By Angela Reinhardt
“Joe was someone who projected the most extraordinary warmth, and he was able to do that within the context and timeframe of a short medical interview, and that’s something to be envied,” said Dr. John Spitznagel, one of the physicians who helped found Pickens’ free clinic with Dr. Wilber nearly a decade ago.
“We are all grieving,” Dr. Spitznagel added, “I can certainly tell you that.”
Just one week after Good Samaritan Health & Wellness Center hosted a tribute for their founding physicians, the beloved Dr. Joe Wilber lost his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, passing away Sunday, April 3.
People who knew Dr. Wilber speak of his unwavering compassion and kindness and his unique ability to connect with patients, family, friends and strangers.
They speak of his dedication to public health and his desire to help those not receiving proper medical care, and they marvel at his calm demeanor and warm presence.
“It was easy living with him because he brought those same qualities home,” said Pat, Dr. Wilber’s wife of nearly 60 years. “He never lost his cool, and he was a wonderful example for our children. One of our sons said last night, ‘You know, he never told us what to do. He taught us by example.’ I never realized that,” she said laughing. “I guess I was the one who told them what to do.”
Wilber’s niece Alexandra Bryan said she remembers spending time with her uncle and cousins at their house at Tate Mountain Estates.
“We shared a summer home with the Wilbers,” she said. “I have such happy memories playing with my cousins there. One thing that sticks out in my mind is his fabulous fudge at Christmas, and he was always so generous and calm and rational.
“He’s my hero, really,” she said. Dr. Wilber became hero to many, maintaining a humble air while being so accomplished professionally.
Dr. Wilber studied medicine at the prestigious Harvard Medical School before moving to Atlanta in 1953, where he had an internal medicine practice until 1984. He left that practice to work full time in public health HIV/AIDS clinics, “more challenging work,” he told us in an interview earlier this year.
During that time he worked at Grady Hospital in their HIV/AIDS clinic and was instrumental in setting up numerous HIV clinics in health departments around the state.
“He was always hard working and always wanted to take care of people who weren’t getting the care they needed,” Mrs. Wilber said. “He was mostly interested in public health. He thought the most important thing was taking care of people who needed help.”
After 10 years working in the public health sector, Dr. Wilber retired in 1994 and moved to Tate Mountain Estates in Pickens County, where his family had a vacation home. But his working life did not end there.
Even after retirement, Dr. Wilber continued seeing patients pro bono, both at the Dalton HIV clinic and the Pickens County Health Department.
“I got to know Joe when I moved to Bent Tree,” Dr. Spitznagel said. “I asked him to join us [with Good Sam] because of what he was doing at the time with the HIV clinics, and he was a tremendous addition to the development and the success of the clinic over the years.”
Dr. Spitznagel spoke highly of working with him as a medical peer for those 10 years at Good Sam.
“He had great experience in medicine,” Dr. Spitznagel said. “He was competent and highly informed, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him professionally. He was always on top of his game, and he understood disease and medicine. It was very satisfying to have him as a colleague.”
Dr. Wilber used his vast medical knowledge to help underserved residents in Pickens, people he once told the Progress had “terrible bad luck.” Dr. Wilber volunteered four days a week at Good Sam, becoming a bedrock support to the facility until he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s in September of 2010.
“He had a very large following of people who wanted to see him, and they were always disappointed when they couldn’t,” Dr. Spitznagel said. “We all cared for those with difficult medical problems, but he cared for some of the most difficult in terms of personal problems.”
According to Dr. Spitznagel, Dr. Wilber’s love of his patients and his patients’ love of him eventually became a tangible benefit for the clinic.
“He was the personal physician to Jack Tarver, who published the Atlanta-Journal,” Dr. Spitznagel said. “And when [Tarver] died, I guess he left a fortune, but his wife was put in charge of all that.”
Because of Dr. Wilber’s relationship with Tarver, the Good Samaritan Clinic received $50,000 a year from the publisher’s estate for 10 years, which went to fund medications for the free clinic.
“That’s one thing Joe’s patient relationships did for the people of Pickens,” Dr. Spitznagel said.
Even after his diagnosis, in the throes of learning to cope with the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Dr. Wilber still had the clinic on his mind.
In January of this year, he put out a call to licensed doctors to volunteer at the clinic to help fill the hole left by his absence.
“We always need volunteers,” Dr. Spitznagel said, “but what we really need right now are dentists. The need is unbelievable.”
Dr. Wilber is survived by his wife, Pat, his four children and seven grandchildren.
On April 11th, he and his wife would have been married 58 years.
“We are all going to miss him terribly,” Dr. Spitznagel said.