A Farmer Secretly Paid for His Neighbors’ Prescriptions for Years

Hody Childress brought cash every month to a pharmacist in Alabama, asking her to use it to help people buy medicine. The town learned of the arrangement only after his death.

A woman wearing a pink shirt with leopard print sleeves sitting next to a man wearing a dark gray polo shirt.
Hody Childress and his daughter, Tania Nix. Mr. Childress made anonymous cash donations to the pharmacy Geraldine Drugs, helping neighbors struggling to pay for prescription medicine.Credit...Ronald Nix

When the doctor saw what a hornet sting had done to Eli Schlageter, 15, causing his mouth and throat to swell, his advice to Eli’s parents was unequivocal: Get an EpiPen.

But they were stunned to learn that a single dose of the lifesaving drug, used to treat severe allergic reactions, cost $800 — even with insurance coverage — at their local pharmacy in Geraldine, Ala., a farm town about 60 miles southeast of Huntsville.

The pharmacist, Brooke Walker, found a coupon to knock off a few hundred dollars from the total. But Eli’s mother, Bree Schlageter, still balked at the price. So, to help the family, Dr. Walker turned to an envelope full of carefully folded hundred-dollar bills from an anonymous donor.

Every month for more than a decade, a local farmer, Hody Childress, had made anonymous cash donations to the pharmacy, Geraldine Drugs, aiming to help neighbors struggling to pay for prescription medication. The wider community learned of his good deed only after he died at 80 in January. Now, his family and donors from across the United States have vowed to continue his legacy.

“I think he felt like he couldn’t not give,” Tania Nix, 58, the daughter of Mr. Childress, said. “Giving that way, that just got on his heart and he felt like he needed to do it.”

Mr. Childress grew up poor, surviving with his family on subsistence farming and by hunting small game. Their house had no electricity until Mr. Childress was about 7, said his son, Douglas Childress.

An Air Force veteran, Mr. Childress worked at Lockheed Martin for about 20 years until he retired in 2001, Ms. Nix said. On Friday nights, he would carry his first wife, who had multiple sclerosis, up the bleachers at the local high school to watch football games, Douglas Childress said.

After her death from complications of the disease, he found solace in farming with his son. His wife’s death wasn’t the family’s first major hardship — a tornado killed Mr. Childress’s father and his middle child, a son, in the 1970s.

Ms. Nix recalled that Mr. Childress’s second wife, Martha Jo, had once called to say she feared that with his history of heart trouble, sitting on a combine in the Alabama heat might kill him.

Ms. Nix said her father told her: “‘Let me tell you something. If I die on the tractor, I’ll die a happy man.’”

“I told him, ‘OK, I won’t bother you anymore,’” she recalled.

He also enjoyed cultivating his garden, the products of which — homemade peanut brittle, fresh strawberries or tomatoes — he handed out freely around Geraldine, a close-knit community of about 1,000 people that residents compared to the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry, the setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Geraldine, residents said, has a tradition of neighbors helping one another, as well as a number of people who need the help. About 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to an analysis of U.S. census data from 2020, which is higher than the national average.

Alabama spends less than the national average on Medicaid, the state and federal health insurance for the poor and vulnerable, and officials have declined to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act.

In 2010, Mr. Childress walked into Geraldine Drugs and pulled Dr. Walker, the pharmacist, aside.

“‘I have a question,’” she recalled him saying, “‘Do you ever have anyone who can’t pay for their medication?’”

“‘Well, yeah, that happens a good bit,’” she told him.

He handed her a folded hundred-dollar bill and said, “‘The next time that happens, I want you to use this,’” she recalled. “‘I want it to be anonymous. I don’t want to know any details on who you use it on, just tell them this is a blessing from the Lord,’” he told her.

He came back a month later with another folded bill, a practice he continued until late 2022, when he became too ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to leave his home. At that point, he decided to confide his secret to one other person, his daughter, Ms. Nix, who promised to carry on the contributions.

Over the years, Dr. Walker said, the fund had helped at least two people a month who didn’t have insurance or whose benefits didn’t cover their prescription medicine.

Last fall, one of those people was Eli Schlageter, who works part time on a poultry farm run by Mr. Childress’s son, Douglas.

When Dr. Walker told Eli’s mother that money from an anonymous donor would cover the cost of the EpiPen, she cried with relief.

“I just started squalling,” Ms. Schlageter, a secretary for the principal at Geraldine High School, said. “We’re a two-income family, but still, $300 is a lot. Miss Brooke told me: ‘It’s taken care of. No questions asked.’ I asked how. She never would tell me.”

But then the donor’s identity emerged.

“All of a sudden it comes out that Mr. Hody did it,” Ms. Schlageter said. “What he doesn’t know, now that he’s in heaven, is that he helped a kid that works on a farm that he started. Look at that circle.”

Since The Washington Post reported Mr. Childress’s largess, Ms. Nix and her family and Dr. Walker have received calls and messages on social media from people across the United States wanting to donate.

Last week, Dr. Walker received a check from someone in Tennessee. On Monday, a person called from Miami. He told her that unless she needed the money, he was going to approach his local pharmacy and start his own Hody Childress account.

As drug costs have climbed in the last decade, about a quarter of Americans struggle to pay for prescription medicine, according to a 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation survey. About a third of Americans skip doses, cut pills in half or go without.

Mr. Childress was a “wonderful example of generosity,” said Frederick Isasi, head of the health care advocacy group Families U.S.A., and a reminder “that for many Americans, prescription drugs are out of reach.”