Just a week after retiring, Dr. William Mennis stands in front of the clinic building that his medical practice built in 1969, now Staples Family Dentistry. After the clinic merged with Lakewood Health System and is expanding again, he said “It grew into something nobody could have ever imagined.”

Dr. Mennis enjoyed friendships in family practice

Big ideas and energy built lasting legacy
“It is bittersweet,” he said, “after doing the same thing for 48 years.”

Through many changes in the world of medicine and amazing expansion of his own practice, Dr. William Mennis steadfastly continued doing what he likes best, helping his patients in Staples as a small town family doctor. His quality of care and the attention that Mennis has paid to his practice has contributed to the success of Lakewood Health System’s clinic and hospital.

“I like taking care of people,” he said. Seeing patients in Staples since 1968, he said many of them became old friends. “The patients keep getting older and older and I liked taking care of them, it was wonderful,” he said.

June 30 was his last day on the job. “It is bittersweet,” he said, “after doing the same thing for 48 years.”

“It was our entire life, it took a lot of energy and a lot of patience from Helen.”

Bill and Helen, his wife, both came from the same small town in South Dakota, Astoria. He went to college at St. Olaf and then the University of Minnesota Medical School.

He was doing his residency at the  Sacramento County Hospital, now the University of California Davis, when he met a fellow doctor who would change his life, Ted Lelwica. “He said ‘come with me to Staples,’” said Mennis. “I hadn’t heard of it but I dearly loved him and he was an excellent doctor.”

Mennis still had his military obligation to fulfill and found himself working in Belcourt, North Dakota, where he met three more people who would change his life, John Gorton, Jack Muus and Jim Thompson, who all came to Staples with Mennis.

As one of the first doctors to specialize in a family practice residency, Mennis wanted to find a city where he could settle down.

He checked out Staples because of Lelwica, but it was some of the people here who did the real recruiting. First, banker Don Eddy offered loans for homes, equipment and cars. Mennis said he would call them sub-prime loans these days because it was a big risk to give that much money to a group of young men with no money and a lot of medical school debt.

“We looked at 15 to 20 different towns, and only one other town offered loans and the support like Staples did,” he said.

The community also sold Mennis as a vibrant place to live. “Duane Lund and Dick Donat told us that there was something going on in Staples, there was something to offer us,” said Mennis. That included new businesses coming to town. “They said it was not a dying railroad town.”

In 1967, they agreed to set up practice in Staples and came in 1968. Lelwica had started his practice in the small building at the corner of 4th Street and 3rd Ave. NE.

Mennis found out that Dr. Lelwica took Wednesday afternoons off and thought it was because he needed a break. When he got here he found out that it was because the newspaper presses next door were running at that time and it was so loud you couldn’t listen to a patient’s breathing.

The other doctors, Muus and Thompson, also came to Staples and John Gorton was setting up his dentistry practice. It was obvious from the start that the building wasn’t big enough so again, the bank came into play to help them build a $250,000 clinic. “It was an aggressive approach to staying here,” said Mennis, “but it panned out.”

“More than one person said we probably were not going to make it, but they didn’t know how energetic we were going to be,” said Mennis. 

He spent much of his career in that building but in 1996 the group decided to merge with the hospital. They sold the building to Dr. Gorton, who continued his dentistry practice there.

Mennis then practiced at Lakewood where the senior campus is now and moved to the new clinic and hospital when it was built.

In all that time, Mennis only had two nurses. Kathy Johnson worked with him for 24 years and Theresa Zelgert for 24 years. “They made my life easier, we just got along,” he said.

The expansion of the hospital allowed for more and more doctors to come to Staples, after working for many years with five in the community. Mennis said he had done basically everything as a family practice doctor, but the medical profession changed. Surgeries became arthroscopic and laproscopic, which required specially trained professionals to operate.

So Mennis found himself doing less surgery and more with his family practice, although he did continue to deliver babies. In the early days, there were no neo-natal intensive care units for at risk babies. “We delivered them all and took care of them here,” said Mennis. He remembered there was one baby who weighed two pounds, ten ounces. “She still survives and is walking around the streets in Staples,” he said.

As another example, when he started there was no such thing as high blood pressure medicine, now it is so common he doesn’t know all the names of every medicine.

While Mennis liked his clinic practice, he found that other doctors preferred hospital or emergency room work. “We let them practice the way they want to,” he said, which he figured was great for retention of physicians and for their morale.

He eventially gave up surgery, emergency room and night calls. “Nobody complained, but it was the only way I could continue this long,” he said.

Mennis appreciated the professional courtesy of his colleagues. “I was privileged to have great partners, they were marvelous people to work with and work for,” he said.

Mennis noted it was a change for the better to get more female doctors. He said only 10 percent of his medical school class was female, and Staples didn’t have a woman doctor until Sarah Israelson came. Now more than half of the practicioners are female, he said.

Mennis also shifted into more administrative roles and worked with the hospital board. “It took away from my medical practice, but I found it interesting, I always like the financial aspect of medicine,” he said

Mennis was part of the success of the clinic and hospital remaining independent. “We have outlasted a lot of predictions,” he said.

There were many merger and collaboration options and offers, but ”We always held off, to good advantage,” he said.

Along with their own independent specialists and services, the health system now is associated with CentreCare in St. Cloud and Essentia in Brainerd “to the super advangate of this town,” said Mennis.

“Working in a small town is very different than in a big city,” said Mennis. His wife  Helen said every time they would go somewhere, they saw someone they knew. “It’s all part of the community,” she said. They raised their three kids in Staples, Kay (Mueller), Bev (Goff), and David.

Dr. Mennis considered his patients to be his friends, but said his oldest and best friends are the doctors he has worked with over the years. “We’re still a thing, it has lasted all these years,” he said of the friendships.

Being able to consider colleagues as friends is “the nicest aspect of being here,” he said. “They are an invaluable resource to keep your spirits up.”

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