“Donald Dill, Just A Small-Town Doc”
Never has one person had such a profound effect on Coronado as the late Dr. Donald Dill. This small-town doctors’ doctor had well over 100,000 patients. He delivered more than 2,000 babies here, helped thousands of others cope with their final days, meeting their end with dignity and grace. He provided the sort of intimate attention and doctor/patient closeness only found in old black & white movies today.
Coronado’s beloved and cherished small-town doctor died May 9 of complications from a stroke. He was 87. By all accounts, he died a happy man, content with his life and career, and as in love with his wife Christine as he was on their first date.
When he arrived in Coronado as a young Navy Flight surgeon in 1961, Don Dill fell in love with the charm and intimacy of Coronado. He performed his first surgery in the old Coronado Hospital, on Orange Avenue.
He delivered babies in the most unusual locations imaginable, or wherever the mother happened to be when the baby decided it was time. It wasn’t uncommon, before the bridge was built in 1969, to find him loading up pregnant patients on the slow-moving Coronado car-carrying ferryboats, to take them across the bay in search of a surgical environment small-town Coronado simply couldn’t provide. Doctor Dill operated out of the old Navy Annex at North Island, the old Coronado Hospital, and the current Coronado Hospital, as well as Mercy Hospital in San Diego.
Donald Monroe Dill was born March 10, 1933 in Bryan, Ohio, a small town of 5,000 people. He was one of two children born to Everet Monroe Dill and Elizabeth Florence (Quelette) Dill. A sister, three years older, pre-deceased him.
… medicine was both his profession and his religion
He briefly considered the priesthood, but was so inspired by his own small-town doctor in Ohio, and how he defined the term “general practitioner” (able to meet almost any medical need), Don elected to go to medical school. He remained a spiritual man the rest of his life, but medicine was both his profession and his religion.
Doctor Dill performed his undergraduate work at the Ohio State University, and remained a loyal fan of their football and basketball teams his entire life. He was, himself, a fantastic athlete, standing more than six feet. On the basketball court he earned the nickname early on as, “Elbows Dill.”
He graduated from Jefferson Medical School in 1958 and started practice in 1961 as a naval flight surgeon (four years). He enlisted in 1954 and was discharged in 1962. It was the United States Navy that brought the tall, dark and handsome young doctor to Coronado.
In a letter from his captain, to an admiral at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1957, Don was described as thus, “He is a fine-looking officer with plenty of ability and personality.” He went on to say Don possessed, “… exceptional intelligence, drive, personality, vigor and unusual ability.” This could accurately describe Dr. Donald Dill throughout his entire life.
Typically, he would see 50 patients a day, do a surgery or two, a baby delivery, and still have to cover the Emergency Room. He frequently slept overnight in the hospital to keep a close eye on his patients. At one point in his career, Dr. Dill actually had to close his practice for 15 years. “I just had too many patients, and there’s just so much time in the day,” he would say.
“I’m very proudly A.D.D.,” he once told me. “I would think inside the box just long enough to get outside of it. That sort of personality can make great contributions. It’s served me well. You just have to learn to get out of your own way.”
In addition to practicing medicine on Coronado residents, he frequently helped with Navy personnel on North Island and the Amphibious Base. He made many calls to the Hotel del Coronado to treat tourists. Records show he treated celebrities such as Jerry Lewis, Orville Redenbacher and Dick Van Dyke, among others.
Doctor Dill’s presence as Coronado’s premier doctor has inspired many to seek careers in the medical field. He led an Explorers Scout unit in Coronado and no fewer than 20 of those students went on to become doctors, many of them now carrying the mantle, and Dill’s amazing legacy, right here on the island.
Don started the Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center in Coronado and served as director for quite some time. He would often recall that time as the most rewarding experience of his life – dealing with people who had become clean and sober and reclaimed their lives.
It was not uncommon for Doctor Dill to treat four generations of the same Coronado family. He brought a cutting-edge attitude to his medical practice that is now commonly used by other physicians. He remained a student of his field until the very end, managing to change with the times and patient needs over the ensuing decades.
Every year he and Dr. James Mushovic would purchase 50 tickets out of their own pockets and take Coronado children to San Diego Charger football games. Don was a very competitive tennis and golf player and devoted Charger fan.
No shrinking violet, Dr. Dill was loud as could be in his private life. He could often be seen driving his exotic Excalibur automobile around town and down the Silver Strand. Like an athlete taking a deep breath after a big game, he found being at the wheel of this beast of an automobile to be a refreshing act of renewal.
He was the most visible and loved person on the island
The Excalibur was a 1960s replica of a 1927 Mercedes Benz racing car. It had a long, sleek white body, chrome pipes extending nearly the length of the car, a roaring Corvette engine and bright red upholstery. It looked like something from another era and another country.
For a time, the good doctor sported a thick, long, black beard, resembling one of the Smith Brothers (cough drops) or a Civil War general. He was most certainly the most visible and most loved person on the island.
Don remarried in 1979. He and his wife, Christine Gordon, led a fairytale life of romance and travel. Theirs was the perfect relationship and something he cherished and boasted of to anyone who would listen. In his final days they were closer than ever. Nothing went unsaid. It was as perfect a good-bye as could be expected, according to those close to them.
He was Chief of Staff at Coronado Hospital for five years and gave unselfishly and untiringly to the Coronado Hospital and Coronado Hospital Foundation, to his patients, and to the community of Coronado. It was not uncommon for him to refuse payment for medical services from policemen, firemen and serving military. In those early days, a visit to see Dr. Dill was about $5, but he continued that sort of community philanthropy until the end.
According to the Coronado Hospital Foundation, “He joined the Medical Staff at Sharp Coronado in August 1960 and remained on staff as an Honorary Member after his retirement in 2016. Throughout Dr. Dill’s 56-year tenure, he held a variety of leadership and volunteer positions, including multiple times serving as Chief of Staff, member of the Hospital’s Quality Council, Hospital Board Chair and Foundation Board Chair. In 2007, he was elected by hospital employees as Physician of the Year.”
In 2002, Dr. Dill and his wife, Christine Gordon-Dill, were honored at the Foundation’s Annual Grande Ball, and again in 2016 at the Black and White Gala, for his decades of service.
He retired December 31, 2015. Shortly thereafter, more than 200 friends, family and former patients celebrated his retirement at the Coronado Yacht Club. That day Mayor Casey Tanaka honored him with a Proclamation declaring not just Donald Dill Day, but for the entire month of July – another exception describing the community love for this man. It was a memorable day and one that he cherished until the end.
“I feel very fortunate to have practiced in Coronado,” he said, on the eve of his retirement. “My whole idea of medicine is to have conversations with my patients, and include them in the process. That’s the way I think it should be done. I’ve received a lot of love from my patients, and this community. I’ll always be grateful for that love.”
“I’ve watched the town change so much, and yet so little. It’s still a community that has a lot of intimacy.”
Dill reminisced easily in conversation about a younger Coronado. “In those days Coronado was largely made up of lower socio-economic families. There wasn’t health insurance back then. Ferryboats carried us back and forth to San Diego. There weren’t many restaurants. The town went to sleep early. I’ve watched the town change so much, and yet so little. It’s still a community that has a lot of intimacy. Coronado has also become a mega, mega big community.”
He was continually amazed at scientific advancements. He thought Google a great thing for his patients, as more often than not they came to him better educated on their injury or illness. “The thing is,” he said, “while the patient may not get the right diagnosis from consulting the Internet, they at least become more educated about the situation. Good care comes from participation. It’s an exciting time to be in medicine, both because of the amazing new thresholds we are crossing scientifically, and also because of this enlightened attitude on the part of the patient to seek greater information and knowledge. Suddenly Star Trek isn’t such a fantasy.”
To say Doctor Dill helped shape the medical establishment of Coronado would be a vast understatement. His impact on Coronado will never be equaled. Don Dill is survived by his second wife, Christine, three children, three grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.
Don Dill’s legacy lives on. His family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Coronado Hospital Foundation, “In Memory of Dr. Donald Dill.” Due to the Coronavirus lockdowns, no memorial service is planned at this time, but a celebration of his life will take place in the future.
POSTSCRIPT: ABOUT THAT EXCALIBUR …
“I went to a medical meeting in LA and attended an exotic car show,” said Dr. Dill during a random moment of pure confession. “They had everything – Maserati, Tucker, you name it. I was determined to buy a unique car.
“This guy showed me this car and said Phyllis Diller had four of them It was an Excalibur. He said that’s the way she did her hair, by driving to work with the top down in her Excalibur.
“It was $12,000, and had been built in the early 1960s. It was brand new, made by the Steven Brothers Company in Milwaukie. So, I came home and talked to my friend, Dr. Bob Plumb, and asked him what people would think if I drove around in that thing. Bob said, ‘Do you think they would think you had lost your mind? Hell no! If you want it, get it!’ And so I did.”
As previously stated, the Excalibur was a 1960s replica of a 1927 Mercedes Benz racing car. It had a long, sleek white body, chrome pipes extending nearly the length of the car, and bright red upholstery. It had massive, stand-alone chrome headlights that protruded from an enormous chrome radiator grill, while a cacophony of chrome horns lined the sweeping, wing-like fender wells. She sported exotic chrome wire rims that polished off her unusual appearance.
Over the first few years, Don’s teenage kids would steal the car when he was out of town. Between his teenage children and his own eagerness, the car had been wrecked three times; three times that he remembers.
“The first time, I was coming out of the old bank parking lot at Ninth and Orange. My foot got caught on the side of the car and the accelerator. I took up like a jet plane and ran right through the median strip, stopping only when I made the acquaintance of a palm tree.”
Once his daughter’s boyfriend, Danny Ralston, crashed it into the rear of the Glorietta Bay Hotel. “I didn’t know about it them, but I do now,” said Dill with a shake of his head.
“After the first accident, my mechanic told me, if you’re ever in an accident, pick up ALL the pieces, because it’s fiberglass. Once I was driving down A Avenue to the hospital and I came up to Eighth Street. Coronado had no street lights or stop signs then. I went across the intersection and some station wagon plowed into the side of me. So, there I was, once again walking around picking up pieces.”
Don said his car wasn’t a kit, but it was fiberglass. There were four-seaters and two-seaters. His was a four-seater and only 50 of them were sold.
“Once the Stevens Brothers contacted me because a guy in New Jersey had one, and was in an accident. He was trying to sue the company, so they wanted to drive mine at high speeds and test run it. They wanted to drive it on the Riverside Speedway.
“They easily got the car up to 160 mph,” said Don. I asked how fast Don had gotten her up to and I mentioned 160 mpg. He just looked at me with that devilish smile of his. He didn’t want to give any of his children or their friends any bad ideas, as though they really needed inspiration from him to break the speed limit.
He did, however, describe what it was like driving his Excalibur at high speeds. “When I went down the Silver Strand at night, when traffic was minimal or not at all, the motorcycle-like fenders flapped like a bird’s wings. And, you’re low to the ground and the engine, a 327 Corvette engine with an automatic four-speed transmission (that could be driven manually or automatically), was mounted directly to the frame. Consequently, all the torque came right through the car’s body and into my body. It was plenty scary.”
Don was proud of two things. He never got a speeding ticket, and he never was sued in his medical practice. Then he smiled that devilish smile once more, took a long sigh of relief, and said, “I had a lot of fun in that car. Zero to 60 in five seconds,” he said, as he made a swooshing noise with his mouth and a sweeping motion with his hand. The grin returned …
Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover “Coronado Storyteller.” To find out more, write or call firstname.lastname@example.org, or (619) 742-1034.