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Still giving, gathering at Greene Drug

Press Photo by Virginia Grantier Greene Drug owner and pharmacist Dwight Mundy, 67, stands behind his counter on July 31.1 / 2
Press Photo by Virginia Grantier Still watching over Dickinson’s oldest drugstore/mercantile on July 31 were pharmacist and Greene Drug owner Dwight Mundy, 67, left, and long-time pharmaceutical technician Peggy Rixen-Kuntz, 83.2 / 2

By Virginia Grantier

Someone might walk into Greene Drug & Gift — Dickinson’s oldest drug store and mercantile business, circa-1883 — and never know what really goes on there underneath their feet in the basement and what has gone in other places in the store, and in other times.

For years, at about 9 a.m., five days a week, older guy — world-problem solvers with cornball jokes — go to the back of the store and then down a flight of steps into the windowless basement near the old fallout shelter that still has emergency provisions and containers of crackers.

The men then weave through aisles of shelves of inventory and into a back room. That’s where fresh coffee waits. This happens, even if there’s three feet of snow on the ground, said pharmacist Dwight Mundy, 67, the drug store’s owner since 1979.

This group of about a dozen, who range in age from their 60s to 80s, the Greene Drug Coffee Club, even get mail sent to the drug store at 16 Villard St. W. That’s because people find out the club donates — sometimes a couple hundred dollars at a time — to charitable causes.

It’s from a gradual accumulation: Funds raised from the 25 cents a cup tossed into a kitty every morning. That and other cash accumulates — 10-cent tips thrown in and penny losses from made-up games. Mundy’s contribution includes providing the coffee.

They sit at a table where other contributions were made decades earlier. Ansul Suckerman, who owned Greene Drug from 1928 to the early 1970s, had the table made for the Dickinson School Board meetings. He was board president at one time and the board met right there in that room in the basement, Mundy said.

And other contributions happened. In addition to being known for great pie, cherry Cokes, licorice ice cream and other things at the lunch counter, Suckerman, the pharmacist, carried customers’ debt for long periods of time during Great Depression days and in other hard times.

“If they couldn’t pay, he wrote it off,” said Peggy Rixen-Kuntz, 83, who was hired by Suckerman in 1968. Mundy and Rixen-Kuntz, who hasn’t fully retired quite yet, related that Suckerman — a Russian immigrant — was so gruff and mean-looking, but actually had a heart of butter.

“He really cared for people,” Rixen-Kuntz said.

She said he came in at at hours when children were sick and needed medicine, even if parents couldn’t pay. Rixen-Kuntz, before being employed by Suckerman, came in herself one day to talk about repaying a debt after her child had a devastating problem that required medication before she had health insurance in place.

She remembers a brusque Suckerman saying something sprinkled with strong language, indicating he was never planning on asking her for any money.

But he also went beyond that — helping local kids through college, said Rixen-Kuntz, who Suckerman trained to be a pharmaceutical technician. In “Heritage and Destiny,” a history of Stark County, Suckerman stated he remembers “helping 18 boys through college, two M.D.s, one attorney and about 15 pharmacists.”

It was a way to repay those who had helped him.

Vernon Greene — who bought the drug store around the turn of the 20th century from J.J. Freeman, who started it in 1883 — had given Suckerman a job when he was a kid as an errand and scrub boy, and then later helped him through pharmacy school.

All traces of Suckerman’s era have not vanished. His soda fountain now is stored in the basement. And still in the basement are shelves of Suckerman’s lined-up bottles of substances used to make and blend medications — which an admiring Mundy leaves untouched, like a museum display.

Next to that are filing cabinets filled with Suckerman’s filed prescription slips from the 1940s from long-ago Dickinson doctors such as Dr. Dukart.

Above the basement on the main floor, it’s very much 2014. There are malls, big-box stores and department stores in Dickinson. Greene Drug isn’t the place any longer with the “enormous bridal registry … china, cookware,” Rixen-Kuntz said. But much of the store is still a gift shop.

Also, the pharmacy is completely computerized. Mundy said he wouldn’t be able to create a prescription label if the power went out. Even his old typewriter in the basement needs to be plugged in, he said and laughed.

Other things, however, are about the same.

Janel Kuntz, a pharmaceutical technician with no relation to Rixen-Kuntz, has worked there for 13 years and said she knows about 75 percent of the people who walk in. Mundy now sees the third and fourth generations of families.

“I love our customers,” Kuntz said.

Mundy said, like many pharmacists, he’s a frustrated doctor. He grew up in a Rolla farm and after five years at North Dakota State University, couldn’t afford anymore college aside from completing pharmacy training. But he has been able to help from afar. He related about when a dentist was unable to come up with a tranquilizer to calm a particular patient that didn’t cause undesirable side effects. Mundy had an idea for an alternative, researched and consulted at length with NDSU — and then presented the option to the dentist who used it successfully.

Another success of a scarier sort was when a detective friend was in the store some time ago, warning Mundy about a man in a brown coat with a pock-marked face who had forged prescriptions for drugs. In walked the man in the brown coat. Mundy saw at once the prescription slip the man handed him was fraudulent — didn’t match any doctor’s handwriting in the area and wasn’t done the way a doctor would have done it. The detective friend walked behind the man, ordered him to put his hands on the counter, to not move and cuffed him.

Mundy said some of the state’s most respected pharmacists have interned there through the years. And despite the struggles downtown has, the drug store is still viable.

“Business is steady,” he said. “The people of Dickinson have been so good to me.”

And he thinks things downtown will turn around even more with time.

“There’s just something about walking into a family-owned business where people know you by name,” he said. “We genuinely care about people and their families.”

Mundy said he also has a real stake in proper care of his customers. North Dakota is the only state that requires that a registered pharmacist own at least 51 percent of the drug store. If the pharmacy breaks a law or hurts someone, the state can take away the pharmacist’s license. In any other state, a large chain owning drug stores can just close the offending drug store and open somewhere else, he said.

In July, however, supporters of a measure to change the state’s pharmacy laws requiring the pharmacist to be the majority owner submitted enough signatures to get on the November ballot, leaving the possibilty that businesses like Mundy’s could one day be a thing of the past.

Mundy, the father of three grown children and grandfather of two, has had a hip replacement but said he feels great and doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. Still, he probably doesn’t want to repeat chasing the thief who took a box of syringes up the alley, losing him when Mundy spun out on ice near the Esquire Club, just across the alley to the north.

The Greene Drug sign above the door that was there when he bought the store is still there.

The building is the same — although it isn’t the building Freeman built in 1883. Suckerman tore that down and built this one decades ago.

But at Greene Drug, there’s more going on there than a building.

Including, a continuing tradition. Mundy, like Greene and Suckerman, is helping people get through college. One of them has become a pharmacist, already, practicing in Rapid City.

Grantier is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-225-8111.