BRANFORD — Fifteen minutes after pediatrician Gary Wanerka’s family surprised him with a drive-by retirement party of former and current patients and staff in front of Branford Town Hall, it seemed to be over.

No surprise, arguably. Already upwards of 15 cars, jeeps, and SUVs festooned with signs and balloons had drawn to a stop in front of the town hall. Already dozens of well-wishers had handed flowers, cards, and gift bags and offered thanks to the man known as Doc Gary on this mild evening June 30.

Wanerka’s family, including his wife Christine, their children John and Laura and their spouses, grandchildren Trey and Reese, and Simon, a half Australian shepherd and Catahoula leopard dog, posed for pictures on the steps of the town hall.

“That was nice,” said daughter-in-law Megan Wanerka, who organized the parade, looking up at the overcast sky. “And the rain held off.”

Then, from a distance, came the sound of a horn. Then another. And more, overlapping each other. “Look,” Reese said, pointing across the Green to Main Street.

A line of cars stretched from G Cafe Bakery past Common Ground and down toward the high school, moving at a snail’s pace.

For the next 45 minutes or so, they kept coming.

“My daughter had bacterial meningitis when she was two months old,” said New Haven’s Wendy DeMarco, who noted Wanerka was also her grandchildren’s doctor. “It was touch and go. Doc Gary stayed at the hospital with me until 4 in the morning, went home, showered and changed, and was back in my room at 6:30 a.m.”

Vicki Anderson’s two daughters were patients from the time Wanerka, 79, first opened Branford Pediatrics on 784 E. Main Street in 1982. A Wesleyan graduate who did his residency at Yale, he’d been recruited to the newly-established Community Health Care Plan in New Haven after serving four years as an Air Force doctor in Bitburg, Germany.

“He made us feel like we were his only patients,” Anderson recalled, as the procession of cars inched around the Green. “And he had a lot of patients.”

“A lot,” said his wife Christine, who was viewing the parade from a lawn chair. “At one time, his practice had a panel of more than 10,000 patients.” The two met in a seventh-grade class while growing up in Wantagh, Long Island near Jones Beach.

“He always was turning around to see if I got a better grade than he did,” she said with a smile.

It was Christine who, Wanerka said, “made it all possible by never complaining about the fact that I was getting up from the dining room table to see a kid with an earache or leaving on Christmas Eve to see someone who needed to be treated for asthma, or whatever.”

One of those house calls was for Beth Spencer.

“My daughter had a rare nerve disease called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, and Doc Gary wasn’t on, he and his wife were out to dinner, but he just wanted to check on us,” said Spencer.

Getting to that diagnosis had been a steep challenge.

“I was in extreme pain, I couldn’t bear any weight on my left leg,” her daughter Becky Hastings, now a writer and mother of three in Guilford, recalled.

“RSD is a disease that dates back to the Civil War, but 30 years ago, no one knew anything about it in the medical community,” Spencer said. “Doc Gary told me ‘I don’t know what to do, but I’m going to trust your instincts as a mother, and we’re going to figure this out together.’”

Wanerka credited renowned pediatrician and bestselling author Dr. Benjamin Spock, his professor at Western Reserve Medical School, for imbuing him with the idea of parents as partners in their child’s health care.

“Dr. Spock taught me the joy of working with children, and also how you could really be an important part of a little life and a very important part of the parents being able to make that life a healthy and happy one,” he said.

Another beneficiary of that influence was Branford’s Jean Kelley, who approached the town hall about halfway through the second wave of cars. All four of her children were Wanerka’s patients, she said. When her youngest, Brian, was 6, he crashed into a woodpile while sledding.

“It didn’t knock him out, it just stunned him a little,” she said. “Gary gave him a very thorough physical and noticed his reflexes were off so he sent us to Yale for a CT scan just to be safe.”

Further scans showed demyelination in his brain that had been there since birth, she learned. It turned out that he had adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare and ruthless genetic disorder that commonly strikes boys between the ages of 4 and 8 and causes rapid and irreversible degeneration of the nervous system.

“By Gary detecting the abnormality in his reflexes that identified ALD before he was even more symptomatic, we were able to have a bone marrow transplant that ultimately saved Brian’s life.”

Having reached Wanerka, she rolled down her window. “32 strong,” she called out. Brian, she said, was about to celebrate his 32nd birthday.

“On top of everything, he’s just a damn good old-fashioned doctor,” said Dr. Paul Fortgang, MD, an ENT in Guilford, who strolled over to the town hall steps to offer his socially distanced congratulations.

Fortgang said he met Wanerka soon after arriving in Connecticut in 1988 and worked with him for 30 years. They also played racquetball together.

“He cares for his patients any time of day or night,” he said. “Nothing is too much for him, and that’s made him a good role model for me and other younger doctors,” he said.

And still the cars kept coming. “He was my pediatrician and then he became my son’s allergist and it’s been night and day,” said one mother with a sign in her window that read YOU CAN’T RETIRE FROM BEING AWESOME. “He moved mountains for us,” said another. “He made a huge impact on my life,” said a third.

“I’m just here to pay my taxes,” quipped Chuck Donaruma, who drove up in a Cadillac Eldorado convertible with his wife and kids, before thanking Wanerka for treating his son’s allergies.

Then came the newly retired Susan Judge, Wanerka’s receptionist for 37 years. “I started on November 1, 1983, and we joked that we would retire on the same day and we did,” she said. “He’s one of a kind.”

Forty-five minutes after the initial lull, the last car rolled away, a balloon reading HAPPY RETIREMENT, DOC GARY! bobbing on its trunk.

As she helped organize the mountain of cards, gift bags, and flowers, Laura Wanerka Leo recalled, as a child, accompanying her father on house calls or on rounds at the hospital on weekends.

“Even back then, he was a rock star,” she said, pausing a moment to pet Simon the dog. “And now he has grandkids of patients, so you can never go anywhere without someone calling him Doc Gary, not Dr. Wanerka.”

As to what explained the hour-long parade of well wishes, she had a simple answer.

“He believes in people, he believes in love, and he believes that when you love people, you bring out the best in them.”

Connecticut Media Group