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Veterinarian of the Year sees transitions in Flint Hills cattle care

Veterinarian of the Year sees transitions in Flint Hills cattle care
Tom Jernigan continues a family tradition of serving the cattlemen of the Flint Hills.

Visitors to the Jernigan Veterinary Clinic in Council Grove are familiar with this response: “Tom isn’t in the office today. He’s working about 500 cattle in Chase County.”

"Tom" is veterinarian Tom Jernigan, a second-generation animal practitioner at the office, and a busy doctor caring for animal health issues in Morris and Chase counties, and often well beyond.

It was near bedtime before the popular veterinarian could take a breather and reflect.

“It’s been a great life serving my friends by helping care for their livestock and pets,” Jernigan said.

This Dr. Jernigan became known as “Tom” when he joined his dad, veterinarian L.D. Jernigan, in the practice.

VET OF YEAR: Tom Jernigan is a second-generation veterinarian following his dad, L.D. Jernigan, in serving Morris and Chase counties, and the surrounding areas, from Jernigan Veterinary Clinic at Council Grove, with a satellite location open two days a week at Cottonwood Falls. Photo courtesy of Frank Buchman.

Fresh out of K-State in 1979, the young doctor had to be identified differently from the popular older doctor, who’d already been serving the Flint Hills communities 32 years.

“Most people still refer to me as ‘Tom.’ Sometimes, it’s Dr. Jernigan. To a few: Doctor Tom. I’m fine with whatever they call me,” a smiling Jernigan said about his latest title, Veterinarian of the Year, an honor bestowed by the Kansas Veterinary Medicine Association this year. It recognizes Jernigan’s “longtime service to veterinary medicine, K-State, his community and the KVMA.”

“I’m so honored, but it was a complete surprise. The recognition is even more meaningful since my dad also received the award back in the ’70s," Jernigan said.

Serving as KVMA president among many professional and community leadership roles, Jernigan was again following his father’s footsteps.

BUFFALO VET: Health care of the bison herd at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve north of Strong City is the responsibility of Tom Jernigan. Jernigan is shown here with Gene Matile, who feeds and looks after the buffalo throughout the year. His wife, Paula Matile, is an official of the Nature Conservancy, which manages the preserve as part of the National Park Service. Photo courtesy of Frank Buchman.

“Dad was always and continues to be my inspiration. He had a passion for veterinary medicine, active more than 60 years. Dad never wanted to retire and was still working into his 80s,” Jernigan said.

L.D. Jernigan was a longtime K-State faculty member as senior veterinary medicine students came to his clinic for hands-on experience.

Growing up in Council Grove, the younger Jernigan and his siblings — Doug, Jeff, Randy and Heidi — especially enjoyed time at their grandfather's farm near Osage City.

“Grandad was my inspiration, too. I learned a lot about cattle, sheep, and hogs helping Grandad. He continued farming into his 90s,” Jernigan said.

Yet, the decision to enter the animal care profession wasn’t immediate. “Dad said he always wanted to be veterinarian, and my older brother Doug was that way, too. Doug was a veterinarian in Topeka for many years,” Jernigan remembered.

“I was uncertain about my career during college,” he admitted.

A K-State yell leader, Jernigan married his high school sweetheart Diane (Fritchen) in 1971, and then graduated in resource management the next year. It was the Vietnam era. Jernigan joined the National Guard. (Noteworthy, his dad graduated from vet school in four years at age 20, too young to be licensed a veterinarian, but served the profession in the Army.)

Career opportunities took Jernigan and Diane, a teacher, to Colorado.  “I was working in land development, and just came to the realization I wanted to be veterinarian. My wife was shocked, and of course, my folks were thrilled,” he said.

Returning to campus town, Jernigan was accepted into vet school and went back to the books. “Our first daughter, Jenny, was born at Christmastime when I was studying for finals. Then, our second daughter, Julie, came two weeks before state board exams,” he said.

The couple’s son Jay was born a year after Jernigan graduated as a doctor. “There was no pressure ever for me to become a veterinarian, or to work with my dad,” Jernigan said.

Old Doc was a one-man practice headquartered at the clinic he’d built in 1954 on the east edge of Council Grove, entering the profession there in 1947. A satellite office offering services at Cottonwood Falls two days a week was opened in 1981.

Already well-known in the community, the younger vet worked side by side with his father through the senior’s retirement. “Even when Dad was at assisted living, he’d sometimes help, and sure always was willing,” Jernigan said.

Today, Jernigan Veterinary Clinic has been modernized, including expanded working facilities, a mixed practice for large and small animals, with a public kennel, too.

Veterinarian Mona Metzger has been on staff 18 years, and Drew Crisler joined the practice five years ago. “Vicki Britt has been receptionist 38 years, and now we have a full-time vet technician, too,” said Jernigan, who continues serving the Cottonwood Falls office two days a week.

Change is constant, and Jernigan has seen many changes. “Really the biggest thing is the calmer, gentler methods. Very little is done with cattle on the end of the rope,” he said. “Dad was a good roper, but I never could rope very well. Facilities have improved as cattlemen take better care of their livestock.”

Size of herds has grown. “When I started, most operations had 30-40 cows with large herds of 100 head. Today, there are many ranches keeping twice, three times that many up to 500 and 600 cows,” Jernigan said.

While the veterinarian could serve two or three ranches a day three decades ago, one ranch cowherd is often today’s maximum. “There are more fall calving herds today, versus strictly spring calving. That’s increasing, to help spread out marketing,” he said.

Preventive medicine is emphasized by Jernigan to clients. “Vaccinations are essential to herd health, and I recommend practices so ranchers don’t have to call for my services,” he said.

However, Jernigan emphasized the importance of not overdoing a good thing. “Sometimes vaccinations are more for marketing than health reasons. I try to advise what’s best for the livestock,” he said.

Of course, there are many memorable times in his notable career. “One time an elementary student’s boa constrictor got loose when he brought it to school. When they found his snake the next day, it had a laceration. I couldn’t put stitches in, so I used super glue, and it healed up fine,” he said.

Jernigan readily refers patients to the nearby university. “I send the exotic stuff to the experts. I know my limits, and always want to do what’s best for all animals.”

Jernigan sees no near-term slowdown.

“I’ve become passionate about veterinary service, just like my dad, and like Flint Hills ranchers are for their business. I enjoy caring for livestock, and especially helping all of the people. They’re more than clients, they’re my friends.”

Buchman is a Council Grove rancher and blogger.

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