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CALL TO SERVE

By Cassie Livingston
In Bayou Icon
Apr 29th, 2020
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ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

There are two recurring themes in Dr. Ralph Abraham’s life — he always responds to the call to serve whenever and however it comes, and he always uses every opportunity to talk about the people and place that he loves and calls home. The Northeast Louisiana region, Louisiana as a whole, and our nation have all benefitted from Dr. Abraham’s presence and expertise in countless ways. His impressive life includes successful careers as a veterinarian, a (as he calls it) “human doctor,” a Congressman, and a volunteer. The best news? He isn’t finished yet! For his unselfish devotion to his patients whether animal or human, to his constituents, to Louisiana, and to his country, Dr. Abraham is our May BayouIcon.

One can only imagine what thoughts went through the head of a young, junior high school boy as he adjusted to life on the farm. One thing is certain. He never thought that he would one day be meeting presidents and kings, traveling the world, and playing an important role in the revitalization of his own beloved Northeast Louisiana.

Small Town Life in Rural America
Ralph Lee Abraham Jr. was born in 1954 in Monroe, Louisiana. He was one of two children (Monica is his younger sister) born to Ralph Lee Abraham Sr. and Bertie Marlene Posey. His paternal grandparents were emigrants from Lebanon. Having relatives who had experienced the journey to America to begin a new life meant that Abraham had a personal understanding of what it meant to be an American “by choice.”


The family moved from Monroe to Alto, a tiny unincorporated community in Richland Parish, when Abraham was beginning junior high school. It was an ideal place for a young boy to grow up in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s. Here love of family, faith, and friends permeated the everyday lives of those living there or nearby.


Abraham’s father was CEO of American Bank but had always wanted to own a farm in the country. When land became available, he purchased the farm and moved the family there. He worked at the bank during the week and then spent his weekends working on the farm. Abraham laughs when he remembers the early farming days. “Dad wanted a farm badly, and he was totally unprepared for either farming or ranching,” Abraham says. “Still, he made it work – with a lot of hard work!”


Abraham credits working as a boy on the farm beside his father with instilling in him a work ethic and sense of fairness that have lasted throughout his life. There were many jobs to be done, and his father assigned specific tasks and chores that Abraham was expected to complete. These were not easy “little” jobs as anyone who has lived and worked on a farm knows. Abraham built and repaired fences, cared for the animals including shoeing horses and herding cattle, picked up “chunks” to clear land for pasture and crops, and even broke a wild horse or two.


The closest school was in nearby Mangham, and Abraham began his junior high studies there, graduating from Mangham High School in May, 1972. A young lady, Dianne Johnston, caught his eye in junior high. They attended the Alto Baptist Church as well as school together. During high school, Abraham tried to date her but she wasn’t interested. Later, when he was a student at Louisiana State University, he tried again and this time she agreed to go out with him. “The rest, as they say, is history,” Abraham says with a chuckle.


Abraham’s first job away from the farm was on the Olan Mills paper mill assembly line in West Monroe during the summers of his freshman and sophomore years at LSU. “I was trying to make money to go to school,” he says. “My job was to catch boxes as they came to the end of the line and stack them.”

A Lifelong Partnership Begins
In 1975, while Abraham was a student at LSU, he and Dianne married. Today Abraham clearly still adores her. He readily describes her as not only his spouse, but also his “best friend.”

Abraham admits that he has spent most of his life taking opportunities as they come and making the most out of them. As a result, his career path has not been either traditional or predictable. As he described it recently, Abraham lives his life “by ear.” Dianne has been the perfect partner for such an attitude toward life, supporting Abraham at every turn.


No doubt both his proximity to animals on the farm and his awareness of the need for rural veterinarians led to Abraham’s becoming a veterinarian. He had a successful practice for ten years before deciding to study “human” medicine at LSU-Shreveport Medical School. While he was in his veterinary practice, Abraham saw many people when they brought in their pets. He noticed that many of these people were sick. “Country folks couldn’t get adequate healthcare easily,” Abraham remembers. “I made notes over time and finally decided in my 30’s to go back to earn the second degree. I attended med school during the week, and practiced veterinary medicine on the weekends. Dianne took a teaching position. We made it work together.”

Abraham began practicing medicine fulltime in Mangham in 1995. This was the second of several “calls to service” that Abraham was to answer. The first had come in 1986 when he walked in one day and told Dianne that he wanted to join the Army. They had three very young “stair-step” children by that time (KiAnne, Lee, and Ashley), but Dianne didn’t hesitate to support Abraham’s decision.

In 1980, Abraham had earned his pilot’s license (later adding helicopter to his fixed-wing credentials) and thought that he might use his flying skills in the service. Abraham joined the United States Army National Guard and served in Company C 2/20th Special Forces Guard from April 1986 through June 1989. As part of a Special Forces unit, he parachuted and honed the survival and rescue skills that he would use later through his work with medical humanitarian trips abroad.

In 1989, Abraham was awarded the Army Achievement Medal for meritorious service while serving as the Special Operations Executive Officer during annual training trip in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. He was cited for his tactical expertise and leadership while working in the snow-covered mountains and sub-zero temperatures. In the same year, he resigned his commission as a 1st Lieutenant as he prepared to enter medical school. Today he looks back on those days in the service with appreciation for all with whom he served. “Those were just great guys,” he remembers. “I loved the military! Still do.”

Abraham Answers Call to Serve in D.C.
With an established medical practice, Abraham settled into what he calls a “fairly structured” life. The children were grown, married, and had children of their own. His workdays began at six in the morning and ended around six every afternoon. He would get home by seven and Dianne would have a light late supper prepared for him. They watched television in the evenings, and specifically began listening to Bill O’Reilly. He remembers thinking that the country couldn’t possibly get any worse, but then it did. He and Dianne discussed what might be done to help, and they agreed that should an opportunity arise for him to run for political office, that they would go for it. Once again, he was answering the call to serve. “There was never any hesitation on Dianne’s part,” Abraham says. “Once again, she was ready to go wherever life led us.”


In December 2014, “Doc” Abraham became Representative Abraham when he was elected to represent the 5th Congressional District, Louisiana’s largest in terms of area. He quickly began adapting to life in the political arena.


When asked recently what lessons he has learned from being in politics, Abraham’s answer was immediate. “I haven’t really learned much that is new, but this experience has reinforced my belief that the way I’ve always tried to live my life has been the right way,” he says. “I have always believed that the key to a truly successful life is to learn not to be influenced by others’ agendas. A person has to think for himself and make his own decisions.”


Abraham also quickly learned that others holding political offices don’t always have the overall good of the country in mind. That was a hard lesson, but Abraham recognizes that it was an important one. He worries almost daily that we are forgetting the lessons taught to us by the Founding Fathers. “The Founders got it right,” Abraham says. “They invented this nation – and it is the greatest one on earth.”


The hard lessons learned from politics can be very distasteful, according to Abraham, but people should still get involved. He is particularly insistent that young people get involved in the political process. “Everyone has a voice, and needs to use it,” Abraham says. “There are still plenty of good people in the political arena with whom you can work for the greater good.”


One of Abraham’s favorite ways to encourage young people was to take visiting children from Louisiana on tours of the House of Representatives’ floor. He would introduce them to the speaker pro tempore and let them hold the gavel as C-Span was filming. In that way, their presence could become part of the historical film archives. “It is a once in a lifetime experience for them,” Abraham says. “The architecture, the history – it makes an impression that I hope will remain with them throughout their lives. I hope some of them will become interested in a career in politics as a result.”


During his three terms as U.S. Representative, Abraham has been a busy man. His military background has made him a valuable member of the House Armed Services Committee. His farming experience has made him equally valuable on the Agriculture Committee. He has also served on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology as well as the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. In addition to committee assignments, Abraham has also been a member of several influential caucuses. He has served on the Doctors, Veterinary Medicine, National Guard, Coast Guard, Sportsmen’s, Mississippi River, and National Guard Youth Challenge caucuses bringing his education and life experiences to the table for each. In every instance, Abraham’s service has been focused on the needs of his constituents.


Abraham readily admits that his medical education and experience have overlapped with his political career. As a member of the Doctors Caucus, he is part of a group that has a very strong voice in D.C. “We help write and direct policy on national, and occasionally, global levels,” he says. “The Cabinet listens to us. Colleagues in D.C. look to me for advice on health matters, not so much personally, but in general. It’s interesting – a country doctor who makes house calls gives a perspective that very few politicians in urban America ever encounter.”

Dr. Abraham’s Quieter Voice
During most of his life, Abraham’s voice has been soft-spoken. While a dynamic leader, Abraham’s preferred method of operation is considerably quieter. His volunteer spirit permeates much of his “under the radar” activities.


In 2007 when Pilots for Patients was founded, Abraham signed up to fly. These missions were designed to provide free flights for patients who had to go for medical treatments often out of state. With typical humility, Abraham turns any discussion of this work to its founders, Philip and Sharon Thomas and the late Dr. Richard “Doc” Worthington. He continues to fly missions as often as his schedule allows, and says that the program is a ministry for all involved. “Philip and Sharon are wonderful, and I’ll keep flying for them and the patients as often as I’m able, for as long as I’m able,” Abraham says.


Most people are unaware that private citizen Abraham went to Washington long before he became an elected official. His mission back in 1986 was to speak on behalf of his animal patients before a congressional subcommittee hearing on humane treatment during cattle branding. Abraham’s testimony earned him notice in The Humane Society News / Summer 1986 edition as one of the “Capitol Hill Heroes” by Martha Hamby, HSUS director of federal legislation.


His humanitarian trips have gone mostly unnoticed, and that’s the way Abraham prefers it. Again, he considers these to be just another part of living one’s life to promote the greater good. In 2010, one such trip sharpened Abraham’s awareness of just how much more is needed to provide healthcare in impoverished countries. The horrific earthquake that devastated Haiti was yet another call to serve for Abraham, by now a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) captain and Louisiana Wing pilot. Abraham signed up to go on a relief trip to Haiti for Hospitals for Humanity. He joined a team of medical professionals and spent time there treating approximately 400 patients. The conditions were Third World, and the people were in desperate need of even the most basic essentials – clean water and food. Performing surgeries in the midst of aftershocks with patients often lying on the ground because cots weren’t available, Abraham experienced firsthand a level of devastation he had never encountered before.

Coming Home at Last, but to a Pandemic
The time came, however, when Abraham missed home and was ready to leave Congress and return. He had pledged to serve only 3 terms when he first ran, and was a strong believer in term limits. He had been honored to interact personally with President Trump and Vice President Pence and the Cabinet. Although he will always cherish those memories, he knew it was time to leave. “This old country doctor from rural America has been allowed to serve for this wonderful country with some phenomenal folks,” he says. “It has been quite a privilege.”


Among his fondest memories is joining a small group of others to fly on Air Force 1 with President Trump to New Orleans to attend the NCAA football national championship game in the New Orleans Superdome. For LSU graduate and pilot Abraham, this was a special treat. The group enjoyed lunch with the president onboard and then enjoyed the LSU victory together.


Ironically, once again Abraham has been called to serve – this time by his constituents back home as COVID-19 staggers Louisiana, the country, and most of the world. While the House has not been in session recently because of the pandemic, Abraham has remained quite busy with daily conference calls with the Administration and with the Louisiana delegation. They are working on the coronavirus challenge, constituent issues, and finding funds for tornado victims. In between his multiple daily calls, Abraham has been volunteering in a rural health clinic trying to do his part to blunt the impact of the virus. His presence is a godsend to the people, many who have known him for most of their lives.


Abraham says that the biggest thing that he is noticing right now is that people have a palpable fear of not being able to go back to their “normal” lives. He is especially worried about the children in the impoverished areas who are losing not only the knowledge that education brings, but also the structure and food that are so badly needed and that the schools provide. “Our school teachers are the heart and soul of our region,” Abraham says. “They hold everything together.”


Abraham is certain that Louisianans will see this crisis through as they have so many others. He says that people in Louisiana are smart, and that they understand what they need to do to prevent the spread of this disease. “We are a resilient people, and we don’t tend to run from anything. We embrace it,” Abraham says. “Once we have our questions answered, we know how to address it and we learn to live with it.”

And the Future
What Abraham looks forward to the most about coming home is having more time to spend with his nine grandchildren. He has spent as much time as possible with them when he has been home, and relishes having even more soon. Often, “Doc” (as they call him) can be found roaming through the woods with them – sometimes hunting, sometimes fishing, and sometimes just roaming. “I believe that children need some supervision, but I think they also need to have the freedom to make their own choices sometimes,” Abraham says. “That way they can experience firsthand the results of those decisions, whether good or bad. By spending outdoors exploring, hunting – they grow up more confident and smarter.”


Eight years ago, Abraham stood at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world. That was an impressive climb for a country doctor late to the mountain-climbing game, to be sure. But there are mountains left to climb, metaphorically and physically, and Abraham will no doubt seek those, too.


Not long ago, Abraham and Dianne watched Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, “The Mule”. The song that played at the movie’s end resonated with Abraham. One line — “Ask yourself how old you’d be if you didn’t know the day you were born” – was especially meaningful to him.


The song was written and performed by Toby Keith. Its title? “Don’t Let the Old Man In”. It was written in 2017 after Keith and Eastwood had played golf just a few days before Eastwood was to begin shooting the movie and coincidentally celebrate his 88th birthday. Keith asked Eastwood how he managed to keep so active at his age. Eastwood responded that he just didn’t let the old man in.


Neither does Abraham.