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Bob Lind, Published August 23 2009

Lind: Doctor at the dam

It was an offer the young doctor fresh out of serving his internship couldn’t refuse.

The Corps of Engineers had a project going in western North Dakota and was in need of a physician. Would he be interested?

He sure was. So Dr. Lester Shook packed up his family and moved to the brand-new town of Riverdale, where he became the only physician treating the workers and their families involved with the construction of the Garrison Dam.

Mud and wheat fields

Work on this, the world’s fifth-largest earthen dam, was started in 1947 and completed in 1953.

Several thousand workers and their families lived in or near Riverdale. For two years, Les took care of all of them.

He said it was a great job even if he didn’t get much sleep and was almost shot.

Les, a native of Anamoose, N.D., had a long and distinguished medical career, primarily as a radiologist. He was a Fargo resident when he died in 2007 at age 86. His family, fortunately, had recorded many of his memories, however, including those of his Riverdale days.

When he and his wife, Ann, and their 2-year-old son, Dale, arrived in 1948, Riverdale consisted of half a block of prefabricated houses and mud and wheat fields.

He was a general practitioner there. That’s an apt title, because the man did it all. He treated sick children, delivered babies, set broken limbs, oversaw the workers’ mess hall and performed “routine” surgeries such as appendectomies and amputations, getting family and friends to donate blood for the operations.

In fact, the day he and his family arrived, and before they’d unpacked the car, Les was called to a farm 12 miles out of town to check a boy who was sick.

Les left his family in town, drove to the farm, thought the boy had subacute appendicitis but, wanting to be sure, drove back to Riverdale, mixed up a solution he needed, returned to the farm, drew blood, went back to Riverdale, found a microscope so he could do a white blood cell count, found it was elevated, drove back to the farm and told the farmer his son should go to Bismarck for surgery, since Riverdale did not yet have a hospital.

Welcome to your new practice, Dr. Shook.

Many babies

Work-related injuries were many. Drivers of large earth-moving vehicles fractured their arms when the gumbo spun the wheels with terrific force. Men were run over. Some fell into fresh cement.

And, yes, there were wounds from knife fights, and there was venereal disease.

On the happier side were the babies. Since the town consisted primarily of young families, Les delivered many of them. One of them was his own son, Dick.

Les was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so he was chronically short of sleep. But he said he loved it: the town, his patients, the people working in the newly built hospital.

But when he developed stress headaches and hypertension, he and Ann decided they’d better move on. So in 1950 they moved to Kansas City, Mo., where he took a radiology residency.

But one of the friends he’d made at Riverdale had a deal for him. He was Peter Kiewit, one of the two chief contractors on the dam. He’d signed a contract to build an Air Force base in Greenland, and he wanted Les to be the physician during the construction.

“It was tempting,” Les said, because it paid well. But he turned it down so he could stay with his growing family, which today includes Dale (Mona) Shook of Fargo; Dick (Lee) Shook of Niantic, Conn.; Robert (Sue) Shook of Fargo, Betsy (Al) Baker of Fargo, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren; his wife died in 2006.

Near misses

Les’ many tales about Riverdale included the harrowing one about a marital dispute in which a man shot his wife.

While she was in the hospital awaiting surgery, and while a manhunt was on for her husband, Les went to the X-ray room to pick up some X-rays. Suddenly he heard a man yelling, wanting to find his wife. Then this big man burst into the X-ray room and pointed a gun at him. “I could have put my head in that dumb gun, it looked so big,” Les said.

Just then a policeman shoved a gun around the door and fired blindly.

He didn’t hit anybody, but the gunman with Les then shot himself.

Later authorities said Les narrowly escaped being hit by both men’s bullets.

So much for the routine life of a physician who in his own way contributed to the building of the marvel that is the Garrison Dam.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com