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J. Richard 'Dick' Compton, military physician 'adopted' by Laurel

Laurel Leader

J. Richard "Dick" Compton, a brigadier general with the U.S. Army who had a private medical practice on Main Street in Laurel, and along with his wife, Betty, helped create the Laurel Museum, died Aug. 13 of natural causes at Providence Hospital in Washington. He was 97.

Known for his ceaselessly inquisitive mind, during more than 30 years in military service Dr. Compton studied internal medicine, pathology, gastroenterology and psychosomatic medicine. At Command and General Staff College, where he graduated in 1962, he was trained in tactical assessments and military deployment and studied Middle Eastern politics and Islam.

"If you asked him about his accomplishments, he would acknowledge them and turn around and say, 'What are you up to now?' " said his son, Gregory Compton. "He was curious and self-effacing."

In retirement, Dr. Compton and his wife, Elizabeth Lee "Betty" Compton, were involved in myriad projects in Laurel. Betty Compton is a founding director of the Laurel Historical Society and the couple helped create the Laurel Museum. He was founding chairman of Boy Scout Troop 1250 in Laurel, and was appointed health officer by the Laurel City Council in 1978. He was a founding member of the Laurel Medical Society and the Laurel Walk-In Clinic and helped design Laurel Regional Hospital.

"He was adopted by Laurel; he gave it 100 percent," Gregory Compton said. "He left the military ... and when he left the military, he was adopted by his wife's people in his wife's town."

The only child of James Andrew Compton, a plant engineer for manufacturing companies, and Mary Chamberlin Compton, both of New Jersey, Dr. Compton was born Sept. 24, 1919 in Trenton, N.J.

He attended Washington University in St. Louis from 1936 to 1940 and graduated from its School of Medicine in 1943. He joined the ROTC after seeing students demonstrating against the program on the steps of a classroom building, saying, according to one report, "If I'm smart enough to go to college, I'm smart enough to defend my country."

When the United States entered World War II, Dr. Compton stayed in medical school at the request of the Army. After receiving his degree, he served an internship and residency at Union Memorial Hospital and at the Maryland Women's Hospital, in Baltimore. There, he met his future wife, a senior nursing student, on the first day he was a resident in medicine. Their earliest dates were on the rooftop of the hospital, eating ice cream and looking down on Lafayette and John streets. The couple married in 1948.

In 1946, Dr. Compton signed up for active Army service and was sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington to treat soldiers who had returned from the war. In 1947, he served in the chief medical service at a hospital in Seoul, Korea. In the ensuing years, he served in military hospitals in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina.

When the Korean War was ending in 1953, Dr. Compton was sent there and named commander of the 52nd Medical Battalion, the Army's largest, and the 48th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, and was awarded a Bronze Star.

"I was just paying attention," Dr. Compton told the Laurel Leader, downplaying his service.

From 1954 to 1955, he was commander of a station hospital at Camp Haugen, Japan. While there, he helped establish free clinics for Japanese citizens outside of his military position.

Dr. Compton retired from active duty in 1957 and then returned to the military in the U.S. Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 1961.

Throughout the 1960s, Dr. Compton ran a private medical practice from his office at 612 Main St. in Laurel.

After being nominated by President Richard Nixon, Dr. Compton was appointed by the U.S. Senate to the rank of brigadier general of the Medical Corps Reserve at age 49, overseeing four Army reserve hospitals. He had 1,800 people under his command, working from the 2290th U.S. Army Hospital in Rockville.

He received the Legion of Merit Medal for distinguished service there before retiring in 1974.

At the same time, he closed his private practice to work as a physician for the National Security Agency from 1970-76 and then as medical director at NASA headquarters from 1979-1989.

Former Laurel City Councilwoman Gayle Snyder worked for Dr. Compton in his private practice in Laurel and described him as "an unbelievable man.

"When I first went to work there, it was amazing to me the people that wanted to come see him as a patient," Snyder said. "They were mostly Laurel people. I would make a list of who had called and why they wanted to see him. He ended up seeing every one of them. He never turned anyone down. The problem was, he'd then take them on as a patient when he was trying to cut back."

In 2008, Dr. Compton and his wife relocated to Knollwood retirement community in Northwest Washington, D.C., but remained active in Laurel. He and his wife immersed themselves in painting and horticulture, and he continued as a voracious reading throughout his life. Gregory Compton said his father read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and waved off his offer to give him a digital copy.

"He was a fabulous painter," said Karen Lubieniecki, a neighbor and friend of the Comptons and a board member of the Laurel Historical Society, who has a copy of a Monet work that Compton painted hanging in her home. "Dick also had the most wicked, wonderful sense of humor. Occasionally blue. Not in swearing, but wry and off color. Risque. He did a painting for the historical society of the fire department. It had a woman in it being rescued and she was wearing something incredibly flimsy."

"He was compassionate, hard working, thoughtful of others and faithful and a joy to share my life and love with," said Betty Compton.

Survivors along with his wife include his sons, Gregory Compton, of Johns Island, S.C., and his wife, Bonnie Lynn; and Peter Compton, of Millington, and his wife, Aida; and grandchildren Erin Henkes, Sarah O'Leary, Ashley North Compton, Tyler Compton, Miles Compton and Laura Compton.

A viewing will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18 at Donaldson Funeral Home, 313 Talbot Ave. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated Saturday, Aug. 19 at 10 a.m. at St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church, with internment and reception to follow.

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