Retired doctor Billy DeFee sits in his favorite chair, where his nurse had put him to be as comfortable as possible. He is smiling and ready for my bi-weekly visit. Since he has difficulty shaking hands, he prefers a fist bump.
DeFee is an inspiration to me, and I suspect he can be an inspiration for others.
A little more than three decades ago, Lt. Col. William J. DeFee III was an Air Force flight surgeon assigned to Andrews Air Force Base. Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff then, and Billy often accompanied him with a flight crew to points across the globe.
“And we didn’t stay in tents,” he quips. “Four-star hotels wherever we went.”
He did this for 4 1/2 years before returning home to Alexandria and his longtime job as a family practice physician in Tioga, where he achieved his childhood dream to be a “country doctor.” Counting his stint at Andrews Air Force Base, he practiced medicine for 47 1/2 years while his multiple sclerosis waxed and waned. And, yes, this country doctor made house calls.
“Lots of them,” said Billy, 78, noting he did so sometimes for free.
DeFee is as kind and generous as they come. This is the tough part about Billy’s life, though: he has MS, which manifested itself markedly in the early 1980s. But it’s been in a severe, home-confining stage for about three years.
Billy says he started experiencing some things in his late teens he now thinks were early signs of MS, but he played basketball and baseball at Bolton High School (Class of ’63) and made the LSU freshman baseball team in 1964 as a walk-on. He started as a third-string catcher behind two scholarship players. Freshman coach Art Swanson noticed in practice his accurate arm when Billy fired a ball to second base, and he put him in the starting lineup for the third game. Billy kept his job for the rest of the season before giving up the sport and following the road to medical school.
The highlight of his brief LSU baseball career, he says, was driving in the winning run with a sacrifice fly in the ninth inning for a 1-0 LSU victory at Tulane. He boasts that he hit the long fly to center field on a pitch from former Jesuit star Johnny Olagues, who would go on to be the first player from Tulane ever selected in the major league draft.
He is a lifelong New York Yankees fan, finding his father’s love for the Yankees contagious. His dad let him stay home from school to listen to a 1952 World Series game when Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto was the hero. Then he became an ardent Mickey Mantle fan.
“Everybody was a Mickey Mantle fan — me, my sister, everybody. I learned how to limp like he did when I’d run the bases.”
Sadly, Billy, who limped for most of his adult years, can limp no more. “My legs,” he says, “don’t work any more.”
He says Bob Segura, a friend since medical school, told him, “You don’t have bad days; some days just aren’t as good as others.”
He and his wife Leta Adele have a daughter, Mary Lucile, and two granddaughters, and Billy says he is fortunate to be helped by a cast of angels — nurses, therapists, etc. — and the lead angel is named (you guessed) — Angela. She is with him five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and calls him “a great person, a loving person.”
Since Billy can’t physically go to weekday morning Masses as he once did, he streams the weekday Masses from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. “I like to watch the people coming down the aisle to get communion. They’re all unique. Some have disabilities, too.”
Any advice he might have for others who are facing struggles?
“You’ve got to pray a lot,” he says. “You’ve got to have the right attitude and be willing to recognize what God’s will is, and go with what He tells you to do.”
Bob Tompkins enjoyed a 43-year newspaper career as an award-winning writer and editor, serving the last 39 years at the Town Talk in Alexandria through most of 2015. He is a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as a past winner of the LSWA’s Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism. An Alexandria resident, Tompkins is a contributing columnist sharing his talents with Rapides Parish Journal readers.