He could’ve been the poster child for Shriners Hospital.
Once a chubby-faced 5-year-old, Willie Ritzheimer was one of the first 20 children treated by the hospital.
He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1924 and stayed in the hospital for seven months. When he was done with treatment, Ritzheimer’s photo appeared in a number of newspaper ads and articles.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Ritzheimer, 78. “I was in bed all the time.”
On Saturday, the former Coeur d’Alene resident returned to Spokane to remember that hospital stay. He showed up along with dozens of other former patients to help celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children.
For four hours Saturday afternoon, about 1,000 people showed up to tour the hospital, listen to music and meet old friends.
The scene was like a circus, as clowns entertained guests and music blared from a pipe organ. The Shriners, who support the hospital, were decked out in burgundy fez hats and silky green pants as they led tours of the building.
“This is wonderful,” said Lynn Thomas, 74, who was treated at the hospital in 1924 for clubbed feet.
“Think of all the people they’ve helped. They’ve certainly helped me.”
The Shriners Hospital in Spokane first opened in 1924 as a small, 20-bed ward in St. Luke’s Hospital.
That first year, the hospital treated 115 patients, most of them for polio.
“I was terribly sick,” said Jessie Lockwood of Sandpoint, a polio patient in the early ‘20s. “I remember that I was in a lot of pain and I would holler for a nurse every time I had to go to the bathroom.”
Lockwood, who was 6 at the time, would’ve been crippled without surgery at the hospital. Although she never had complete control of her left leg, she was able to walk and hike and “do everything that everyone else did.”
She later became the owner of the What Not Shop in Sandpoint, a store that sold school supplies and candy.
On Saturday, the 85-year-old came to the anniversary celebration in a wheelchair. “It was nothing like it is now,” she said of the hospital.
Although technology was limited back then, the children were often comfortable, said Thomas, who had undergone 11 operations for his feet. “Most people don’t like hospitals, but I do,” he said. “They treated kids so well.”
His favorite memory, he said, was when the nurses brought the children out to the sun porch. As they listened to a phonograph play “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” they would eat ice cream.
Today, the hospital still provides free medical care to young people but is now housed in its own building, erected in 1991.
“We’re not like any hospital you’ll ever see,” said Maggie Crabtree, public relations manager. “The children are treated like whole, complete people who have the ability to go on and do whatever they need or want to do.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
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