Following in the footsteps of old Doc Waldhoff, the Monroe family has been running its own health care business for 50 years
When your first job as a youngster is crawling inside a boiler to scrape away the lime build-up, a lifetime career in a clean, sterile environment could be quite attractive.
Growing up in Burlington, Iowa, Ed Monroe’s father worked as a boilermaker, welder and part-time plumber. Sometimes, his sons helped when the job required a little guy.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we worked,” said Monroe, whose older brother worked first at a local pharmacy. When the latter went away to pharmacy school, little brother Ed took over the job working for 81-year-old “Doc” Waldhoff, also known as Gramps, as a clerk, soda fountain jerk and salesman of cosmetics and fragrances.
“You jumped when he said, ‘Jump!” said Monroe. Despite that gruff-sounding demeanor, “he was my role model. I loved him.”
‘How would Gramps do this?’
“Everybody came to Doc Waldhoff for advice. The doctors, the nurses, the patients,” Monroe said. “And his hands were always clean. My dad’s hands were always dirty.”
That got him to thinking about a career as a pharmacist. “To this day, when I face a decision, I say, ‘How would Gramps do this?’”
Monroe soon followed his brother to Drake University, where he graduated from the pharmacy program in 1963. He worked as a pharmacist for May’s Drug Store in Iowa, a small retail chain that transferred him to Illinois. Eventually he landed in Bloomington, where he first set eyes on the lovely Donna, working in the candy department. Ed and Donna have been married for 59 years.
When former Peoria developer Ray Becker opened multiple nursing homes near Sterling Avenue and Reservoir Boulevard, Monroe went into business for himself, opening Monroe Pharmacy, Inc. on Rochelle Lane in 1973. The store served the occupants of the 600 nursing home beds in Becker’s facilities. Unbeknownst to Monroe, he also was starting a family business that has lasted 50 years … and counting.
When Becker sold the nursing homes to a Chicago corporation, Monroe planned his next move. A pharmacist friend in Beardstown was running a durable medical equipment business, doing a couple of million dollars in sales a year.
“He said, ‘I’m going to teach you this business.’”
Monroe moved his pharmacy operation to Frostwood Parkway before Sam’s Club opened in the neighborhood, but soon realized he’d arrived too soon. “The pharmacy was very, very quiet,” said Monroe. “But the durable medical equipment in the basement was taking off.”
‘I wanted to talk to the patients’
At that time, Monroe was selling a lot of medical equipment through the hospitals “so that patients could get discharged.”
He soon found himself moving again, in 1990 to 1837 N. Knoxville Ave. He also changed the company name to Family Medical Equipment and Supply Co.
“On Knoxville, we were on the route to all three hospitals,” said Monroe. Initially the Knoxville store had a pharmacy but changing state laws required his small operation to carry the same inventory as a Walgreen’s. Monroe closed the pharmacy and focused exclusively on home medical equipment.
“As a pharmacist I wanted to be like Doc Waldhoff. I wanted to take care of patients,” said Monroe. “I didn’t want to pour, lick and stick. I wanted to talk to the patients.”
It was the home medical equipment that gave him that opportunity. “If I delivered a nebulizer, I taught the patient how to use it. If I delivered a home photo therapy light to a new mother to treat her baby for jaundice, I taught her how to use it,” said Monroe. “If you delivered a hospital bed, a wheelchair, a crutch, a commode, everything was about teaching. That’s what gave me the satisfaction in the durable medical equipment business.”
Anticipating retirement, change
In 2000, Monroe was in his 60s and started thinking about how both of his parents had died about the same age, said son Chris Monroe.
“I knew that it was time, that he wanted to be able to step away from this, so as the dutiful son, I said, ‘Tell me what you want for the business and I’ll buy it,’” said Chris. “Financially, it was not the best move for me at the time, but it did what I intended it to do: Take care of my parents, let them retire and have a comfortable retirement.”
Chris now lives in Bradenton, Florida with wife Heather, remaining as owners but without hands-on responsibilities. “I have the same financial practice I’ve had since ’95,” he said. “I’m blessed. Most of my employees have been with the company since I bought the business. I’m very lucky to have a consistent crew of people who run it for me. My job has been vision and direction.”
The store has adapted and changed, including another move in 2013 to its current location at 3641 N. Meadowbrook Road in Peoria.
Father and son have seen the medical equipment business change over the years. These days referrals from the hospitals are almost non-existent, as they either operate their own home medical equipment division or contract with large corporations. Competition is also coming from online retailers.
“We compete on customer service and servicing the products, wherever they were purchased,” said Chris. “People buy these things, lift chairs, scooters, or hydraulic lift chairs. We have the staff to fix them, so now our service staff continues to grow.”
The store’s largest selling products are CPAP machines and sleep apnea supplies, mobility and lift chairs, compression hoses and mastectomy bras.
Father John Verrier of the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Brimfield and St. James Catholic Church in Williamsfield has been a customer at Family Medical for 20 years, when he was first prescribed a CPAP machine to treat sleep apnea.
“They were so good about helping me get the right mask and a good fit, I’ve been going back ever since,” he said.
Since that first visit, Verrier has returned for a hip chair after hip replacement surgery and compression stockings. “They’re so kind and always so intent to get you what you need,” he said. “They are like family. Plus, they all seem so happy to be there. Every time I walk in, no exceptions, I’m always greeted with a smile.”
Ed and Donna still reside in Peoria and Ed continues working regularly as a pharmacist at the age of 82, filling in at Essential Wellness Pharmacy and Alwan’s Pharmacy.