If his career were a marathon, Charles Cavanaugh mentally would be approaching the finish line in full stride, with plans for the next big race.
That’s the approach the Phenix City resident and one-time avid distance runner has taken in his more than five-decade run as a pharmacist with five companies, to include a drug store he purchased in the Bibb City area of Columbus and operated for nine years.
You see, Cavanaugh is 82 years old and still punching the clock each day at Walgreens in Phenix City, filling 300 to 400 prescriptions a day between two pharmacies, one on Crawford Road and the other on Summerville Road. That’s working 40 hours a week when most people already would have hung up their white pharmacy coat and gone fishing or do whatever leisure activity they enjoy in the twilight of their lives.
That moment is about to arrive, however, with Cavanaugh preparing to retire at the end of August. That doesn’t mean he intends to sit back in a rocking chair. His mind always in motion, he hopes to sell the government on a plan for a national drug agency that works in connection with the U.S. Postal Service to get a handle on prescription drugs and how they are delivered to the masses. It’s complicated, so we’ll wait for the outcome of that.
Instead, the Ledger-Enquirer, which talked with the pharmacist recently and visited with him at his home, is focusing on his long journey as a gatekeeper for patients needing drugs for their illnesses, ailments and injuries. Not that he believes there aren’t plenty of people who take the use of medication too far these days. The outspoken Cavanaugh has an opinion about that as well. Like all 82-year-olds, he has earned the right.
For the record, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are just under 300,000 pharmacists in the country, with a need for just over 9,000 more by the year 2024. That makes it a “slower than average” job-growth opportunity.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why did you decide to become a pharmacist?
A. That was kind of a problem for me earlier. When I got out of the service, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as far as school. It’s kind of a silly story, but my girlfriend had a friend going to Auburn, so he sent to Auburn and got the catalog. I sat on the stoop one day and tried to pick out what I wanted to study. So I put the book down and spun the pages and put my finger down and it was pharmacy. I thought, I can do that.
Q. That was by chance or fate?
A. It was. I could have been an economist or in engineering or anything. But I got out of the Air Force in July 1958, and in September I went to school. I spent four years in the Air Force, and the GI Bill paid for all of my schooling. I had no student debt when I got out. It was a four-year pharmacy program and I did it in three.
Q. How did your pharmacy career proceed?
A. I came to Phenix City and went to work at Lee Drugs in 1961. They used to be a big chain here. That’s where I met my wife, too. She came home from Alabama University. She was going to be a pre-med student, but her mother got sick and she had to come home and help her mother out. She got a part-time job while she was home at the drug store. She was on one side of the store and I was on the other, and we just clicked.
Q. Again, fate stepped in?
A. It did. I remember that was in the service one night and I asked the Lord to help me find a wife. He waited about six years to do it, but he did it. (laughs)
Q. How long was your first pharmacy job?
A. I stayed with Lee Drugs for quite a long time, from 1961 until about 1968. After that, I bought Banks Pharmacy in Bibb City and stayed there about nine years. Banks had been there since 1919. Then I went to work for the Alabama Board of Pharmacy (in Montgomery) … We investigated drugs on professionals — doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians — you name it, we investigated them.
Q. Where did you go after that?
A. I came home again and went back to work for Lee Drugs again and stayed with them from 1979 until 1989. I was the pharmacy manager at the Phenix Plaza location. Then I went to California and studied nuclear pharmacy and got an authorized user’s license in 1990 and went to work as a nuclear pharmacist. You have to service hospitals in a certain area. I worked (in that field) for about two years.
Then I went back to a regular pharmacy at Walmart on Buena Vista Road in Columbus. I worked there from 1992 to 1998. Then one day CVS let me know they wanted me over in Phenix City. So I joined CVS and worked there from 1998 to 2005. Then I went to work for Walgreens in 2005 and have been there from then on out.
Q. How have things changed through the years?
A. It’s got a lot worse. You have a lot more drug use now than when I first started. Everybody’s on drugs. It’s pathetic. You have children on ADD stuff, attention deficit disorder? That’s a nightmare. It’s getting worse and worse and worse. They start them off on a low dose and then double it and triple it.
Q. There are more drugs prescribed by doctors in general?
A. Right. I don’t think they’re all necessary. The teachers haven’t got the right to chastise children anymore. They can’t spank ’em. So instead, they use a chemical straightjacket, which is drugs. … It’s terrible what they’re doing to our children and our nation.
Q. Which means as a pharmacist you are very, very busy?
A. It’s real fast-paced now. They (pharmacies in general) are more on speed. They want you to do it fast, fast, fast. That’s not the concept I think we should be using. I think we should take it one customer at a time and make sure everything is right and get them out the door the best that we can.
Q. You want to get to know customers?
A. Right. But now the customer gets a call from a doctor’s office (saying) that they’re going to call a prescription in. (The customers) turn around and call us and say, ‘Have they got it there yet?’ Well, it has to go through a process ... and it takes a while. But they demand it right off the bat. They want to get it right then.
Q. As a pharmacist, you’re constantly filling prescriptions or having to do paperwork at times?
A. We fill prescriptions on the computer and we take turns waiting on the customers at the counter. It’s mostly typing in the prescriptions as they come in and answering the phone calls. The girls at the other end of the counter take care of the input and, hopefully, any insurance problems.
Q. What’s the most challenging part of your job?
A. The most challenging aspect is to keep your sanity. (laughs) You see it around you, all of this stuff going on and you can’t do a damn thing about it. And you really want to do something to slow it down or get people back on the same page. Drug companies are all about money and speed ... So here we are.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your job?
A. I like meeting the people and I like consulting the people on their medical problems and making sure their prescriptions are right when I give it to them. I still give personal contact with the patients, but they’re all in a hurry-up mode now. They’re really not very talkative anymore.
Q. Did it take you awhile to make a decision to retire?
A. I made the decision at the first of the year. I told my wife that and, of course, she passed away last Thursday (July 20). I lost her after 55 years. It happened all of a sudden.
Q. What advice do you have for someone considering a pharmacy career?
A. I always tell my staff as they come on board that, ‘It’s not too late to change your mind. You need to know what you’re getting into, and really think about it.’ But they just have to go in there and work and do the best that they can … I tell them this is the way it’s going to be and if it’s what you want, it’s what you’re going to get.
Q. How do they respond?
A. They look at me and get a little question mark on their face. My store is one of the busiest stores in town. It’s actually busier than some in Atlanta. (New staffers) get in there and work and see what it’s like. It’s just bang, bang, bang all day long. There are insurance problems galore. There are so many changes and so many different kinds of insurances, it’s just a nightmare.
Q. So you will call it a pharmacy career after 56 years. That’s a long haul, isn’t it?
A. It sure is, and there’s been a lot of interesting things pop up along the way. But I’ve enjoyed it.
Hometown: Boston, Mass.
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: 1954 graduate of North Quincy High School in Quincy, Mass.; earned a pharmacy degree from Auburn University in 1961
Previous jobs: Enlisted in the Air Force in 1954, serving until 1958; has worked as a pharmacist at the former Lee Drugs and Banks Pharmacy (the latter he purchased and operated for nine years), and at Walmart, CVS and Walgreens; also worked for the Alabama Board of Pharmacy and at one point studied nuclear medicine in California and worked for a firm that assisted hospitals with their equipment
Family: Gloria Ann, his late wife (they married in 1961) ; and three children — son, Charles Andrew, a late son, Danny Franklin, and daughter, Angela Claire
Leisure time: He used to enjoy playing golf; he also was a long-distance runner for years, running races, marathons and half-marathons; and he later took up bicycling as he got older