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COLUMN: City doctor was a kindly gent and generous benefactor

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Bob Boulton

“Whatcha got there, Beany?”

That question came to mind the other day as I drove by the old office of Dr. J. Telford Biehn.

The good doctor’s eye examination room was on the first floor of a Victorian brick house on Wellington Street, within walking distance of my childhood home.

The house is still there, with a small round stained-glass window to the right of the front door. And beneath that, a wide white porch wraps around two sides of the home.

The building’s dual identity as medical office and house used to confuse me. Whenever I arrived at the front door for an appointment I wondered: ‘Do I knock, like at a house, or just walk right in, like at an office?’

Dr. Biehn once operated on my father’s cataracts. At the time, eye surgery was far from routine and so another ophthalmologist from Port Huron joined him, a Dr. Thompson, I think it was.

(Googling ‘history of ophthalmologists in Port Huron Michigan’ produces remarkably little info).

My father needed to remain fully conscious during the operation, hold his eyes wide open, stare straight ahead, and remain absolutely still. Which meant he could overhear the entire conversation between the two docs.

Thus he heard Dr. Thompson inquire about a new surgical instrument Dr. Biehn had brought to the session. We never knew the real name of the gadget, but it was forever after referred to in our house as the Whatcha-Got-There-Beany.

Truth is, no one in this world could have been any less a “Beany” than Dr. J. Telford Biehn, a quiet-spoken professional with dignified and cultured manners.

And, he had an Edgewater 7 telephone number just like ours!

In addition to a successful medical practice, Dr. Biehn was a dedicated member of the Library Board. Through it he met A. J. Casson when that Group-of-Sevener helped design the art gallery for the new (1961) Sarnia Public Library. After that encounter, his enthusiasm for Canadian artists grew and in the 1980’s he donated several valuable paintings from his large private collection to the Gallery.

Following Dr. Biehn’s death, his family made a $100,000 legacy donation to the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery. You can find the Dr. Biehn Gallery at the top of the stairs on the second floor.

In this season of giving and getting, I am warmed by the memory and challenged by the example of Dr. J. Telford Biehn. With his professional service to community, exemplary demeanour, and his contribution to Sarnia’s arts, he gave he more than he received.

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