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Byrkit 'patient' man as doctor and tending 10,000 rhododendrons

October 16, 2005|By MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT - Dr. Max E. Byrkit liked to tell the story of his second week in practice in Williamsport in 1958 when a short, skinny fellow jumped out in front of him as he was walking toward a popular diner.

"The man asked dad if he was the new 'doc' in town and dad said yes," said David, the physician's oldest son. "To that, the man said he must not be very good to be stuck out here."

"Stuck" for the next 44 years at that Williamsport practice, Max, who died Oct. 9 at the age of 74, amassed an impressive record of 337,000 patient visits in his career before retiring in 2002. He then volunteered at the Community Free Clinic in Hagerstown.

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"Max was last there at the clinic on Monday, Oct. 3, seeing patients," said Carol, his wife of 51 years. "And just two weeks ago, we took a trip to Williamsburg, Va."

They met in Takoma Park, Md. where she was in nursing.

"He was in pre-med then, and we married when he was a freshman in medical school," Carol said.

The couple lived in Loma Linda, Calif., while Max finished medical school. They went back to Takoma Park while he interned at Washington Adventist Hospital.

"After he bought the practice in Williamsport, we lived in an old farmhouse in Van Lear that was there before all the houses were built," Carol said.

Max later designed the house that Carol now lives in with plenty of room for their three sons and all of the plants he wanted to cultivate there.

Aside from the tally of patient visits in his medical career, the other number that stands out in Max's life is the estimated 10,000 rhododendrons he planted around his home on the banks of Conococheague Creek.

A proficient hybridizer of rhododendrons and day lilies, Max was known throughout the world for his work with the plants and often opened his gardens for visitors from near and far.

Carol recalled a trip to Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea when she and Max went into the hills collecting rhododendrons.

"I will always remember seeing him bending over to collect pollen or seeds," said Mark, the youngest of the Byrkit sons.

The love of plants also led Max to a study of wild edibles.

"He had a group of ladies to the house one time and we had fried day lilies and sassafras tea," Carol said.

Jim, who has been away from the family home for 25 years, came from Oregon for the services for his father and to be with his mother and brothers.

"He was a very hands-on dad," Jim said. "We'd wrestle in the living room ... three against one."

"And we'd always lose," Mark said.

All three sons said their father loved hiking into the mountains with them. Invariably, Max would come back from these outings loaded down with plants he found while hiking with his sons.

When Max was on call at Washington County Hospital, he sometimes would take his sons along and they would sleep over.

"I remember dad sneaked us in to see Mark when he was born," David said.

As the family gathered to remember Max Byrkit's life, each had stories to tell and memories to share of this husband, father, doctor and gardener.

Carol said the women in her husband's office often would ask her how she put up with him and his antics. She countered that was all part of his charm.

The boys remember a father who always was there for them. "A friend said to me that we lost one of the good ones and that was very touching to me," David said.

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