Although he retired officially a dozen years ago, Dr. Ralph Calandrella continued to care for the black-lung widows of Kitzmiller in the Maryland mountains, usually without charge.
The career that made him a beloved figure in the remote town along the north branch of the Potomac River ended here today in disgrace in an Allegany County courtroom.
Promising never to practice again, the 77-year-old white-haired physician with the Lion's Club service pin in his lapel was fined $5,000 for illegally selling barbiturates and other drugs. The county prosecutor, Lawrence V. Kelly, called him a major supplier of controlled dangerous substances in western Maryland.
"You're always looking for the guy in the raincoat standing outside the school yard--isn't that everyone's concept of a drug dealer," Kelly said after Judge J. Frederick Sharer imposed sentence. "Then you put a face on it and it becomes much different."
The case of "Doc Cal," as he is universally known in the former mining town where he has lived since 1935, was "very peculiar, unusual and unique," the prosecutor said. "Here's a guy who really had a god-like status. It's hard to conceive of his clay feet."
Calandrella's status was so unique that the case was moved here from his home county of Garrett, whose chief prosecutor and lone circuit judge declined to handle it for reasons of friendship. "I was both amazed and saddened," said Garrett State's Attorney James L. Sherbin. "It doesn't make sense."
If "Doc Cal" ever sought riches from his practice, he kept it a well-hidden secret. He and his wife, Mary, live in a modest home at the end of town known as "The Bottom," along the Potomac. He owns 130 acres that a patient willed him for "doctoring" and paying the man's taxes before he died and a 1969 two-door Chevrolet. His only income, he testified in court, is a monthly $480 Social Security check.
Kelly, who prosecuted the case, observed, "There is not even one Lincoln Continental, no palatial estate, no holdings in Puerto Rico. He does not even own IBM or Exxon."
But records seized by Maryland State Police allegedly showed that Calandrello disposed of 120,000 more pills than he prescribed in 1982. And, according to Kelly, many wound up in the hands of criminals who stole, burgled and forged to support their habit.
An investigation led to his arrest in February, after he sold an undercover officer more than 2,700 tablets on three separate occasions for a total of $510 (or under 20 cents apiece), according to court papers. The drugs included potentially addictive sedatives, depressants and hypnotics.
His arrest and brief incarceration until he could post bond outraged past and present residents of Kitzmiller, whose population sank from some 800 when the doctor arrived to its present 300 or so after the mines shut down about 30 years ago. Angry letters from his supporters filled columns in the Oakland Republican, Garrett's weekly newspaper.
One former resident described him in the paper as "one of the most compassionate and caring men who walks the face of the earth." Kitzmillerites' anger rose when the doctor suffered a heart attack after his arrest and did not have his medication because the authorities had seized it along with his other pharmaceuticals.
Over the years, in a town without a drug store that is many miles from the next nearest doctor or hospital, "Doc Cal" was the only health care provider. He was also the town's mayor for six years in the 1960s and served on the county board of education for six years during the prior decade.
"He's been a good guy in this town for a long time and I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude," said Mayor Lois Mosser.
While doctors elsewhere were raising prices, investing in motels and foregoing house calls, Calandrello continued as before. Refusing to accept Medicare payments because of his distaste for bureaucratic paperwork, he nonetheless charged his largely low-income patients little or nothing. He held office hours six days and several nights a week, and trudged through the snow if necessary to care for home-bound patients at all hours. He dedicated his practice to the people in and around his adopted hometown, eschewing membership in the county medical society or staff privileges at the county hospital.
Despite the doctor's good works over the years, Kelly said he had become "a significant problem that had to be shut down." So Calandrello pleaded guilty July 13 to five counts and five others were dropped.
"I admit maybe I didn't use the right judgment," the doctor told the judge today, prior to sentencing.
"I guess I got in the habit of dispensing more than you usually do. But a lot [of patients] came a great distance. You couldn't give them [just enough for] a day or two, so I gave them a couple of weeks medication."
Asked by the judge why he continued to dispense so many in recent years, he replied, "Well, some of them, they said they'd tried them on somebody else, friends, and they wanted some for their friends. I guess that's the only reason."
Testifying on his behalf, Barbara Jean McKenna recalled that the one time that "Doc Cal" took the money she offered for treating her son he turned around and gave it to the boy, instructing him to have his mother buy him ice cream on the way home. "He's always been there, and I don't know what the community is going to do without him."
F. Wayne Ferry, an investigator with the Garrett County prosecutor's office, declared "He was a great man and still is."
Ralph A. Burnett, a former Garrett prosecutor who represented Calandrello, said, "This is the man walking through the snow carrying a little black bag you saw on Christmas cards. He gave medicine when it was needed and because of that the people of Kitzmiller are healthier today. What he's done for them ought to be bronzed . . . . I'll continue to call him doctor for the rest of my life."
"It's a tragedy that in his waning years he should make more than an error in judgment, that a person who'd solved so many problems became a problem to this county," Prosecutor Kelly said. " The problem has ended. There is no longer a threat. I'm satisfied."
The judge called it "not only a personal tragedy" but also "the end of what's been otherwise an outstanding and dedicated medical career . . . . On the other hand," he said the drugs dispensed "found [their way] into the absolutely wrong segment of this community . . . this cannot be ignored."
"It's just one of these things," Calendrello said after the proceeding. "What can you say? My [medical] license expired yesterday. I didn't try to renew it."