Dr. Rufus Clifford kept an eye on Columbia’s children for 52 years as a pediatrician before retiring in December.

Clifford’s dedication to the health and well being touched thousands of lives and earned him dozens of awards and honors during a distinguished career. He was Tennessee’s physician of the year in 1997 and frequently made the list of Top Doctors in America.

“I decided to retire for health reasons,” said Clifford, who left in December after more than 55 total years in practice, including two years in the Air Force. “I was diagnosed with two different cancers at once.”

Clifford, 81, had surgery in November and faced 39 radiation treatments over three months. Doctors have told him he will start to see signs of full recovery in April.

“When they did my surgery, they got all of the cancer out,” Clifford said. “I decided I would stop my practice right then when I learned of how long the recuperation period would be. I was planning on retiring in the middle of this year, anyway. So I just went ahead and retired.

“My prognosis is good,” he added. “It’s very tiring. I’m 81 years old and still have my mind, I knew I would not have the strength to practice any more. I decided it was best to go ahead and retire.”

Clifford practiced with Dr. Bill Jernigan for 11 years before founding the Columbia Pediatric Clinic in 1973. He worked 40 of the 52 years with his sister, Patricia Clifford Davis, who moved to Columbia after starting her career as a doctor in Forrest City, Ark. Columbia Pediatrics has grown to 12 doctors and thousands of patients.

“We were in the process of hiring two new doctors. So I felt like the clinic would be covered with enough doctors,” Clifford said. “They would have plenty of manpower. It’s kind of like a baby to me. I founded and started it, when I came to town. Now they just tell the patients, when they call to see me, that I’m retired.”

Clifford’s dedication to his patients at Columbia Pediatrics was as legendary as his talent. He kept practicing despite having endured personal hardships — a plane crash, a broken leg and a home destroyed by fire — during his career. He had his prostate removed six years ago.

For the first time, Clifford has to put himself and his family first, even though it’s against his nature to slow down. His wife of 59 years, Margaret, supported the decision. She spends much of her time comforting and caring for him in their south Columbia home.

“I had problems through the years,” Clifford said. “In 1985, I broke my back in a plane crash and was out six to nine months. I was always able to get over them and get back to work.”

Clifford was flying in a small plane with his father in law when a wind shear forced the aircraft straight down during landing.

“We hit the beginning of the runway really hard. I was in the back seat and took the blunt of the hit,” said Clifford, who was in a body cast for six months with crushed vertebrae. “My father in law got a little cut above the eye and a slight concussion, but he was fine otherwise. I was able to get back to work after the crash and wore a back brace for years.

“I was out for five weeks when I broke my leg,” he added. “I was able to recover and go back to work, and I learned more than ever to listen to what my wife tells me.”

Margaret, 77, was driving out of the couple’s driveway to practice with the Nashville Metro Chorus Iin Nashville in 2014 when she saw Clifford pruning one of 27 crepe myrtle trees in the yard. He was on a ladder. She told him to get off before he fell down and hurt himself. Within minutes, as she later found out, he fell and broke his leg.

“He said, ‘I’ll be fine. ‘I’ll be fine.’ I asked him if he had his cell phone on him. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I told him that was a good thing,” said Margaret, who got engaged to Rufus at a UT football game in Memphis when she was 18. “Five minutes after I left, he fell and hurt himself.”

The Cliffords’ first home on Abbey Road — near Stoneybrook Golf Course off the intersection of Campbellsville Pike and Indian Camp Springs Road — burned after being struck by lightning during a 2009 thunderstorm. They salvaged some personal items from the ruins, including books and other mementos, and moved into a newly constructed house in 2012.

“It was stressful, but we rebuilt our home on another spot on the property. We weren’t about to build a new home on the exact same spot after being struck by lightning,” Margaret said. “We were blessed to have rented another home just across the way while ours was being built. Our new home is beautiful and comfortable.”

The Cliffords have two sons and one daughter. One son, Rufus III, is a preacher at Central Church of Christ in Murfreesboro. Another, Chris, is a doctor in Columbia. Their daughter, Melanie, works for the YMCA’s After Breast Cancer program in Murfreesboro.

“With the four of them watching over me like a mother hen, I’ve got to do exactly what the doctor says,” Clifford said of his recovery. “One of them goes with me to the doctor every time. They write down exactly what the doctor says, so they make me stick to it.”

Clifford’s parents would have preferred for him to be a preacher instead of a doctor. But his father told him he did not mind what he did as long as it involved service. He met Margaret in Lawrenceburg while he was attending David Lipscomb University in Nashville. He graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in 1959.

“I’m a very religious person,” said Clifford, an elder at the Jackson Heights Church of Christ.

Clifford’s career in pediatrics came during a period when vaccinations ease the crush of many childhood illnesses. The small pox vaccine wiped out a malady that had a 30 percent fatality rate. Physical handicaps from polio were commonplace before Jonas Salk developed a vaccine. In fact, vaccinations were considered one of the greatest achievements of modern civilization, and doctors who inoculated their patients saved countless lives.

“The best thing about being a doctor is seeing patients get better when they get sick,” Clifford said, “and to see them develop normally and know you had something to do with it, giving them direction.

“The biggest thing that happened in my practice was that immunizations came along, and I never had to see dreaded diseases again such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus, meningitis and whooping cough,” he said. “I dare say that I am the only doctor at our practice who had ever seen red measles. With immunizations, they have gone away. The dreaded ones have been wiped out.”

Clifford joined the Rotary Club in 1987, moved by its worldwide mission to eradicate polio. The service organization believes it will happen sometime in 2018.

“When I first went into practice, I treated patients in iron lungs. I had kids who came in paralyzed from polio,” said the Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary’s highest honor. “I had patients die on me from measles and chicken pox. These diseases have gone to the wayside, and that has been a blessing.

“If anyone asks me about immunizations, or doubts the importance of immunizations, I tell them what I experienced and saw as a doctor.”

After 52 years of treating Columbia’s boys and girls from birth to age 18, Clifford said he made the decision to retire on his own. He and his wife are adjusting to having so much time together.

“I miss the babies and the children, interacting with them, seeing them and taking care of them. I’m going to find other things to do to be of service in the next couple of months when I get to feeling better,” Clifford said.

James Bennett is editor of The Daily Herald. Contact him at jbennett@c-dh.net.