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Chester to honor its 'Gandhi' today

If there is a place on earth that couldn't be farther from bustling big-city Bombay, India, it might be little Chester, S.C.

But it was in Chester 38 years ago that a pair of Indian doctors - a married couple who could have practiced anywhere in the world - put down roots.

The reason was simple. The Rauts - surgeon Premanand and his obstetrician/gynecologist wife, Pratibha - wanted to practice in the same place and make a difference in the lives of people who needed doctors.

Never once did the Rauts second-guess their decision to become the first Indians - and the first Hindus - to live in Chester while offering medical care to mill workers and farmers and proud blue-collar people.

When some people asked if they were American Indians, they would answer, "Catawbas," and laugh with everybody - including their Catawba patients.

They worked on through the nights and weekends and emergency room visits for the white sick and the black sick and the American Indian sick.

When people had money or health insurance, the Rauts treated them.

When people had neither, the Rauts treated them.

Pratibha delivered Chester's babies while her husband - known always as "Doctor P.S." - sewed the wounds and took out the gall bladders and the tonsils and the infections.

The couple raised two sons, Chandrajit and Anant, in Chester and sent them off to the Ivy League - Harvard and Yale - then on to careers in medicine and law.

Last year, P.S. Raut became ill himself. Cancer.

Last month, while in Boston undergoing treatment, P.S. Raut died. He was 78.

But what a life he had, here in little Chester.

P.S. Raut was not just some dark-skinned foreign guy in a white lab coat. He was a doctor who was loved.

"A gentleman and a gentle man who loved Chester and its people with all his heart," said Dr. Sam Stone, who ought to know.

Stone's late father was a family doctor in Chester, too, and both doctoring Stones were peers of P.S. Raut for decades.

"He touched so many people, but was so quiet and unassuming and decent."

Stone's own children have scars from where P.S. Raut fixed a hernia for one and took an appendix from another.

"Nobody I'd rather have take care of my own children than Dr. P.S. Raut," Stone said.

Raut practiced with Dr. Bill Brice for years. Brice is a straight-shooter, a character at age 90 who suffers no fools now, in retirement, or ever.

Brice used these words to describe his friend: "Honest. Committed. Wonderful."

Raut brought a new and higher level of surgical care to Chester, Brice said. Just as much, he brought a level of compassion and caring that was matchless.

"He was a man who was never critical of anyone, a gentleman always whose courtesy to those he met in his life was a thing of beauty," said Brice, who knows more than a little about how to treat people.

Brice is a Chester native who came back home to practice medicine and never left. His love for his people was too great to leave, and, Brice said, Raut's love for the people of Chester matched his own.

Ron Hunter, the administrator of Chester Regional Medical Center from 1973 to 1996, was probably Raut's closest friend in Chester for years.

"He gave his life to Chester and its people," Hunter said. "And he did so with a smile on his face every day that he did it."

After Raut became ill, his wife closed her own practice even though she had worked with expectant mothers for as long as her husband fixed up their husbands and boyfriends.

She went to Boston to be with him during his cancer treatment. And now, back in Chester after her husband died, here is what happened to a Hindu woman from another continent after the death of a husband in a great place called Chester: Southern hospitality and love.

Food came in amounts that would feed armies. Cards and phone calls poured in.

Condolences and offers of help and prayers in any religion came to the Raut home, as their offers had always gone out to the people of Chester through their medical care.

"The people of Chester embraced us from the beginning, and have always been very good to us," said Pratibha Raut. "They are wonderful people. We love them."

Pratibha's husband was so gentle that some called him, plainly, "Gandhi."

No measure of a man - American or Indian, but certainly Indian-American - could be greater.

At 2 p.m. today at Chester's Purity Presbyterian Church, the people of Chester who had their babies born by Pratibha Raut and their bodies patched up by P.S. Raut have a chance to thank them.

A public memorial service that transcends religion and skin color and culture - and spans oceans - will feature a few words from guys such as Bill Brice and Ron Hunter.

"This is for the people of Chester to share their love for the Rauts," Hunter said.

"It, plainly, was an honor in my life to know P.S. Raut," Brice said.

P.S. and Pratibha Raut are exactly what make America great - immigrants who found a place to work hard and give to their community the skills of their minds and bodies.

The Raut priority always was their children, who have been the highest achievers all of their lives - as so many children of immigrants are.

But aside from family, a part of the Rauts was always on call. Working weekends and nights at the Chester hospital, delivering the babies and fixing the broken arms and keeping death away.

Chances are good many people at the service today will have a scar somewhere that shows where P.S. Raut's hands - hands that started as a musician on the Indian tabla drum, then found their way to Chester, South Carolina - healed them.