'Doc' of all trades: Veterinarian DeWitt takes down his shingle
WORTHINGTON — If Ross “Doc” DeWitt compiled a résumé at this point in his life, it would list many diverse undertakings and accomplishments:
* Sonar specialist on a submarine during World War II
* Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in both large and small animal practice; also corporate veterinarian
* Owner of a drive-in restaurant
* Airplane pilot
* Salesman of grain conveyors
* Grocery clerk at a national park
* Collector of antique horse tack
But Ross has no need for a résumé, as he recently gave up the small animal practice he operated out of his home and completely retired. He did vaccinations and neutering for dogs and cats in a basement office, garnering business simply by word of mouth.
“I quit because it costs more for the continuing education and license fees than I was making,” explained Ross, who opted not to renew his license. “But I spent many sweaty hours getting that degree, so I hated to let it go.”
A two-year stint in the U.S. Navy set the course — and the goals — for the rest of Ross’ life.
When he graduated from high school, World War II was nearing its end. Ross had determined at an early age that he wanted to be a veterinarian, but he also wanted to serve his country.
“My dad was a farmer and also quite a livestock dealer, and as a consequence, we had vets out at the farm quite often, and I decided, ‘Hey, I’d like to do that,’” recalled Ross, who grew up near Milford, Iowa.
Although he intended to go to college, Ross and several of his buddies made an initial attempt to enlist in military service.
“The war was still on, but evidently the draft board knew something we didn’t,” he said. “We were told to go to college.”
But after attending summer school, Ross had some indications that he might get drafted anyway, so he enlisted in the Navy. In boot camp, he raised his hand when a call was put out for people who could type, and that ability served him well throughout his military service.
“It got me out of a lot of KP duty,” said Ross with a laugh. “I went into submarines, and my typing ability came in handy. They sent me to Hawaii — tough duty. I was there for two or three days, and they discovered I could type so they put me in the radio gang. That included sonar, so they sent me to San Diego to sonar school. Again, my typing ability got me that. When I graduated from sonar school, they sent me back to the sub.”
While the submarine — the USS Bergall — was out on maneuvers, Ross impressed the commander by getting better readings on targets off the sonar than could be achieved by periscope. When the submarine returned to base, he was called in to see the base commander and offered the chance to serve on a submarine that was going to explore the waters off Antarctica for the first time.
“They wanted me to transfer to that boat, and I said no,” Ross related. “I’d have to re-enlist, and I told them I had wanted to be a vet since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and was going to do that. It was very tempting, though.
“Those were two very precious years,” he reflected. “I really enjoyed the Navy, and if I hadn’t wanted to be a vet, I would have signed on for a 20-year term. So I based my life’s doings on a 20-year basis, because I could have stayed in and retired on a nice pension. ... That was the basis for a lot of decisions after that.”
When his two years were up, Ross returned to Iowa, began classes at Iowa State University in Ames and found his wife-to-be.
“I met June. She was my brother’s schoolteacher, teaching in Milford,” he said. “We decided we were going to get married, so when we went back to Ames, we bought a 24-foot trailer house. We lived in that for four years and became the parents of one little girl by the name of Diane. I was a junior when she was born.
“The GI Bill was a great value, so between June and the GI Bill, I graduated.”
Shortly after Ross graduated from ISU, the DeWitts passed through Worthington, and on a whim Ross decided to see if there was a need for a veterinarian in town. He was quickly hired and began work in 1954 at what was then called the Vet Barn, across from Campbell Soup Co. They added to their family with a son, Tom, and another daughter, Nancy.
Later, the veterinary office would move to a new facility on the east beltline. The practice offered both large- and small-animal services, so Ross saw all sorts of animals with all sorts of ailments and also did a lot of livestock testing for the state.
While Ross may have achieved his dream of being a veterinarian, there were times when he wished he’d taken a different path.
“In my early days as a vet, I’d be out doing a cesarean on a sow at 2 in the morning in an old muddy corn crib,” Ross related, “then I’d come home and tell June ‘I’m going to quit and go back to school to be a pharmacist,’ and June would say, ‘Oh no you’re not.’”
In addition to his veterinary career, Ross became a fast-food entrepreneur by opening up the Quikstop Drive-in, just off Oxford Street on Humiston Avenue.
“Our claim to fame was 19-cent hamburgers,” Ross noted. “It was one of my 20-year goals.”
Even though “things got better” in his veterinary career, Ross eventually got the itch to make a change.
“At the end of 20 years, I had in mind that I wanted to do something different,” Ross said. “A salesman came in and said Hubbard Milling’s vet was leaving and I should apply. I got the job, and we thought about moving to Mankato (where the job was based), but Nancy was a senior in high school, so we decided I would commute between Worthington and Mankato so she could finish her schooling here. I traveled a lot with Hubbard Milling — three or four Midwestern states — so I’d be on the road a lot.”
As another of his goals, Ross earned his pilot’s license, and he’d often make the commute in his own plane.
After arranging a Kiwanis Club program by a parachute team from Sheldon, Iowa, Ross also resolved to take the parachute plunge. He made three jumps before an injury curtailed such activity.
“I cracked my hip” on the third jump, Ross related. “June and the kids didn’t have much sympathy for me. ... I had to practice veterinary medicine for two weeks on crutches. ... But it was a challenge, one of those things — ‘Hey, I’m going to do that sometime.’”
Once their kids had all left home, Ross and June contemplated a move to the Black Hills, but the right opportunity never came along. Instead, a local businessman, Phil Clark, offered him the chance to sell an innovative grain conveyor system being manufactured locally.
“So we stayed, and I did a lot of driving to go to a lot of grain-handling conventions,” Ross explained. “It was nice because June was always able to go with me. Then the president put the kibosh on sales of wheat to Russia, and the conveyor business went down the tube.”
The DeWitts have found many endeavors to fill the hours of their retirement years. On a trip out west, they passed through Yellowstone National Park and found out that the park service liked to employ retirees as summer help. It sounded like an interesting opportunity, so they applied and spent three summers working in Yellowstone.
“June had to dip ice cream one season, and I was in the grocery department — the checkout,” Ross explained. “The next year we went back, and again I worked in the grocery and June got assigned to Indian jewelry. She really enjoyed that. We’d work 39 hours a week, because they didn’t want to pay overtime, and that left us a lot of time to explore. I think we hiked every mountain out there, and we made some lasting friendships.”
In recent years, the DeWitts have wintered in Florida, where Ross has taken writing classes and researched the DeWitt family history. But back in Worthington, the pet clinic occupied a lot of his time, and he enjoyed being able to use his veterinary knowledge and talents.
“It still hurts,” he said about having to give it up. “I still get a lot of calls, had one this morning and had to turn her down.”
But Ross continues to spend time in his basement office, which is home to the latest stray cat June has rescued, as well as his collection of antique horse tack — specifically bits — that hang from the ceiling. He began picking up the tack early in his career on visits to farms in the region. At last count, he had 164 bits, as well as a few other assorted tack items.
After meeting or exceeding all the goals he set in his life, Ross is ready to take it easy for a while.
“My new hobby is drinking coffee,” said Ross, admitting that he has become a frequenter of several coffee klatches that meet around town. “... And I’m going to inhale and exhale a lot.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers
can be reached at 376-7327.