Troy Smith is adamant that when it comes to dermatologists, Dr. Norman Levan is the best in Bakersfield.
"He cares about his patients for sure and he's always there (on time)," Smith said. "When he stepped through that door, he took care of business."
The Taft resident and his wife, Laura, have seen the doctor for an assortment of maladies through the years, from hair loss to skin problems, sometimes after bouncing between other doctors in search of answers. So when they learned the 96-year-old doctor will retire next week, they weren't happy.
"A lot of (patients) are real sad that he's going to retire. We're gonna miss him," Smith said. "It just happens to be his time so you've got to deal with it."
Levan's time has come after more than half a century practicing medicine in Bakersfield. Aside from his practice, the doctor is well known for his multimillion dollar gifts to higher education institutions in Bakersfield and beyond. Monday will be his last day in his downtown 28th Street office.
"I wish to thank all my patients for their good wishes, sincere concern about my future, and friendship throughout my 62 years of service in Bakersfield," notes posted in Levan's office read.
Born in a Cleveland suburb, Levan came into the medical profession after a brother-in-law teased that he would end up writing classified ads or being a teacher just like his older sisters if he continued down his path as an English major at the University of Southern California. Levan, then just 19 years old, aced the entrance exam for medical school and graduated with a medical degree in 1939 at the age of 23.
Though Levan spent his career in medicine, serving as a medical officer in World War II and chairing USC's Department of Dermatology from 1961 to 1981, the humanities remained close to his heart and mind. He studied liberal arts at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M.
Levan began his Bakersfield practice in 1950, commuting one day a week to treat patients.
In 1980, Levan and his wife, Betty, moved to Bakersfield. He continued to work one day at week at his office, while others filled in the rest of the week until about six years ago, according to Carmen Schaad, Levan's office manager and caretaker.He's seen about 58,000 patients in his time in Bakersfield, according to his office's chart numbers, Schaad said.
"This is the right time (for him to retire) for his age so that he can leave healthy," she said.
Mike Stepanovich, executive director of Bakersfield College Foundation, said Levan's many years practicing medicine in Bakersfield are "very much in keeping with his spirit to give back to his community."
Levan's gifts include nearly $20 million to Bakersfield College for scholarships and programs, including the Norman Levan Center for the Humanities and the Levan Institute for Lifelong Learning. He has also given millions of dollars to a Jerusalem hospital, USC and St. John's College.
Some friends weren't shocked by news of Levan's retirement given his advanced age, but others admitted they were still surprised to hear the quick-witted physician is finally calling it quits.
"In fact, I think I would expect him to continue to practice until he's 100 years old," said Mary K. Shell, a longtime friend of Levan and his late wife.
"Norman is, I think, one of the most intelligent individuals that I have ever met," Shell said. "There's no one that can offer more than Norman in a conversation because he has this vast knowledge."
Jeff Hedberg, general manager of the Bakersfield Racquet Ball Club, didn't think Levan would ever retire.
"He's just one of those people... he never stops going," Hedberg said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Levan pecked away on an electric typewriter in his office, tapping out a note to Schaad concerning where the many plaques lining his office walls will go. He occasionally pushed a button to sound a blaring, electic buzzer throughout the office summoning Schaad.
Levan was blase about his retirement, saying he is hanging up his stethoscope for "no special reason, except I was getting bored with it."
"I'll miss some of (the patients) very much though, although I see some of 'em as friends," he said.
Looking back at his career, Levan wondered aloud what other choices he had for work. There was medicine, law, engineering, or perhaps even journalism, he said, recalling his post as editor of his elementary school paper.
"Would I have been happier being in law? I don't think so, it's too much of a business," he said.
Levan enjoys his Bakersfield home and plans to do some consulting in retirement. He reads three to four books a week and will have a few more hours for that as well.
The doctor will be out of the office after Monday but Levan said he still has to figure out what to do with it. Schaad said they are looking for a physician to purchase the practice. She will remain at work for several months and patients can call the office at 324-5392 to obtain their records.