By Bill Sterling —
The big move for Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital is Saturday, when doors close at the current Nassawadox facility and open at 7 a.m. for the new $85 million facility in Onley.
Many of the medical practitioners and providers in Nassawadox are making the move north as well.
But not Rayfield’s Pharmacy, which has been operating in town for 42 years and across the street from the hospital for the past 35 years.
“When news broke that the hospital was moving, I got calls almost every day asking if I was going to move,” said Tommy Rayfield, now 75. “I told them we plan to stay here as long as our loyal customers support us. I know we will lose some business when the hospital moves, but we have longtime customers who might see doctors up the road but will come here for their prescriptions. We also have business from the nursing home next door.”
Rayfield’s Pharmacy, which also has a store in Cape Charles, is now one of only three independent pharmacies remaining on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. When Rayfield first moved back to the Shore in 1974, almost every town had a locally-owned drug store.
In Nassawadox, Rayfield is only the third owner of the town pharmacy which first opened in 1913. Nassawadox Pharmacy, or Arnold’s Pharmacy, owned by Alan Arnold, was located where the Smiling Dolphin Frame Shop now stands. In 1975 Rayfield purchased the pharmacy, including the original 1913 soda fountain tables, from Potter Henderson, for less than $20,000 on a handshake. Henderson had purchased the Nassawadox pharmacy in 1963 after selling Parksley Drug Co.
Rayfield recalled that he soon found certain customers would regularly stop in for a chocolate soda created by a longtime employee of the store, Gertrude Seymour. “She would buy 50 pound bags of cocoa powder from R.C. Evans and make these sodas that people just loved. George McMath was a regular customer.”
Rayfield believes an independent pharmacy can provide service that big chain drugstores cannot. “For a long time we had a motto that said, ‘You can park 10 feet from the door and get your prescription filled in 10 minutes,” said Rayfield. “Sometimes complications with the insurance don’t allow us to meet that timeframe, but it’s something we strive for and usually do.”
Helping Rayfield to fill prescriptions today on an almost daily basis is Kyle Webb, a Shore native whose presence allows Rayfield the opportunity to go home each afternoon to take a short nap and walk the dog before returning about 3 p.m.
Rayfield can leave the store knowing the operation is in good hands. Debbie Bridges has been with him for 40 years, and many of the other employees have been there 10 years or longer.
Although he works fewer hours today, in the early years of the pharmacy Rayfield worked 15-hour days to make ends meet.
“I was the hospital pharmacist when we first opened the store,” said Rayfield, “and would go to the hospital at 7 in the morning. My wife, Francie, whom I met in pharmacy school at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV), would open the store after dropping our older son off to school and our younger son at Claire Ann James’ kindergarten. He went there three years. We always said he had a Ph. D. in kindergarten. I would leave the hospital at 2:30 to go to the store so Francie could go home to be with the boys. After I closed the pharmacy at 5:30, I would go back to the hospital to fill prescriptions that had come in since I left before going home long enough to eat and watch the news. Then I would reopen the pharmacy at 7 and stay open until Dr. Edmund Henderson closed for the evening, which was usually about 9.”
Rayfield was also on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the event a nurse needed help finding medications. “It sounds like a grueling schedule, and it was, but what I enjoy about running a small-town pharmacy is that it is like having friends come in all day and visit for a minute,” said Rayfield.
After graduating from MCV, Rayfield worked at large drug stores in Richmond while his wife, a Winchester native and younger by two years, finished up her studies at MCV. “I am a country boy at heart and never felt the personal rapport or connection to my customers in the city. When Francie graduated, we got the chance to work at small pharmacies in Mathews County, where we loved it. She worked at a pharmacy on one corner, and I worked at one across the street.”
Dr. William Bernart called in 1974 and told Rayfield the position of hospital pharmacist was open, knowing Rayfield had a yearning to return home. Less than six months later Rayfield purchased the Nassawadox pharmacy from Henderson but knew he needed to keep his hospital job while his wife worked the bulk of the hours at the pharmacy. Rayfield worked at the hospital for 13 years, even after the pharmacy moved to its current location in 1981. Eventually, business was brisk enough at the pharmacy that he left the hospital and devoted all his time at the store.
Rayfield, who was born at Cobb Station near Cheriton and delivered at home by a family doctor, who charged his father $5, graduated from Northampton High School in 1959 and went directly to MCV. “My father peddled fish before he went to work at Riley’s store and then started his own place later. I made pretty good grades and thought I wanted to go into engineering before a cousin, Lee Lewis, who ran a pharmacy across the bay, asked me if I had thought about being a pharmacist. I liked math and chemistry, having been taught by some excellent teachers at Northampton, so that’s when I decided to be a pharmacist.”
And now he is surrounded by pharmacists. His wife, also a pharmacist, is the daughter of a pharmacist whose sister was a pharmacist. Both of the Rayfields’ sons are pharmacists and one is married to a pharmacist. The other son married a doctor.
“We had maybe 15 pharmacists in the wedding party when my younger son was married. Our conversations are pretty narrow when we get together. We always say we are a family heavily involved in drugs,” said Rayfield with a laugh.
Severn Rayfield, the older son, runs Rayfield’s Pharmacy in Cape Charles. Berkley worked there, too, but now is a pharmacist in the Richmond area. Tommy and Francie Rayfield have four grandsons, but he says it is too early to know if any will follow the family way of becoming a pharmacist.
Francie Rayfield left the pharmacy to join the county health department when their older son first returned home to work at the pharmacy. She is now retired, but her husband has never forgotten what she did in the early years of the business. “She kept the pharmacy open when I was at the hospital, was always there for our two sons and had a hot meal on the table when I got home that night. She was essential to the whole operation and was the rock that held things together.”
As for Rayfield, who will soon turn 76, he is not thinking about retirement now. “As long as I can stand and have my mental faculties, I will work until God retires me.”