By STEVEN NALLEY
As a member of the first graduating class of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Janet Welter remembers spending eight hours a day in a classroom at the top of the Herzer Dairy Science Building. It was a long time to spend with the same scent of dairy processing and the same 24 other students each day.
“It didn’t take long before we were all kind of sick of the sight of each other,” Welter said. “It’s a good thing none of us were married to each other.”
Thirty years later, 18 members of the CVM class of 1981 reunited at the Pegasus Gala on Friday night at the Hunter Henry Center.
The class was joined by past and present CVM faculty and deans, MSU leaders, other members of the Starkville community and special guest Jack Hanna.
There wasn’t a sour face in the house.
Welter, now chief campus veterinarian for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she had been looking forward to the reunion for a long time. It wasn’t the class’s first reunion, she said, and she had attended and enjoyed the 25-year reunion.
“There weren’t as many of the graduates (as there were at the 30-year reunion, but) we had a good time,” Welter said. “We were up until 3 in the morning.”
Julie Burt, CVM clinical services coordinator and organizer for the Pegasus Gala, said CVM staff began planning for the reunion by personally contacting every member of the class, as well as former CVM deans.
“Immediately there was much enthusiasm, as the first class was anxious to reconnect,” Burt said. “Since then, the Class of 1981’s excitement has only increased as they have been emailing each other back and forth making plans for this coming weekend. Many memories have already been shared through mass emails. To see their pride in Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine is inspiring.”
Brandi Van Ormer, administrative assistant at the CVM dean’s office, said the classmates came from eight states to reunite at the Pegasus Gala, including one traveling all the way from Scotts Valley, Calif. She said CVM and MSU staff have been working for five months to make the reunion happen.
“Thirty years is a pretty auspicious anniversary, and we wanted to mark it in a very celebratory way for our graduates,” Van Ormer said. “It’s important to honor your roots, and every organization has its ‘firsts’ to honor those who pave the way for all those to come. These students could have chosen to go to an already established school of veterinary medicine out of state, but they chose to come here, and that shows their commitment to this new enterprise.”
The Mississippi Legislature established the CVM in 1974, admitting the first students in 1977, Van Ormer said. Up until a few months before the first class graduated, she said, the Wise Center was still under construction, leaving them without a permanent building or classrooms – hence, classes in the dairy building.
“Also, faculty were teaching classes that were part of an entirely new curriculum – classes that had never been taught before,” Van Ormer said. “It was a Herculean effort to come up with a new curriculum and make all of those first decisions.”
Eleanor Green, now dean of the college of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M, was one of the founding faculty members at the MSU CVM. Green said the MSU CVM’s founding dean, Jim Miller, was instrumental in the CVM’s early years, especially the curriculum planning.
“He obtained a set of offices on campus away from the CVM-assigned space and termed it the ‘War Room,’” Green said. “Every day, all of the faculty reported to the ‘War Room’ and worked all day long (on the curriculum) for weeks on end. He was a visionary with a unique ability to motivate and excite people about big dreams and possibilities. He had a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and who knows how many others for every event.”
Green said Miller also filled the MSU CVM founding faculty with risk takers and agents of change. The first two faculty members he hired had PhDs in education instead of veterinary medicine, she said, and he asked many faculty from other schools to leave secure positions to come to Mississippi, which at the time had a population of barely more than two million.
“Some prestigious faculty members and administrators became intrigued by the concept and the excitement they witnessed while they served as consultants,” Miller said. “Some left everything behind to come on board. Those who asked if they could consider (joining MSU) again when the program was more secure were always given the same answer by Dr. Miller, a flat ‘No.’”
While building the program from scratch was challenging, Green said, it also gave staff a great deal of creative freedom.
“It was not only encouraged, it was expected,” Green said. “Creativity and innovation were the CVM-MSU culture. We were surrounded by this culture in which novel ideas were welcome. Any proposal submitted, which was well thought out and well justified, was given a try. If it did not work as well as predicted at that time, adaptations were made, but the authors and proposers were praised for creative efforts.”
Welter said the CVM was a leap of faith for students as well, with no preceding class to prove to them their efforts would pay off. Ultimately, she said, the leap of faith was well rewarded.
“Sometimes, I think they make a little too much of the fact that we were the first class,” Welter said. “The only common denominator for all of us is that we were all really, really, really stubborn, because it was a very diverse first class. There were those taking the traditional route like I did. We had people who had two years of junior college, and we had Vietnam veterans. All of us, I think, left here prepared to be veterinarians, regardless of either our advantages or non-advantages when we started. I think that’s pretty impressive.”