Founder of Duluth's free clinic dies at 78Katharine Rheinberger was a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the early 1970s when research came out that there was a need for a free medical clinic in Duluth.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Katharine Rheinberger, who founded the predecessor to today’s Lake Superior Community Health Center, has died. She was 78.
She died on May 25 in Minneapolis, where she had moved from Duluth to further her education in 1978, said her son, Dr. Max DeShaw of Florham Park, N.J.
Katharine DeShaw of Los Angeles, the oldest of Rheinberger’s four children, said her mother had suffered in recent years from strokes and heart disease.
Rheinberger was a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the early 1970s when research came out that there was a need for a free medical clinic in Duluth, Katharine DeShaw said. Responding to that need, Rheinberger and “a scrappy handful of volunteers” worked together to establish the clinic, opening the Duluth Community Health Center in the basement of what then was Sacred Heart Church in 1972.
Barbara Engh, 71, a nurse who now also lives in Minneapolis, was one of those volunteers. “I don’t know if it would have happened without (Rheinberger),” Engh said. “We didn’t get a lot of support.”
Agreed Katharine DeShaw: “She went up against the established medical community who said, ‘We take care of our own.’ ”
But the clinic, initially open only on Tuesday evenings, was packed with patients from the beginning, Katharine DeShaw said.
It operated on a shoestring. Rheinberger once sent Engh and her son, Max, then in grade school, to UMD to steal rolls of toilet paper from locker rooms and bring them back to the clinic, both DeShaws recalled.
All four children volunteered at the clinic, and Max, now an infectious disease specialist, said that experience inspired his choice to go into medicine.
The clinic moved to a former grocery store at Fifth Street and Lake Avenue in 1973, opened a clinic in Superior and changed its name to the Lake Superior Community Health Center in 2000; the clinic relocated to its present Duluth home at 4325 Grand Ave. in 2005.
Last year, the Duluth and Superior clinics served close to 12,000 patients who made 32,000 visits, said Mavis Brehm, its CEO. It has a staff of 85.
“Unfortunately, the need hasn’t gone away in 40 years,” Brehm said. “That’s still why we exist.”
Katharine Rheinberger grew up in a family of overachievers, her daughter said. Rheinberger’s father, Max Rheinberger Sr., was one of the “invincible four” rowers from the Duluth Boat Club who never lost in 22 national and international regattas from 1913 to 1916.
A brother, Max Rheinberger Jr., was a Duluth entrepreneur, city councilor and activist, particularly on behalf of the disabled. Paralyzed himself by polio in 1952, Max Jr. received the Handicapped American of the Year Award from President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. Max Jr. died in 2004.
A complete obituary for Katharine Rheinberger appears on Page XX.
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