Duluth; his daughter Sarah is a physical therapist in Brainerd; his son, Michael, is a Catholic priest in Duluth; his son Mark is stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., in the U.S. Army; and his eldest daughter Beth works at a beauty salon in Pequot Lakes.
Schmitz said all of his children, including his eight grandchildren, will be together for Christmas. His son, Father Mike, will give the homily at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church on Christmas Eve while his wife and son Matt will be singing in the church choir. Schmitz also serves as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist.
“I think we’re a close family,” said Schmitz.
Schmitz, 67, enjoys being active and runs or bikes each day. He has competed in seven Ironman competitions around the country and so have most of his children. In 2000, he and five of his family members completed Ironman Canada, the most family members that had competed together in that annual competition.
Schmitz said he’d like to do one more Ironman competition during his retirement and hopes to go on a mission trip to Peru this winter or spring, using his skills to perform orthopedic surgeries. He enjoys traveling, hunting and fishing and will finally have more time to do those things. He’s also interested in woodcarving.
Schmitz figures he’s performed at least 5,000 to 6,000 hip and knee replacement surgeries since he opened his practice in 1975. He has always worn a suit and tie when he sees patients; he figures if they drove 50-60 miles to see him he should appear to look professional.
He said it’s been sad for the past month, saying good-bye to his patients and staff members. Tuesday will be hard for him. The Brainerd Lakes Surgery Center staff in Baxter threw him a retirement party on his last day there last week.
“That was a bit of a tearjerker,” said Schmitz. “I’m kind of a softie so I was right there with them.”
“The whole staff has really been emotional, even the younger kids who haven’t been here this long,” said Karen Johnson, Northern Orthopedics clinic manager. “It’s unusual in this day and age to have an employer who stands behind the employees and Dr. Schmitz does that.”
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.