There was a time that pharmacist Don Bates worked seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and was on call all other times. He had begun to cut back on the hours in recent years, which meant giving himself a day off, actually a half-day off on Tuesday afternoons.
Work had become a way of life for the 59-year-old Newtown Drug Center owner, who prides himself on never turning away customers. “No is not an option” was his motto. “I only have friends, I don’t have customers” was another one.
But then his uncle, Matthew Russo, became ill and Bates spent five weeks in hospital waiting rooms, with probably more time on his hands than during a lifetime of work. It got him thinking about what should be important in life.
“It’s time,” Bates said softly Tuesday evening after word had gotten out the pharmacy was set to close after about 50 years in business, and Bates at the helm for the last 22 years.
It was a bittersweet decision that came together quickly Tuesday morning as Bates and his wife, Diane, talked it over and then signed the papers transferring the pharmacy business to Walgreens, which is set to open its first Newtown chain store at the corner of Main Street and Mile Hill Road on Friday.
The Drug Center store itself will remain but starting Friday will become known as the “Everything Newtown” gift shop operated by Diane Bates and daughter, Terri Brunelli, with Don Bates playing a supporting role.
“It’ll be good,” Brunelli said of the change “He’ll still be around.”
Don Bates said after his grandmother died, it became his responsibility to care for Russo, who as a man of small stature had health problems. Russo, who did deliveries for the drug center, also was an important part of Bates' family, calling them individually every day to check up on them.
When Russo fell ill, Bates said he found himself thinking back on all of the times he should have invited his uncle to go fishing but didn’t because of work. Bates' thoughts then moved on to all of the other family memories he missed, including when his son was growing up and playing baseball.
“My son went to the finals, and I think I saw one game,” Bates said with tears in his eyes.
Now with grandchildren, Bates said he doesn’t want to miss their childhood.
“Now, it’s time to take care of them,” he said.
Bates said the decision to spend more time with family became clear to him shortly after Russo, who had been set to return home from the hospital with a dialysis machine, died.
“It hit me hard,” he said of the death.
Bates, who grew up and still lives in Waterbury, said he and two other cousins worked as stock boys in 1969 for a pharmacist, which greatly influenced their decisions to go into the field.
All three of them, Bates said, see themselves as committed pharmacists who go the extra mile to care for the people who depend on them not only to fill out their medication but for advice.
It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, forwarding all of the urgent after-hours pharmacy phone calls to his home where the advice he dispenses can be as diverse as what to do if someone doesn't feel well or if their relative isn’t feeling well as a result of medication, or even in one case, how to cook a turkey for a spouse coming home from a long trip away.
In the later case, Bates had a store employee with experience in the kitchen call the woman back with the advice.
Equal to the responsibility Bates feels for his customers is what he feels for his employees, who will all have jobs with Walgreens or Everything Newtown after the pharmacy closes.
Had he sold off the pharmacy business similar to when he bought the business from the Drug Center’s former owner more than two decades ago, those employees would not have been guaranteed new jobs with benefits as they do with the plans now in place, Bates said.
He and his family put a lot of research into Walgreens prior to making their decision.
“I see them being able to take care of the town,” Bates said of Walgreens. “I feel very comfortable.”
Bates, who said he cried three times Tuesday as customers came by after learning of the news, said his priority in the next week or so is to make sure the transition is smooth.
“I don’t want them to think I’m going to just drop them,” he said of customers.
Bates is already thinking about staying behind as the family travels to Cape Cod next week so that he can spend more time making sure customers’ needs are dealt with at Walgreens.
While Walgreens also offered him a position in the store, Bates said he turned it down, primarily because he wants to make good on his plans to spend more time with family, including his wife, his childhood sweetheart. The two have known each other for 43 years and been married for 37.
Bates said lately he has begun to think more about the lyrics of “Cats in the Cradle,” a song about a man who is too busy with work to spend time with his family. The man later realizes that as he ages and has more time for his family, they no longer have time for him.
Bates said that while he will always have time to talk to his customers and friends and help out at the new store, he is going to try and make good on the next generation, his grandchildren.
“If my granddaughter has a ballgame at 3, I’m going to be leaving,” he said.