Fulton doctor retires after 57 years of doing what he loves

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Fulton’s Dr. Billy Collum is a very successful man.

Although his 57 years as a general practitioner have certainly provided for his family — his wife, Barbara, and eight children — it’s not fiscal prosperity that defines Collum’s career as a success. It’s the fact that he’s a man who set his eyes on a goal, grabbed hold and never let go.

Just a few days after his official retirement, Collum is reclined in an armchair inside his home’s cozy library, feet propped on an ottoman. He’s smiling, which seems to be something he does most of the time.

Who can blame him; he’s a happy man. Plus, he’s retired. Finally.

“Three years ago, I told my wife I would retire,” Collum, 82, said. “I told her the same thing two years ago and again last year. I’ve lied to her three times.”

He laughed and said, “The rooster has crowed; it was finally time to quit.”

Even as a child, Collum knew he wanted to be a doctor. It’s certainly unusual to have a lifelong career selected and anticipated before even hitting the teens. But Collum drew inspiration from his father, Dr. William Thomas Collum, one of Itawamba County’s “horse and buggy” doctors.

“I always had it in my mind to be a doctor, even when I was in grammar school,” Collum said. “He was my idol. I’d help him out with his work a little bit. It was always my goal to be a doctor like him.”

Collum said he kept this goal with him throughout his high school and college careers. Even as a student at Harvard, surrounded by peers with comparatively much grander ambitions, Collum remained adamant about his goals.

“I told my classmates I wanted to go to a small town in Mississippi and set up a general practice,” Collum said.

Most of his classmates scoffed at the idea. General practice was fine — a respectable career. But there was far more money to be made in specialization. Plus, general practitioners never truly made names for themselves in the medical field.

But those things were of little interest to Collum. Again, he wanted to be like his father, who certainly never struck it rich practicing medicine.

So, when Collum graduated from school, he returned to Itawamba County and set up a practice in Fulton. He laughed and said he barely knew what he was doing half the time.

“I was 25 at the time and wet behind the ears,” Collum said. “I was too young, but I learned.”

Like most physicians at the time, much of Collum’s job was traveling across the area making house calls, something he didn’t stop doing until about five years ago. He enjoyed working with people, most of whom he had known all his life.

“There’s a lack of stress here,” he said. “I was born and raised here; I know the people, and if I don’t [know them directly], I probably know one of their family members.”

Truthfully, there’s a good chance Collum actually brought some of those family members into the world. Collum said one of the great joys of the early days was being able to deliver babies — work an obstetrician would handle these days.

“Delivering babies is the most difficult and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

After operating his own clinic for more than three decades, Collum decided to close up shop — the first of his “retirements.”

Soon after, he found himself employed by the North Mississippi Medical Center at Fulton’s clinic. It was to be a brief affair — a way to keep busy without the pressures of running his own practice.

“I planned to work there three years, then retire,” he said, then shrugged. “It’s been 19 years.”

Even though things didn’t exactly work out as Collum had planned, they did work out for the best.

“I’m glad I didn’t retire; I’d probably be in Whitfield by now if I had,” Collum said.

He said working at the medical center has been “ideal.” He was able to keep his patients without the pressures of operating a business. It was a great deal.

Still, all good things must come to an end. Although he’s ready to retire, Collum said it’s still difficult. Some of the patients he’s leaving behind have been with him throughout the entirety of his time as a physician.

“There’s a bit of ambivalence there because I still want to work. Still, I know what’s best,” he said, adding with a grin that he’s happy to retire while he still has all his good senses rattling around in his head.

Kicked back in his chair, Collum said he plans on spending his extra free time doing some reading, working in the yard and visiting with his large family. It’s a job well done for Dr. Collum; time to reap the rewards.

Although, honestly, he’s been reaping those rewards for the past 57 years.

“I can truly say that general practice is what I wanted, and that’s what I got,” he said.

He leaned back in his chair, smiled and recited a bit of Latin.

“Fait accompli,” he said.

The goal is accomplished.

adam.armour@journalinc.com