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Doctor just passing through, made Las Vegas his 68-year home

Fresh out of World War II, a young doctor named Joseph M. George Jr. boarded a train to California from his home in Maryland in October 1945. During the steam-powered locomotive’s stop in downtown Las Vegas to refill the boiler with water, the doctor had a 45-minute layover. He walked to the Sal Sagev — the present-day Golden Gate — and was stopped by a bellhop who asked him about the military uniform he was wearing.

George told the bellhop about his plans to set up a medical practice in California. Las Vegas needed doctors, too, the bellhop told him, and Joseph George never got back on the train.

“I stayed and looked it over and liked what I saw,” George said.

He had been a flight surgeon in the British Isles during the war, operating on injured pilots and flight crews. George would open his practice near Carson Avenue and Fourth Street and would spend nearly a half-century caring for Las Vegans.

In May, he celebrated his 100th birthday with more than 100 family members and friends, many of whom have been his patients for most of their lives. Several in attendance were even delivered by George at the Clark County General Hospital, now the University Medical Center. George said he delivered more than 6,000 babies.

A century ago, George was delivered, not by a doctor but by his uncle, in the bedroom of the family’s small shack in Sudlersville, Md.

George also would meet his second wife, Dorothy O’Donnell, in the delivery room. O’Donnell was a nurse, and the two routinely met to perform the deliveries.

On their first date, George took O’Donnell to The Green Shack — “good for fried chicken,” he said — on Fremont Street. The two wed in 1950. The restaurant has since been demolished, and George’s wife died five years ago after a series of strokes.

Starting out in 1946, George charged $3 for an office visit, but sometimes he had to barter with his patients. The most popular items of trade were chickens. George, a self-proclaimed “boy from the country,” would kill, skin, cook and eat the chickens.

Back in the woods of Maryland, George said, “If you didn’t kill, you didn’t eat.”

By the time he retired in 1986, office visits were $12, and he no longer accepted chickens as payment.

George has owned the same home on Campbell Drive near Charleston Boulevard and Rancho Drive since the 1950s. He did all of his own gardening until two years ago when one of his daughters, Janelle DeCorte, insisted he hire someone to do it. George had six children, all of whom attended his recent birthday party.

A recent bout with pneumonia has weakened George, but he has almost fully recovered, though he uses a walker to get around.

“My memory’s still pretty good, even though I’m 100,” he said.

George recalled a Las Vegas that is all but gone. There were 15,000 people in the old Western town when he arrived, George said.

“It used to be a very close-knit community,” he said. “… You knew everybody. The doctors, lawyers — you knew them all.”

When George arrived, there was no city of North Las Vegas, and Charleston Boulevard had been paved only as far west as Decatur Boulevard.

“The rest was desert,” George said.

And the bustling Strip consisted of two casinos, the El Rancho and the Last Frontier.

DeCorte said her father was “very involved” in the community and a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Kiwanis Club of Las Vegas, the Nevada State Medical Association and several other organizations.

At his birthday party, DeCorte said many of the former patients commented about their close relationship with George.

“The thing I heard most is his practice was always very personal,” she said. “He was their friend. … People were devoted to him. They loved him.”

George said he has never given much thought to what his life would have been like had he stayed on the train or never bumped into the inquisitive Sal Sagev bellhop. He is happy with the way things turned out.

“Las Vegas has been very good to me,” he said.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 702-224-5524.

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