Longtime rural vet reflects on life of livestock, friendships and missed meals
Yes, he's good with cattle
Retired rural veterinarian Vernon Knudson is a storyteller. But countless people have a story, or several stories, to tell about him, too. Here's mine:
It was either 1986 or 1987. I was working at the Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune, but had come back to spend a few days on the family farm near McVille, N.D. On one of the days — drizzly, muddy and miserable — I half-volunteered and was half-drafted to help my father with our cattle during the annual fall visit from the Cooperstown (N.D.) Veterinary Clinic.
That vet that day was Dr. Vernon Knudson (no relation, last name spelled differently), who already had spent a quarter-century at the Cooperstown clinic.
Though the wet, mud and overall working conditions were unpleasant, Dr. Knudson was both positive and focused. He told a few stories and jokes, all the while working efficiently and, occasionally, offering advice. And he clearly enjoyed what he was doing.
My father — who years earlier had taken an ag class with Dr. Knudson at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) — was good with cattle, especially ones in his own herd who knew him and responded to him. I understood my father's knack with cattle going in.
But I hadn't realized how skilled Dr. Knudson would be with the cattle. He anticipated their behavior and movements, he knew the right words and tone of voice to use with them, he always seemed to be in the right spot at the right time.
"Wow," I thought, "he's really good with cattle."
I'm confident that several generations of North Dakota ranchers and their families agree with me.
COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — Vernon Knudson is telling a story. The 84-year-old retired Cooperstown, N.D., veterinarian tells a lot of them. They almost always involve livestock or people and often both. A lifetime around animals and ranchers — driving hundreds of thousands of miles to and from area ranches, assisting in the birth of thousands of calves, saving the life of numerous sick and injured animals and forging countless friendships — makes his subject matter natural, even inevitable.
This story is about how he and Lois, his wife, came to Cooperstown in 1962. Lois — sitting with him in their living room of the house that's been their home for 56 years — occasionally rolls her eyes when Vernon's version doesn't quite match her recollection.
As Vernon tells it, he and Lois, who married in 1960, were checking out area veterinary clinics interested in hiring him after his graduation from vet school. The Knudsons toured two South Dakota practices that didn't suit them, in part because neither of those communities had enough trees for Minnesota-born Lois.
Then Vernon got a phone call from Marilyn Clarke, wife of the late Dr. Delbert Clark, who worked at the Cooperstown clinic from 1945 to 1983.
"She told us, 'Delbert wants you to come. And you have 24 hours to decide,'" Vernon recalls. He and Lois visited Cooperstown (though not within 24 hours) and decided to accept the job offer, in part because the farm and ranch town of about 1,000 is near the heavily wooded Sheyenne River Valley.
Vernon finishes the story with, "Well, that was Dr. Clark. He had his wife call us because he was too busy to do it. He was quite the character; a real Type A (personality). We sure miss him."
That's typical of Vernon's stories. They may hold a bit of a barb, but never any meanness. And they usually end with, "We sure enjoy him (or them or her) " or "We sure miss him."
More than a storyteller
Vernon Knudson's professional and personal life — they're usually too mingled to separate — has involved much more than accumulating stories.
"He's been a friend, colleague and mentor," says Dr. Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist. Stokka, a Cooperstown native, has known Knudson since Stokka was 14. The two were partners for many years in the Cooperstown practice and remain good friends.
"He's been a wonderful influence in my life. And he's been a positive influence in many people's lives," Stokka says.
Among other things, Knudson has been active for many years in 4-H, concentrating on livestock, especially beef cattle, which are common in the extended Cooperstown area.
"He's been so good at working with the youth," said Megan Vig, NDSU extension agent in Griggs County, of which Cooperstown in the county seat. "And he worked with a lot of their parents when they in 4-H. So there's that generational connection."
Knudson is known outside the Cooperstown area, too. The clinic serves a big chunk of eastern and central North Dakota, ranging from Larimore, N.D., to the east, and Wimbledon, N.D., to the west, as well as animal owners far to the north and south of Cooperstown.
Given the size of the clinic's service territory and Knudson's half-century-plus run as a vet, his near-legendary ability to recall names is even more impressive.
Knudson remembers the rancher's name, his wife's name, his dog's name and his children's names, Lois says, echoing comments from others who know him.
If anything, that understates the case. Vernon Knudson probably remembers a rancher's parents' and grandparents' names and, if the rancher has grandchildren, possibly their names, too.
Livestock, especially cattle, have always been part of Knudson's life. He grew up in western North Dakota near Taylor, where his late brother, Kenneth, operated the family ranch for many years.
Today, John Knudson, Vernon and Lois's son and Kenneth's nephew, operates the family ranch at Taylor.
Vernon Knudson served in the U.S. Army and graduated from the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) in Fargo. He went on to study veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he met Lois, an undergraduate in her senior year studying to be a dietitian. Lois, now retired, spent many years as a dietitian in Cooperstown.
After joining the Cooperstown clinic, Vernon Knudson worked for wages before becoming a part owner in 1966 by buying shares in the practice from older partners as they retired. It's not an unusual practice at rural vet clinics.
Knudson says he "tried to retire in 1996," but others at the clinic wouldn't allow it. He sold his interest in the practice to younger veterinarians in the early 2000s, while continuing to work part time for wages at the clinic for many years.
"This will be the first spring I haven't done anything there," Knudson says.
But he still drops by occasionally "to shape up people there," he says with a smile.
Good-natured ribbing of clients has always been part of Knudson's modus operandi.
"He's quick-witted. And if he's good with a comeback. If you say something to him, he's going to come back with something better than what you gave," Stokka says.
But the ribbing is accompanied by "good counsel. He always wants the client to be successful," Stokka says.
Knudson's career focused primarily on cattle, but he worked with horses, hogs, sheep and other animals, too. Early in his career, "We even did chicken autopsies," he says.
One thing that hasn't changed: Knudson's lack of interest in working with pets, known in veterinary circles as small animals or companion animals.
"Well, I've always liked big farm dogs. Bu I was happy to leave small animals to the other vets (at the Cooperstown clinic)," he says.
Knudson's penchant for storytelling has led to him being dubbed the James Herriot of North Dakota. Herriot was a rural British veterinarian whose written reminiscences were featured in "All Creatures Great and Small" and "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and other popular 1970s books.
Vernon has talked about writing a book describing his experiences, Lois says.
Vernon shakes his head firmly and says, "It's not me talking about writing a book. It's other people talking about me writing a book. I don't have the patience."
Adjustment and tragedy
Vernon and Lois's long run in Cooperstown has included tragedy and adjustment.
Their son, Kenneth died in 2000 from unknown medical causes at age 39. A Cooperstown resident, he loved rural life and cattle, his parents say.
"Losing him was hard," Lois says.
But Kenneth's widow, Mary, and their son, Klint, live in Cooperstown, which Lois says she and Vernon value greatly. Klint shares his father and grandfather Vernon's love of cattle, Lois says.
Vernon and Lois's daughter, Kristen Stoick, lives in Fargo, N.D., about 90 miles from Cooperstown.
Because Vernon worked so often at the clinic and area ranches, he frequently missed meals and his time with family was limited.
"He was late for a lot of meals. You lose a lot of independence" as members of a rural veterinarian's family, Lois says.
Stokka describes Lois "as a rock for Vernon through the years. She's been the perfect complement to him."
Lois, for her part, says her husband "was a cowboy. And I didn't know anything about cowboys. So there was an adjustment."
He has 'the touch'
Vernon Knudson moves a little stiffly these day. Age contributes to that, of course. So does the many times cattle kicked him or stepped on his feet, or he bent over or got on his knees.
"My health isn't as good as it used to be," he says.
"Well, it's not so much your health. It's more that your joints are kind of worn out," Lois says.
But he retains what he calls "the touch" — the instinctive ability to work successfully with animals.
"Either you're born with the touch or you're not," he says. "You've heard of horse-whisperers. Well, I'm a cow-whisperer."
Knudson remains an active cattleman. He runs a herd of 40 cows, which belong to several family members, on land near Cooperstown. On a beautiful spring afternoon, on a hillside overlooking the Sheyenne River on which growing green grass is poking out, he shows visitors his herd.
The cows look good — they've come through winter nicely — and their calves appear to be thriving. Knudson offers knowledgeable comments about many of them.
Then he pauses for a second and says. "Well, you can see I still like cattle.
He pauses again and adds, "I've always liked them. So doing what I've done, it's been a good life."