‘He pushed for the highest possible standard.’ Family, colleagues remember Dr. Chris Agner

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 19, 2024

By Susan Shinn Turner
For the Salisbury Post

Caring, calm, compassionate, collaborative. 

Family and colleagues used these words, and many more, to describe the late Chris Agner, longtime Rowan physician, who died Wednesday, May 15, after a long battle with cancer. He was 73. 

Dr. Fred Goss was one of Agner’s partners at Rowan Diagnostic Clinic, the practice Agner’s father founded. He was also his brother-in-law.

“He was instrumental in working with the hospital administration and our partners to allow us to grow into a bigger clinic,” Goss said Thursday.

Three years Agner’s junior, Goss called him a role model. “I could observe his caring attitude toward patients, his knowledge, and his staying up-to-date with medicine,” he said.

Goss also called Agner a good communicator and good collaborator. “Salisbury and Rowan County have benefitted from his decision to go into clinical medicine.”

Dari Caldwell agreed. The two met when she became president of the hospital in 2010. They hit it off immediately, she said Thursday. 

“He was one of the most magnificent men I’ve ever known,” she said. “He was driven to do good things for the community. He desperately wanted the hospital to be the best it could be. He pushed for the highest possible standard.”

When the hospital was upgrading its CT scanner, Agner wanted the highest level of equipment that was on the market. 

“Nobody had it,” Caldwell said. 

“We’re going to get that,” he told her. 

He did. 

This spring, Caldwell wrote Agner a long letter, thanking him for his legacy. She received a thank-you text just recently.

Agner was the first born of Roy and Martha Agner’s seven children. One sister is a physician and two sisters trained as nurses. 

He relished practicing medicine with his father. 

“Other people went fishing and hunting with their fathers,” he said when he retired in 2019. “I went doctoring with mine.”

Members of his extended family have gone into medicine. Agner’s uncle, the late Dr. Marshal Agner, was a longtime physician in Cherryville. Agner’s first cousin, Dr. David Agner, the youngest of Dr. Marshal Agner’s six children, rotated through the clinic as a fourth-year medical student. 

“I was always amazed at his knowledge and his way of thinking through interacting with patients,” he said Thursday night. “He had a calmness about him when others were not. He liked the challenge of practicing medicine. He was a very intelligent man and he had an inquisitiveness.” 

He and his cousin learned well from their fathers. 

“My dad and his brother lived for their patients,” David Agner said. “That’s just the way it was.”

But Chris Agner’s family never resented the time he spent with patients. 

“When we were all growing up, my dad was on call most of the night,” said Elizabeth Agner Brady, the oldest of his and Dianne’s five children. “He had a very personal relationship with all his patients. His job did not end at 5 p.m.”

“We were reminiscing that after church, we’d go to the hospital and eat a chicken salad sandwich from the hospitality shop so Dad could see patients,” said Rebekah Agner Stanton, his other daughter. 

If you had a case that seemed unsolvable, the girls said, Agner was the man to see. 

“He loved being able to solve a medical problem that no one else could,” Brady said. “One of the joys of his job was to crack the case.”

Still, she said, “We always had meals as a family, even if Pop just came home for dinner.”

Stanton recalled that her father built Pinewood Derby cars with his sons, Nathan, Matthew and Joel, all of whom were in Scouting. He played pickup basketball games at the Y until a broken finger put a stop to that, Brady said. 

On vacation, the family of seven traveled in an Econoline conversion van throughout the Southeast. The kids were especially excited about the bed in the back. 

Agner and his wife met during their senior year of high school, when they were vying for the same scholarship to go to Lenoir-Rhyne. She won. 

“He was the one who always told that story over the years,” she said Thursday. 

They seemed smitten from the beginning. 

“We started dating March of our senior year, and he went to the prom with me,” she said. “He looked like one of the Beatles. He had the long haircut. He seemed smart and he seemed kind.”

Agner loved his girlfriend’s spaghetti sauce recipe. 

“One night, I was cooking a spaghetti supper for him and he showed up with a bottle of wine,” Dianne Agner remembered. “My parents were teetotalers, so we had to hide the bottle and go eat in the den. But they evolved over the years and when we went for dinner they’d say, ‘Red or white?’”

The two married during their sophomore year at Lenoir-Rhyne. The bride wore a long-sleeved, long white gown with a frothy veil. Her husband sported a black tuxedo with ruffled shirt — and braces. Agner always joked that he married a “big city woman,” noted his wife, a Charlotte native.

For years, the entire family spent a week together at the beach. At last count, all 21 Agners gathered, with different themes such as Pirate Day. Captain Chris presided over it all, Brady said.  

“I was always very proud of him,” she said. “We all adored our father. He definitely taught us to work hard.”

As he neared retirement, Agner started playing golf with the Old Guys Golf Group — he was the youngest member. 

“His golf buddies have been good about checking in,” Dianne Agner said.

Agner really never stopped practicing medicine. Joel Agner noted that he took his father to get an MRI just a week ago. 

“He was back there way longer than he should have been,” he said Thursday. “When he came out, he said, ‘Two of the nurses knew me and needed some medical advice.’ Even though he was miserable, he felt great that he could help somebody.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn Turner lives in Raleigh.