Memories from a Traveling Pharmacist
Published on 11 January 2018
After the end of World War II, Russell “Russ” Riggins, B.S. ’58, returned home with plans to use the GI Bill to pursue an engineering degree. Midway through his studies, it was projected that by the time Riggins graduated, there would be more engineers than jobs available. Riggins needed a new plan. With little interest in becoming a medical doctor or educator, he settled on pharmacy as a career that offered the opportunity and mobility he wanted.
“I wanted a method of making a living that would allow me to go anywhere I wanted and still find a job,” Riggins mused. “Pharmacy was the answer.”
Amid a flood of applicants returning from the war, Riggins began applying to pharmacy schools. When he was accepted into St. Louis College of Pharmacy, he leapt at the offer. Though originally from Tennessee, Riggins was no stranger to St. Louis. With the draw of local family connections, the College’s prestigious reputation and Cardinals baseball, Riggins confidently took the next step on his journey.
Life at the College in the mid-1950s was markedly different from what students today may experience, but faculty support remains a cornerstone of the student experience.
Riggins fondly remembers the instruction and friendship of two legendary professors, Frank Mercer and James Thayer. He recalls the rigor of Mercer’s classes with delight, as he explains how Mercer would not only write with both hands at the same time on the chalkboard, but would simultaneously erase his notes on the board as he wrote new ones.
“Dr. Mercer expected his students to stay engaged,” Riggins said. “Really, you had no choice or you would get left behind. He was also a great storyteller.”
Mercer was not the only great storyteller at the College. Riggins recalls how Thayer commanded a room with his warm presence and humor.
“Now Dr. Thayer — he could have made a living as a stand-up comic,” Riggins continued. “He wasn’t above spending time with students outside of the classroom. He might buy you a drink, and you might buy him a drink — as if it were anyone you would meet at the bar. Thayer was also a great teacher. Of course, you were more willing to do what he told you because he was so personable.”
Once Riggins graduated from the College, he took a more unconventional path working in a variety of pharmacy settings around Missouri. Akin to the traveling salesman, Riggins would traverse the state working a relief route one day a week at different stores. He then took a more administrative position as an inspector for the Missouri Board of Pharmacy and was even an instructor at hospitals and nursing schools, teaching students how to read and write prescriptions.
After practicing in both independent and chain community stores, as well as hospital pharmacies, Riggins finished his career similar to how it began, in a small community pharmacy in Memphis, Missouri, where he remained until retirement.
“Out of all of my experiences, I enjoyed the people aspect of the job most of all,” Riggins reminisced.
With the recent appointment of his daughter, Kathy Riggins Gardner, as the College’s vice president for advancement and chief development officer, Riggins’ story seems to have come full circle. Gardner lives only a few blocks from where her father lived almost 60 years ago, with a balcony that overlooks the campus. As Riggins and his daughter look out on the campus, he shares memories from years past and marvels at the incredible evolution of his alma mater.
“The new buildings are dazzling,” Riggins said. “I’m very impressed with the whole situation, and I couldn’t be more proud of Kathy.”
This story was first published in the fall 2017 issue of Script. Visit stlcop.edu/script to read more and access previous issues.