Definitely built upside down
One of Dr. Leonard Pleban’s contributions to podiatric medicine is the formulation of the Pleban syndrome: “If your nose runs and your feet smell, you’re built upside down.”
As you can imagine, such wisdom didn’t come quickly or easily. It grew through a lifetime of experience, starting with his first job, at age 10 – selling fruit and vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. That was in 1930, just after the Depression hit. He worked eleven hours a day for 20 cents. If business was good, he was given a bonus: a cantaloupe.
At Sharon High School, Leonard was a cheerleader and played basketball until his Junior year.
“Then I felt I was too small to play,” he said. “I went into refereeing basketball.”
He started out in church leagues and Westinghouse leagues, earning 50 cents a game. After passing the referee’s board, he worked high school and college games. He refereed one pro game, between the Youngstown Bears and the New York Renaissance, the forerunner of the Harlem Globetrotters.
“ Johnny Pepe, the sports editor of the Sharon Herald, was a good friend of mine. He called me and said, ‘I’ve got the best referring job you’ll ever have. You’ll be making $75.’ Then he says, ‘Oh, by the way, you’ll be donating that $75 to the sponsors, who are raising money to start the junior baseball league.’”
Leonard played independent basketball on Bill Hoyle’s teams, and worked part time at his store, Authenreit’s. He tells the story of playing a game with Joe Price, a great athlete who was later inducted into the Kent State Hall of Fame.
“Between the two of us, we scored 44 points. He scored 40, and I scored 4.”
At a Buhl Girls’ Club dance in 1938, he met a girl named Florence Dick (anglicized from the Romanian name Diac). She had come to the dance with somebody else. “I cut in on a tag dance. Then she told the fellow she came with that she was going home with me.”
Florence and Leonard dated for four years. She worked as a cashier for a dry cleaner, then she got a better job at the mayor’s office.
Leonard was initially deferred from the service because of his job at Westinghouse, but the deferment was canceled because of complaints from married people with children who were being drafted.
“Florence told her father I was going to go into the army,” he said, “but she said that’s okay because she could visit me at camp. He said she could visit as long as there was a ring on her finger. When she told me that, I said, ‘That’s no problem.’”
Flo laughed. “Yeah, that was my proposal. Not down on one knee asking ‘will you marry me,’ but just ‘okay, that’s no problem.’”
After getting married on August 9, 1942, they went on a truly unforgettable honeymoon.
“We went to Cleveland, with plans to take a boat to Detroit,” Leonard said. “We had reservations at the Statler Hotel. But before we went there, we parked the car and went into the nightclub next door. When we came out, we found that someone had broken into the car and stolen all of our luggage. Florence sat down in the car, and glass from the broken window tore her stockings. She looked like she had been beaten.”
The police said they would have to stay in town for three days in case their stuff was found, but they didn’t offer much hope. The previous week someone had jacked up one of the patrol cars in front of the police station and stolen all four tires.
“So we went into the Statler, two young kids with no luggage, and we told them the story,” Leonard said. “They gave us a room. The bed had a lamp on the headboard. When we turned it on, it caught on fire.”
“There was a lot of black smoke,” Florence said. “I jumped out of bed screaming and hollering. I didn’t have any nightclothes, so I had to wear his suit coat to cover myself up when they came in to put out the fire. It was so embarrassing. They put us in another room. I sat on the edge of the bed crying, and said I wanted to go home because I didn’t have any clothes. He said, ‘We’re not going home. I’ll buy you something.’”
When they finally did get back home, all four tires on Leonard’s old ’37 Ford were flat. He said, “With a start like this, it all has to be up from here on.”
Eventually it was, but the “up” required a lot of hard climbing, starting with military service. Leonard went into the army on October 8, 1942. Flo was able to follow him from camp to camp until he went overseas.
Leonard was assigned to the medical detachment of the 908th Field Artillery. “I said, ‘Sir, I can’t even stand the sight of blood because it makes me sick. Isn’t there anything else?’ He said, ‘Soldier, the sooner you learn to keep your big mouth shut, the better off you’re going to be in this army.’ So that was it. I puked a few times, and passed out a few times when I saw some of the surgeries, but after that it was nothing.”
That arbitrary assignment set the course for the rest of his life. During a training course at a hospital, a chiropodist told him about chiropody, which is the old term for podiatry. Then he found himself in a situation that required lots of foot care.
“Our commanding general decided to make a name for himself. He had us walk most of the 140 miles from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky. I had to treat a lot of blisters.”
The 908th Artillery was sent to France shortly after D-Day. The unit was in the thick of the fighting through five major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge. Leonard was one of the very few in his unit to emerge without a scratch.
“My captains in the army wanted me to go to medical school,” he said. “I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to sign any death certificates.”
But he realized that podiatrists don’t have to do that. So after he came back from the service, he took pre-med courses at Youngstown State, then went to the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine in Cleveland. He completed his Freshman year in three months during the summer of 1947, and started his Sophomore year that September.
Their first daughter, Patty, was born in Cleveland during his junior year in 1949.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it was when we were starting out,” Flo said. “Most of the podiatry students were from wealthy families who paid their way through and set up their practice after they graduated. In Cleveland, I worked at Halle’s, he worked at Baker’s. When we came back to Sharon, we had nothing.”
Dr. Pleban found space for an office in downtown Sharon, above the Sharon Restaurant. With 36 steps up and no elevator, it wasn’t ideal for a foot doctor. In fact, it wasn’t even an office; it was just a large room.
“I had to partition it,” he said, “and pull up lines for gas and electricity. And we had to put a furnace in. I built up about $3,500 in debt.”
The first bank he approached for a GI business loan turned him down because he had no collateral. But with the help of a friend, he got a $5,000 GI loan, which covered the debt and the cost of an x-ray machine.
But Leonard’s luck continued to plague him. “I was going to open my office on the day after Thanksgiving in 1950,” he said. “On Thanksgiving Day we had that 36 inch snowfall. My equipment went from Chicago to Boston instead of Sharon. I finally opened my office on December 7, 1950. That’s the day Japan invaded Pearl Harbor and I invaded Sharon.”
So he had an office and equipment, but no patients. His clientele built up slowly until one key element fell into place.
“Johnny Pepe asked me if I wanted to work with the Sharon High athletic program. I volunteered my services, and worked with the program pro bono for 50 years. It was beneficial both for the school and for me. The school got a doctor without cost, and I got the kids, their parents, and their grandparents as patients. And as I walked the sidelines at the football and basketball games, people in the stands asked who I was. A lot of them became my patients, too.”
Dr. Pleban joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce and became very active in the community.
Flo gave birth to two more daughters – Lindy in 1953 and Mary Estelle in 1959. While raising them, she too was active in the community, especially in church.
“I became president of the Ave Maria Society in three churches,” she said. “I started the Ave Maria Society at Sacred Heart, ran a big bazaar, and made $28,000 for them. Then I moved over to St. Joe’s, then to Notre Dame. The church was just starting. I ran a big bazaar for them. I love to bring people together, and to bring their ideas out.”
Having survived that difficult honeymoon, World War II, and the struggles of their early career, the Plebans are still thriving after more than 65 years of marriage. And today, at age 87, Dr. Pleban continues to treat patients and dispense wisdom.
One of his favorite bits is this piece of advice: “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never come out of it alive.”
With his sense of humor, he has been master of ceremonies at countless local affairs. “He’s known as the Johnny Carson of the Shenango Valley,” Florence said.
Dr. Pleban attained a long-time dream in 2011 by publishing The Pleban Syndrome, a book of jokes he collected over many years.
Today, at age 92, Dr. Pleban is still telling jokes and practicing medicine.
Story excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009