ONALASKA — After caring for countless cats, dogs, cows, horses and other animals over a nearly five-decade career, longtime veterinarian Pat Roden is hanging up his stethoscope.
Roden’s broad smile, easy laugh and veterinary skills are well-known to generations of Lewis County folks. He’ll be greatly missed by clients who love his old-fashioned country doctor approach.
“I enjoy the work, especially talking to people,” Roden said.
So why retire now?
“I had it in my mind that I didn’t want to work 50 years,” he said. It’s a resolution that dates back to veterinary school, when he saw old vets still plowing on well into their sixth decade.
“It’s been a good ride,” Roden said — but after practicing veterinary medicine for 49 years, it’s time to keep that old resolution.
I caught up with Roden this week, eager to share a few more moments with one of Lewis County’s nicest guys. It was a personal as well as a professional visit. Roden and his family have been dear friends for as long as I can remember. And on this trip, I took along my daughter, who is interested in becoming a vet, so she could job shadow one of the best before he retires.
While humble, Roden takes the care of animals seriously. His strong, calloused hands give a horse’s flank or a dog’s shoulder a good, friendly rub before he expertly slips in a hypodermic needle with an immunization or medication.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Roden said. “I learn a lot from clients and I listen to them. Especially on the farms. The farmers share knowledge of their experience with the animals. I’ve learned things from people that I respect, that have changed my way of doing things.”
Roden gives credit to two women for his long and successful career: his wife, Susan, who was his business partner and assistant during their early years, and Kim Ostlund, who took over as assistant and has been a knowledgeable voice on the phone and face at the front desk for more than 35 years.
“I think when I’m gone, people will miss Kim more than they miss me,” Roden said. “They love her face and she’s so helpful.”
Ostlund, for her part, said she couldn’t work for anyone but Roden, whose trust and support meant she operated with a unique level of autonomy in helping clients while Roden was on the road.
Originally from Illinois, Roden moved to Lewis County in 1974 and worked for the Centralia vet firm known today as Cascade West.
He eventually went out on his own, founding South Fork Veterinary Services in December of 1983. He worked out of his home on Highway 508, making calls in his truck. He remembers bringing his three daughters along on house calls, riding in a car seat.
He has fond memories of those years providing on-call veterinary service at homes, barns, horse trials and other events — parked and waiting on call in case something went amiss.
He’s seen plenty of changes in his time as a country vet.
At first, 80 percent of his calls were large animal, servicing the many dairies, horse ranches and family farms in the area. That ratio flipped as dairies and horse ranches disappeared. Now 85 percent of his clients now are small animal.
Of course, when he was solely an ambulatory vet making house calls, he was limited to what he could do beyond working in the barn: “Whatever I could do on the top of the dryer on the back porch. Cat castrations and things like that.”
He eventually bought a brand new 1992 Ford van, which he picked it up early, in 1991.
He still makes house calls — barn calls, to be more accurate — from that same van. It now has 500,000 miles and a set of custom cabinets plastered with pictures of his three daughters.
(The van has had three transmissions. When the Onalaska School District surplused a similar van from the same year, Roden’s mechanic in town bought it to use as a parts van for the South Fork Veterinary Services rig.)
In January of 1997 he moved out of his home and into a building a half mile down the road.
Over the past few years he’s looked for a buyer to take over the building and the firm. One potential buyer backed out because of family issues. Another for financial reasons. So Roden is selling to building to be used as a residence again. He’ll parcel out his equipment and fixtures to other local vets.
South Fork Veterinary Services will be shutting down at the end of this month.
His devoted clients are packing his final days with appointments, wanting to get in one more visit with their beloved country vet.
As we chat, I hear Ostlund’s half of a conversation on the phone: “He’s got to close... It has... Thank you, we’re going to miss everyone...”
Outside, a woman has arrived with a draft horse that needs some medical tests. Roden takes off his blue lab coat and puts on a baseball cap as he steps out the clinic’s back door with a few syringes.
As Roden examines Bodacious the horse, Bo’s owner laments Roden’s retirement.
“I absolutely love him to death,” said Wanda Schaffran, who drove up from Vader for the appointment. “He can’t leave us.”
What I’ll remember most about Roden is summarized in a sign I distinctly recall seeing on his back porch decades ago, back when he still ran his business from a pickup truck and a little room in his home.
The sign now hangs prominently in his traveling office. When he opens the sliding side door, it’s the first thing you see.
It reads: “Business is great. People are terrific. Life is wonderful.”
Brian Mittge’s community columns run each Saturday in The Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.