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Roger Bost: children's champion 

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  • Roger Bost

A less imposing man would be hard to find. Frail, short, bespectacled and bald at an early age, Roger Bost's mortal frame was outfitted with a voice so thin and reedy that he could barely be heard above the muted whispers in the legislative hearing rooms where he often spoke 40 years ago.

But, boy, did he get heard. No one in Arkansas ever did as much to lift the welfare of children, and not just children but people of all ages who at some point have found themselves or loved ones outside the latitudes of first-rate health care or social services. That may include most of Arkansas.

Bost died last week at the age of 92. The public prints gave a fair account of his achievements — the vast expansion of medical training, medical and social services for the disabled, poor and mentally ill, the development of the Arkansas Children's Hospital and his great effort over the years to get doctors and nurses into Arkansas's small towns.

But they weren't as precise about how this wisp of a man got all that done.

State Sen. Guy H. "Mutt" Jones of Conway, Dr. Bost's nemesis until the Senate expelled him, seemed to know the secret. When Dr. Bost took over the sprawling human-services agencies in 1971 he told the Conway Children's Colony that Jones would no longer control hiring there, making Jones an implacable enemy of Bost and the man who appointed him, Gov. Dale Bumpers.

Jones said of the puny little man that there was nothing much to him but backbone.

He was almost right. Bost's widow and his soulmate from the time they were born a few days and doors apart at Clarksville said that Roger was a robust man when she married him and through college, medical school and the Navy in World War II. In 1953, while he was on the staff at the Oschner Clinic in New Orleans and teaching pediatrics at Tulane Medical School, he became deathly ill and had much of his stomach and small intestine removed, which left him no place to store food.

They moved back to Arkansas and he set up the first pediatric practice at Fort Smith. He was the only doctor in town to not only treat black children but to have a single waiting room for whites and blacks. When a black mother brought a child that Bost said needed hospital care he called a Fort Smith hospital that he knew did not treat African Americans and asked it to admit the child, but the hospital refused. He appealed from one supervisor to another and finally called the chairman of the hospital board, who also refused. Bost told him he would live to see the end of that hateful policy.

He was shocked at the number and plight of disabled children and set out to bring them out of seclusion and give them dignity and a chance at life. He set up a school for mentally retarded and developmentally delayed children in the basement of a Methodist church and turned it into a system. Bost Inc. centers serve some 1,000 people in 34 counties.

Bost went to the superintendent of Fort Smith schools and urged him to educate disabled children in regular classrooms and provide school programs for those who could not go to regular classes. The superintendent replied he was not going to subject his teachers and normal students to the distractions. So Bost got himself elected to the school board and its presidency and told the superintendent the schools' policy was now to educate handicapped children.

When his friend Dale Bumpers was elected governor in 1970 — Bost had treated Bumpers' children and had saved his daughter's life — he became Bumpers' chief policy adviser and head of the giant human services department created by Bumpers' reorganization of government. One of the first steps was a law, sponsored by the Fort Smith schools' athletic director, Rep. Bill Stancil, to allow schools to take disabled students. In 1973, Bumpers pushed through a law driven by Bost and Education Commissioner Arch Ford requiring all Arkansas schools to educate disabled students, in regular classrooms wherever possible, and mandating the state to pay for it.

Since the passage of the Medicare and Medicaid act in 1965, Arkansas had taken advantage of none of the federal aid chances except nursing home assistance. With Bost's tenacity and Bumpers' political magic, the legislators eventually went along with all their requests for matching federal assistance except day-care programs. Medical services, including drug coverage, were extended to the disabled and many others, including poor pregnant and nursing women; the state eventually quintupled the children's colonies and spread them around the state; regional mental health centers were set up; and rehabilitation services were expanded. Medicaid services, state and federal, went from $10 million a year to $126 million, and federal aid for community programs for physically and mentally disabled Arkansans rose from $1 million to $25 million a year.

Bumpers took office with one idea, to get medical care into small towns like his hometown of Charleston. With Bost's help, the medical school class was enlarged and scholarships were given for medical students who would agree to practice for a period in a small town. They whipped the Arkansas Medical Society and the state Medical Board (with one vote to spare) and won hospital and pharmacy privileges for osteopaths in the hope osteopaths would serve in small towns, as they did in Oklahoma and Texas.

After leaving the Capitol and rejoining UAMS, Bost carried through on their idea of establishing medical residencies in regional Arkansas hospitals to encourage new doctors to spread around the state.

The poor and disabled were not the only beneficiaries of Bost's healing instincts. At an early cabinet meeting, Bost was talking to Bumpers' new hotshot fiscal administrator, Richard Heath. What are you doing about that spot under your eye? Bost asked. Heath said the doctor told him to give it time to heal.

"You need to get another doctor," Bost said. "That's cancer and you need to tend to it today." Surgery removed an eye and part of a cheek and Heath spent the rest of a sterling administrative career sporting a black eye patch.

Bill Clinton fell ill the night before he was scheduled to announce his first race for governor in 1978 and called Bost, whom he knew by reputation.

"I'm a pediatrician," Bost protested. OK, Clinton replied, but he needed someone to heal him by morning. Dosed by Bost's medicine, probably children's aspirin, Clinton made the announcement. "Bill's pediatrician," Hillary Clinton called him.

Bost's grandsons gave sterling eulogies at his memorial service. One of them concluded that, pound for pound, his granddad had done more for people than anyone in Arkansas history. The qualification might have been superfluous.

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