Hello and welcome to the People of Animal Health Podcast. On today’s show, we are talking with Dr. Ralph Richardson. Dr. Richardson has had a long and illustrious career in the animal health industry and veterinary profession. Now retired, Dr. Richardson served as Dean and CEO of the K-State Olathe campus from August of 2015 to July of 2019, after serving for years as Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University. In addition, Dr. Richardson is a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine with a specialty in internal medicine and a charter diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine with a specialty in oncology.
As an active member of numerous veterinary medical associations and organizations, he was also the 2015 recipient of the Iron Paw Award, which is the Animal Health Industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the 2016 recipient of the Association of American Veterinary Medical College’s Recognition Lecture award. And I was there when Ralph won the Iron Paw Award. After a career spanning five decades, Dr. Richardson and his wife, Beverly, have three grown children and currently live in Olathe, Kansas. Welcome onto the People of Animal Health podcast. And how are you, Ralph?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Well, thank you, Stacy. It’s a delight to join you. This is one of those opportunities to kind of do some reflecting, and I tip my hat to you for making this podcast available and others that are like it. I’m sure it’s been a great encouragement to a lot of people over the years.
Well, thank you. We’re so glad that you’re here, Ralph, and it’s always good to be with you. I know that you’ve had tremendous success throughout your career, but I would love to start at the bottom in the very beginning of your career. What was your life like growing up and where did you grow up?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Well, as I look back, it’s been a pretty special opportunity. I grew up in Manhattan, Kansas. I’m originally from South Carolina, and my dad was a county agent there. He went back to school to get a master’s degree with the idea that he would be on faculty at Clemson College at that time, Clemson University now, and he went to Iowa State, and I can remember those days early on a little bit in South Carolina, certainly Iowa State where we were around the College of Agriculture. My dad was a ruminant nutritionist, a feedlot nutritionist, if you would, and he got that master’s. They talked him into staying on and getting a PhD and then Kansas State University, then Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences hired him. In 1951, we moved to Manhattan, and that’s where I grew up, beginning kindergarten, all the way through veterinary school.
Manhattan was kind of a special town in that the university did have a lot of impact, and for little kids, that meant that we could play on the campuses, we could see what was going on. I have two really distinct memories of that town and that university affecting my career choice. The first was when my dad was having an experiment set up. He had twin calves and he wanted to do different feeding trials where he wanted to see what happened in their rumens and so he took these calves over to the veterinary college, and I got to watch them place rumen fistulas in the sides of these calves. I got to see the surgery, I got to see the fistula or the little plug go in. I got to look down into the rumen of those calves and actually put a glove on and reach down in it and feel the movement of that rumen as that calf was digesting the hay and the grain and the things that were going on.
I was amazed. I just had big, big eyes as I watched that. How in the world could you have an animal that gave you a picture of its insides all the time? In the eighth grade, we had a career week where we were allowed to leave school early in the afternoon. It was a social studies class, and we were supposed to shadow something that we might be interested in as a job. I chose to shadow a veterinarian, and little did I know when I went to do that, that it would be at Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine. At that time, they were the only veterinarians in town. There were no private practices at all, but Dr. Jake Moser, a well respected veterinarian, lived his life at Kansas State, has Moser Hall named after him, decided that it would be good for me to tag along with veterinary students.
And these senior veterinary students took me under their arms for a week, and they let me see and do everything that they were going to do as young veterinarians. I was blown away with that. I thought there’s nothing better. Here we go. This is the way I want to be. And from that point on, veterinary medicine was my goal and went on through high school through just the activities that kids enjoy doing. I was blessed to have a wonderful mom and dad and two brothers and older brother that was thinking about medical school, and then his senior year in college decided that he wanted to be focusing on English literature, and that’s what he did for the rest of his life. And then a little brother, seven years behind me that tagged along and he decided he wanted to become a veterinarian as well. So we’ve had a great time of three boys growing up, doing boy things, getting in trouble, and yet having the opportunity to share a lot of common experiences.
I got into veterinary school after only two years of pre-veterinary work. I was the next to the youngest veterinary student in that class. I graduated in 1970, so we called it the class of ’70. One of my best friends had been out working, came back, had a son. He was probably in his mid-thirties. Another one had done a little extra work, maybe late twenties. And here was this tag along young man trying to learn what it was like to become a veterinarian. I think that school was hard for me. The first two or three years were really hard in veterinary school. I didn’t do well in some of the biochemistry courses and some of the physiology courses. I had to really, really work hard at that. But when I got into clinics, it seemed like a light came on. All of a sudden, all those basic science needs made sense to me, and I could see a patient and begin to understand what was happening to that patient.
And I think it was at that point that I thought, “Wow, you’re going to be a clinical veterinarian, Ralph. You’re going to go to practice probably out in western Kansas. You’re going to do veterinary work for all species. You can do cows and horses and dogs and cats and snakes and turtles and whatever came in the door.” That was going to be my opportunity to be a veterinarian. I have to tell one little story along the way. As I was getting into veterinary school, we had interviews, and one of my interviews was with … Oh my goodness, I’m pulling a blank on his name.
It’ll come to me in a minute. He was an older gentleman, and Dr. EJ Frick was his name. Dr. Frick had been on faculty for a long time at Kansas State. He was a clinician, mostly in small animal. But he interviewed me and he said, “First question, son, are you married?” And I said, “No, sir, I’m not.” And he said, “Well, are you engaged?” And I said, again, “No, sir, I’m not.” Third question was, “Do you have a steady girlfriend?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I do. There’s a young lady that I really enjoy being with.” And Dr. Frick looked at me right in the eye and he said, “Son, you better go out there and see about marrying that girl because there’s no better place to find a spouse than in a university. You’re going to be doing things that you have common interests.
You can be somewhat in similar backgrounds. If you don’t do that now, if you don’t find that life partner right now, you’re going to go out there to western Kansas and you’re going to start working. Pretty soon this gal with an eighth grade education who works down at the cafe is going to look prettier and prettier, and you’re going to woo her and you’re going to get married and you’re going to have a half a dozen kids and find out that you don’t have anything in common, and you’re going to get a divorce and your life’s going to be a mess.” Well, I took his advice. I walked out of there and I proposed to Beverly Richardson, then Beverly Dearing, and now 55 years later, we are still having a lot of fun, and she’s still my girlfriend. I doubt that we could give that kind of advice to applicants to veterinary school today.
But EJ Frick knew where the rubber met the road. He also was really great at helping veterinary students through school. He owned a lot of rental homes in Manhattan, and students would come. He was pretty wise about financial advice, and students would come to him asking if there was a way to get a loan. And he said, “No, no, we can’t give you a loan, but there’s a house down on Morrow Street that needs to be painted. You go do that and we’ll get you paid for painting that house.” And with all the houses that EJ Frick owned in Manhattan and all the coats of paint that were put on them, maybe sometimes when they didn’t even really need it, those helped the veterinary students make it through with a cash flow that carried them over, and he was just a man of great practicality.
So my path took me through veterinary school. I worked on weekends with a mixed practice veterinarian. I probably did some things that I shouldn’t have done at that stage of education, but he allowed me to do things. I got to practice some surgeries. I got to make a lot of diagnostics, got to work with all species, and we would work from dawn to dark. It was really great. By that time I was married, I didn’t have any children, but we talked about what it would be like to have a family as a veterinarian. And we knew it was going to be hard. And as I thought about the fact that I need to be up at 4:00, 4:30 to work hogs in the middle of the summer when it was so hot, you couldn’t do the rest of the day, and you did livestock during the day when the farms were open and you’d go back in at the end of the day and you’d have all of your small animal patients to take care of.
I thought maybe I would do a small animal equine practice at that point as I graduated. Well, I didn’t have to make a decision then because the draft was still in place for military service in the United States. In fact, it was at the highest peak that occurred in my lifetime, and that was during the Vietnam War. So I had taken an early commissioning program enrollment as I got into veterinary school, which deferred my active duty until I graduated. And then I had a two-year commitment to serve after graduation. So I didn’t have to plan what I was going to do. I didn’t get paid during the four years of inactive reserve. But when I went on active duty, I went on as a captain with four years longevity in the position, which boosted my pay dramatically in a way that I could begin to make ends meet.
It was during that time that we had our first son. I was initially stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, not too far from Waco, and after a year there, I was sent to Daegu Korea, and I didn’t ask for that. That was just one of those things that the military puts you where they need you. And this was a station where it was kind of a backup to Vietnam. We did have military working dogs. We did have food safety. We did have storage supplies that we had to pay attention to. I also had public health there, and I was responsible for safe swimming pool water for safe club activities where there were different things that would be there as far as cafes and such. And then one that here was a Midwest country kid, pretty naive. I was responsible for supervising the prostitutes that were licensed to be able to go into the bars that were open to the GIs.
This was a great time of understanding human nature. The military knew that they could not keep these young men away from the girls, and so they tried to control it. I got a great education just learning how they worked with a Korean physician. They worked with these ladies and they made sure that diseases were under control. And I came away from that thinking, “Wow, that’s something I’ve never thought of as being a veterinarian.” But it gave me peak at what the great possibilities are because the principles of infectious disease were there, of disease treatment. Everything was applicable of an education that I got as I was in Korea. I was getting ready to exit the military, and I thought, “Okay, now’s my chance to go to practice, but where will I go to practice? I’m in Korea. I’m halfway around the world. I can’t interview very easily.”
And I was really confident in my livestock abilities. I was pretty darn confident in my equine work. But because I had focused mostly on mixed practice, because I’d grown up around livestock, I’d had cattle, I’d had horses, yes, we’d had dogs and cats too, but I wore cowboy boots all the time. We had a dress code in veterinary school that you had to wear a tie and dress slacks. So I wore a string tie and I wore cowboy pants, and that’s who I was as I was growing up around there. I’d been in 4-H, I’d been in the college clubs that were agriculturally related. I just loved that foundation and that background. But I was frightened beyond words to think about coming back to the United States and working on small animals, on pet animals. So I thought, “I’m going to write some letters and apply for an internship in small animal to balance out my confidence in the large animal sector.”
I applied to, I don’t know, three, four schools, wrote letters. And all of a sudden, at 3:00 AM one morning the phone rang. Bev and I had the privilege of living in colonel’s quarters, even though we were only captains on post, and we had a really nice kind of a duplex house, and we had the one little boy at that time. So we did have a telephone, and I answered the phone and I said, “This is Captain Richardson.” And on the other end of the line said, “This is Dr. Blakemore at Purdue University, and we would like to invite you to do an internship with us beginning July 1st when you get out of the military.” And I was so stunned. I said, “Dr. Blackwell, I mean Dr. Blakemore, I’d be thrilled to do that. And tomorrow morning I’ll get up and I’ll write you a letter of acceptance.”
And by that time, Bev had stumbled out of the bedroom, realized what was going on. I hung up the phone and we grabbed each other and hugged one another, and we danced around and said, “We got an internship. We got an internship.” And simultaneously, we pushed back from each other and looked at each other and said, “Where’s Purdue?” We had no clue. No clue where it was. I thought it was an Ivy League school. I thought it was way back east. And thankfully, when I got there, Purdue was instead of limestone at Kansas State, it was bricks. And they had everything that I’d grown up around agriculture, engineering, veterinary medicine, and it was really neat to find out that here was a place where they acted like Midwesterners. They grew corn and soybeans, and we’d been growing wheat and milo. So it was just an amazing opportunity to realize that the Midwest kind of extended a little further east than I thought.
So we spent that year in Indiana, and I had never had more fun in my life. I got to be in the clinics a hundred percent of the time. I had a group of students that I worked with, they followed me around and we looked at the cases that came in the door. They were in the exam room, they did the exams first, and I followed in and repeated what they’d done. We clarified the history. We carried those patients through sometimes to surgery. So I had a wonderful time of just learning from senior clinicians, watching other people talking about all those cases, and having so much fun with the students. It was so much fun. I thought I better go do a residency program in 10 or 15 years from now after I’m a wisened clinician, I might come back to teach. My goal was still on private practice, so I applied for residencies and lo and behold, they took me at the University of Missouri and I thought, “This is better. It’s closer to Kansas. I’ll understand that.”
But they wanted me to do a graduate program along with the residency program. I was fine in the clinics, but I took this class, an immunology class that had a lot of basic sciences in it, and remember how I struggled in veterinary school with that. I struggled idly for that with that too. Thankfully, I took another course in fungal diseases, mycology that had a lot of application, and I was seeing those patients in the clinics. And at the end of that first year, I told my advisors, “I’m sorry, I can’t do a master’s degree and do the clinics. I’m just not able.” And they were disappointed, I’m sure, but it gave me the chance to remain in clinics to work under some people that were really, really right. One in particular did a lot of cancer treatment.
Back in 1973, there weren’t very many cancer treatment veterinarians around. We had surgery and euthanasia, and that was about it. So this guy was doing chemotherapy, and I thought, “That’s pretty cool.” And so I managed to get through that residency. It was a real trial in many ways because some of the senior clinicians did not have a very good work-life balance. In fact, it was only a work balance. And at that point, I was trying to stay on top of coursework, case records, referral records. And this one instructor who was so bright, always got to work at 5:00 AM. Well, I’m competitive enough that I got there at 4:30 and I was going to do everything I could to keep up. Well, we got through the day and then we’d have at the end of the day rounds, and those rounds would last until seven o’clock at night.
And I thought, man, but I was competitive enough that I’d be there till 7:30 and come back again if I needed to. Our only son at that time would come in the middle of the night sometimes. We’d put him on a pad and let him sleep there at the clinic. And it was not a very good balance, but I learned a ton. I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world to be educated by something like that. But I knew that that’s not the kind of life that I wanted to live. My family, my personal life, they were much more important than just that work. So I finished that residency and in 1975, I started applying for positions. By this time, I was down the small animal path so far that the challenge of diagnostics, the kind of investigative type work was just amazing to me.
And I knew that I could do that on pet animals, but I didn’t have that opportunity because of the economic value of livestock that if I really wanted to be a diagnostician, then what I was going to have to do would be small animals. And I was okay with that. So I got talked into taking a position in Miami, Florida. It was a well established practice. It was one that I was allowed to do pure internal medicine. I didn’t have surgery. I think during the time I was in practice, I only did maybe two or three castration, and there was another guy that did most of the surgery. So it’s the way my life opened up. When I got to Miami though I didn’t know a soul. There was one former student who practiced in Miami in a different practice, and it gave me the opportunity to at least say hello to somebody.
But I realized that this was the first time in my life that I didn’t have a ready-made peer group. And I’d had classmates, I’d had the military, we had a lot of young officers. We had people working under me, an internship. I had students in residency, I had students and faculty. And here I was, a Midwest country kid in Miami, Florida with hardly a soul that I knew. So I poured myself in my work. I worked hard. I did a lot of things with the practice. But after about a year, I told my boss, I said, “I really miss the students.” And as hard as that year was, I counted as one of the biggest blessings that I could have because it helped me realize what my passion was. My passion in that part of my life was to teach. And I wanted to be around those students and help them have that light bulb come on.
And all of a sudden they’d be fumbling around palpating a cat’s abdomen, and then it was like, “I feel the colon. I feel the kidneys.” And sometimes it was an abnormal kidney, and you could just see the joy that was happening with that. So I called Purdue because I’d had such a good time there. I didn’t call Missouri because my life was out of balance. And Purdue said, “Well, we happen to have an opening right now. Why don’t you apply for it?” And by that time, I was in the midst of sitting for my board exams for internal medicine and submitting my case reports. And I thought, “Man, do I have time to do this?” And sure enough, I put it all together and put in my application. They invited me to come and interview, and I had to give up a talk.
And I used all the lessons that I learned in 4-H about how to give a talk because I hadn’t had a lecture experience in my residency and in my internship. I only had clinical experience. And so I did have some notes that I put back together and gave a fairly simple talk probably. But here I was at that stage of being board qualified. This was in the very early stages of veterinary specialties. About the only specialties that were out there were pathology and surgery and others were just beginning. And so they counted that residency and that board certification kind of like me getting a PhD. And they treated me well, and they gave me a … Why, I don’t know. I’m sure there were other people that are brighter than me, but they gave me that position. And so in 1976, we packed up and headed back to Purdue and got settled in into a life that just lasted for 22 years there.
We loved it. We had all three of our sons by the time we left there. They were busy little guys. They were swimming. We were involved with our church. We did a lot of activities but there was that balance. And while at Purdue, I started out as being a clinician, of course. I was the only internist at Purdue at that time, so I did a little bit of everything. They had lectures for me, so I lectured on gastroenterology and nephrology and neurology and pediatrics and endocrinology, and I had to lecture on everything. And so I was using my textbooks, I was using my experience, and if I could just be one hour ahead of the students, I knew I’d be all right. Then they said, “We have a veterinary nursing program here, a veterinary technology program. We would like for you to also teach the veterinary technicians.”
I thought, “Well, I can do that.” I loved having the technicians in private practice because I could point out things to them that they could do that would help my day. They could screen cytology samples. They could circle abnormal laboratory values for me. They could bring things to my attention. And so I taught those veterinary students the same topics, excuse me, the veterinary technology students, the same topics as I did veterinary students, but I did it in a way that I encouraged them to be helpers to the veterinarian, to really not be a separate entity in the practice, but to work together. And it was so fun. The technicians at Purdue were integrated in the clinics with the veterinary students. So we had a doctor, student technician team at all times to work on the patients.
How I kept up with that, I’m not sure. I look back on it and think even there with one of the technicians assigned to the internal medicine service, we decided we would write a book together and put it down on the things, put it down on paper of the things that we were teaching in the classroom. And lo and behold, it got published. And I didn’t think about that whole lot as a goal that I would have, but it was something that was fun. The one thing that I didn’t particularly like is I knew that I had to write some scientific papers that would help me as I went through promotion and tenure. And I struggled with that for a little while. And then I thought, “Well, I’ll just do what I can do.” And so I wrote some case reports and I had some series of cases that I could report on.
And when it came time for promotion and tenure, I decided, “Well, if I’ve been working hard, I’ve been doing the best I can do. If they don’t want to give me tenure, then I don’t think I want to be here.” So I just took the attitude, I’ll do my best and see what happens. And lo and behold, they did that. So I was promoted to an associate professor. Along the way, we were treating all kinds of patients, but I was the only one that had had that experience about teaching cancer patients. And at Purdue, there was a big focus on pharmacology and developing anti-cancer drugs from natural plants. And one of the faculty members over there came over and took me by the arm and says, “Ralph, I want you to sit in on my class for a while and learn about how we do pharmacology, developing cancer drugs, and then if it all works, we might be able to do some of these new drugs in animals.”
That’s kind of neat. And couple years into that, the National Institutes of Health did a site visit for what would be the very first NIH approved Cancer Center in the United States without a clinical arm. Every other cancer center had a hospital down in Indianapolis. It was the hospital that drove things. At MD Anderson, it was the hospital that drove things. At other major centers, it was the hospital that built its reputation, and we were going to try to do it with just a veterinary hospital maybe. And so we had the site visit. I told them all about what we could do with animals and how we could give them drugs, and we didn’t have to go through all of the hoops that might have to go through from a human standpoint because these animals were destined to die. It was euthanasia surgery, and that’s all that we had.
So maybe we could try something else. So we had that site visit, and at the end, we sat down to hear what the site visit team had to say, and they praised the basic sciences. And then the head of the team says, “But I will block this cancer center from occurring because this young man over here doesn’t know anything about cancer treatment. This young man thinks he’s a clinician that can do it, but in all honesty, he doesn’t know anything, so I’m going to block it unless you’ll let him come and work with me for six months in a human cancer center.” And Barth Hoogstraten took me under his arm. I went out to the University of Kansas in Kansas City, spent the mornings and clinics all the rounds with the residents and faculty in the afternoon. The Southwest Oncology Group had their clinical trials center there.
And I went and studied clinical trials about how they did that and how nurses worked as a team. And I walked away from there, not having seen a single animal during that time at KU Med, but I went home with a mindful of ideas that we could apply. And I went back thinking I’d forgotten everything there was about clinics and veterinary medicine. I was scared to death to go back in, but thankfully, it’s kind of like riding a horse. Once you get reasonably good at it, you can get back on and go again if you are off of it for a while. And so I got back and we started applying clinical trial templates to patients with cancer. If we had an animal with lymphoma, we entered it into a trial and treated it by protocol. And we didn’t just treat it by one case one way and one case another way.
And it wasn’t long before we had large numbers of animals that had been in a clinical trial, some of them getting better, some of them not. But that led to the opportunity to do things with patients, to work with people that were in the basic sciences. We had some products that went into human trials. We had some that stopped, were not going into human trials because of adverse effects, but I gained that perspective of I was doing something meaningful for humans. I had never thought about that as how important it was to me. Obviously, when I was in the military, I did a lot of public health, but this was clinics, this was great, and we were able to take that approach to all these clinical trials. We had hardly, an animal would enter the hospital without being eligible for some trials. Some were funded externally from drug companies.
Some were funded through the NIH. As I worked with basic scientists and biomedical engineers, we learned how to heat tumors and draw in good blood flow away from the tumor so that we could kill that tumor with heat and maybe heat plus chemotherapy. We did magnetic micro steers where we put an artery injection down towards the tumor, and as the blood flowed through there, a drug called Adriamycin was attached to iron, and we had an electromagnet on the outside and it put the brakes on all of that Adriamycin, so it did not go past the tumor. It stayed right there, and after about three to five minutes, it was attached to the lining of those blood vessels. And so you had a leaking out of drug into a tumor without side effects in the body. Unfortunately, there were side effects with the iron. It did cause some stroke-like syndromes, and it did not go into the human trials, but it was a great way to say, “Can you think outside the box?”
After, goodness, I think probably about 10 or 12 years, my dean came to me and said, “Would you become a department head? I want to put the large animal clinics and the small animal clinics together in one department, and I want to have a hospital director to run the business.” And I said, “No, I don’t want to do that. I’m having too much fun with cancer.” I had think four or five technicians. I had four other veterinarians working with me. We had a team that we called the Purdue Comparative Oncology Program, and we drove the boat. It was just all kinds of fun. We were giving talks all over the country, literally all over the world, and we had people that wanted to come and work with us, and I couldn’t have had it any better. Every morning we’d get together, we’d talk about the patients.
I had veterinarians that could take care of them. I didn’t have to do it all. I could work with some other programs. And it was the first time in my life that I understood what a program building was like. And then in the middle of that, it just struck me, “Wait, if we don’t go out and find new projects and new funding, I’m going to have about a half a dozen people without a job.” And that was the first time that economy of understanding of the business of hiring people and having funds to do that was so important. And after a year, my dean came back. His name was Hugh Lewis. Hugh came out of industry. He was a clinical pathologist. He had taught at Purdue while I was a resident. He’d gone into industry and came back with a new approach to veterinary education.
He challenged us to think differently, and he came back and said, “Ralph, I don’t have the funds to go out and do a search for a new department head. I wish you would really consider it.” And I went home that night and Bev and I sat down. We talked about it, we prayed about it. Purdue had treated us wonderfully. We just did not know where we could have been treated any better. They’d given me raises, they’d promoted me, and I went back to Hugh and said, “Okay, I’ll do it for two years, but if it doesn’t work, I need to be able to get back into the cancer program, and I don’t want to let it die, but I can’t do both of administration and program building and patient care.”
He said, “Okay, we’re going to hire another veterinarian to come in. He’s got some experience with oncology and we’re going to let him help pull the program along and we’ll make that commitment to you.” I got into that department head role and I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never had more fun in my life.” It was like helping these young faculty members grow up. By that time, we had three boys that were probably up in high school level at that stage. I was doing all I could to mentor them, to coach them, to help them think about what were they going to be like as they matured. We did a lot of crazy things together.
But that parenting principal carried over to mentoring of faculty members. And over the next eight years or so, we were able to pull two departments together. They were working together, and at the end of that time, I felt like I’d raised up department. They were leaving home. They were mature. They could stand on their own two feet. They didn’t need me. I didn’t have to do that much coaching. They were helping one another. It was just like raising kids and sending them out of the home and seeing them kind of try some things, sometimes fail, but most of the time succeed. And those principles of parenting just meant a lot to me that I could do the same thing with people. I could talk about good communication. I could talk about career planning. Instead of our faculty doing projects with whatever a resident wanted to do, we started saying the residents have to do a project that will help grow the faculty member’s career.
And it wasn’t long before you had two or three residents working in a particular area of using the walls of intestines, the tough layer of the intestinal tract, submucosa as patches in the bladder or as new blood vessels and veins if you implanted them there. And some of that was experimental surgery, but those faculty members were experts and their residents had helped them along the way. So that approach just changed the whole dynamic, and that department continued to grow. And I obviously spent more than two years as a department head, and that cancer program kept going. In fact, that cancer program is so much bigger today that I think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 years old now, and I’d have to do the math, but it is great guns. They did not need me. They needed the team to keep working. So that was where I think I kind of grew up as an academician that I grew up with an understanding of, yeah, you’ve got to be financially responsible no matter what happens.
And I grew into the fact that I loved helping people do things that they wanted to do. And it was probably some of the most fun. And I count Hugh Lewis as a mentor in that because Hugh had this approach that nothing was impossible. Let’s look at it, let’s think of it differently. And he was such an encouragement to me administratively. We’d go into a meeting and he’d want to know from everybody, “Well, what’s been good this week?” And we’d talk about successes, and then we’d say, “Okay, what do we need to work on?” And we’d start doing that. And it was always just a great way to approach administrative life.
I had the opportunity to work with Hugh when he was at Banfield. I worked with him and the early days of Banfield and helping that organization find people. And I truly enjoyed working with Hugh.
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
He was so special. He took the lead there to start collecting data, what now we call big data and data analysis. They called it data savant early on at Banfield. And he realized that there was so much that could be found out if we kept track of what we were doing instead of just doing it and not keeping track.
Yeah, it’s impressive the data that they’ve been able to build over there at Banfield. Wow, Ralph, I mean, just hearing all these stories, it’s just fascinating to me just to learn some of this history and just to hear your career story and how you moved into increasing roles and different leadership positions and other people that I talk to on a regular basis. They’re really curious. How does somebody start out from going from clinical practice to moving into increased roles of leadership and more responsibility? So I’m curious, what would you say to other veterinarians who are starting out, who are interested in leadership roles, how can they move into positions of increased responsibility? What advice would you give them?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Two things come to mind, Stacy, that meant a lot to me, and I think they would apply to almost anyone in life. Number one is to utilize the principle of stewardship, being a good steward of the responsibilities that you’ve been given, whatever they are. If you’re a floor washer, was the floor to the best of your ability. It’s based on the biblical principle of the master who left and gave three of his servants some money to take care of. One, he gave quite a bit to. Another one, he gave a medium amount to. And the third one, he just gave one talent, one piece, and the two that had more, they went out and invested it and they grew it. And he went on a trip, and when he came back, he said, “What’d you do with my money?” And they handed it to him and said, “Man, we doubled it.”
This is great. He says, “Well done, guys. You’ve done it extremely well.” And he went to this third one. He said, “Well, you do with my money.” And he says, “Well, I knew you were kind of a curmudgeon, that you didn’t like anybody to do anything that didn’t improve you. So I buried it and I dug it up, and here it is just like you gave it to me.” And he says, “You, fool.” And he said, “That’s not what I want you to do.” So he was a poor steward. The one with the most money was the good steward. And so I take that principle of whatever that job is, and I try to make whatever I have better, because I’ve always got a boss. It might be a supervisor, it might be a department head, it might be a dean, it might be the practice owner, whatever it might be.
I want to be able to grow things that are under my responsibility in a responsible way. And then I think the second thing that’s really important if you want to grow, whether it’s into a leadership role or just to enjoy your work life, is that if you’re not changing and doing something every seven to 10 years, something different, every seven to 10 years, you’re probably getting stagnant. You’re probably getting into a whole home sort of thing. And maybe you need to wake up and look around. I was so blessed at Purdue that I got to have three careers at one place. First of all, I was internist. Secondly, it was building the cancer program and establishing the specialty of oncology and working through the Veterinary Cancer Society and the American Association of Clinicians. And then thirdly was being that department head and coaching people and trying to be a good steward of what was given to me as my responsibility.
So those two things, every time I had something different come along, every seven to 10 years, my motivation factor just skyrocketed. There was nothing more energizing, nothing more exciting than taking on a new responsibility and seeing it flourish. And quite honestly, at that point in time, I thought I could be here the rest of my life because it is fun. Something new is going to come down the road. Just be ready for it and keep your eyes open and maybe not try to force it quite so hard. Be aware when people ask, be willing to accept, but look for that change to happen every seven to 10 years. So that’s how I’d respond to that one, Stacy.
Yeah, those are great. That’s great advice, Ralph. And I mean, you’ve seen a lot of things over the years in the veterinary profession. How have you seen the veterinary profession change over the years from when you got started to now?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Yeah, some of them are pretty obvious. I had one lady in my class. I think there’s some classes around now that might have one man. So the gender shift is clearly a big thing that has changed. I think that finding a reasonable work-life balance where veterinary medicine isn’t our everything, it needs to be really important if you’re going to jump into it. But I think the reality is that we’ve seen now people with family responsibilities that want to job share, and I think veterinary practices and probably industry have the responsibility of responding to that. You can’t just say, “I want to hire somebody that’s going to work 60 hours a week, day in and day out and morning night and whenever.” You’ve got to find a way to still meet the needs of the clients, of the customers with a different approach. And that leads then to what I thought was going to be a workforce glut to a workforce shortage.
And so we’re going to have to wrestle with that as a profession. I think the other big change that I have seen, and I was clearly in the middle of all that, was the ability to use technology and instrumentation and do invasive procedures with a different kind of equipment. The growth of ultrasound, of radiology, of interventional radiology. I mean, it boggles my mind, but what we can do, but I also have to raise the question, is it what we always should do because we are pricing ourselves out of the market in what I think is probably the majority of pet owners. I think that on the livestock side, our veterinarians have to, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job, but they have to understand the economics of what they’re helping the farmer with.
If they can’t make a profit for what they’re doing for that farmer, then maybe they’re doing the wrong thing because it’s clearly driven. That reminds me of as the dean of the veterinary school at Kansas State, which I never planned on doing. I’ll tell you another story in a minute about that. But I got appointed to the board of directors along with the dean at the University of Missouri for the Kansas City Animal Health Court. And we had our at least quarterly meetings. We had great times. We had Christmas dinners together. It was my first time to really work side by side in a administrative way with animal health businessmen and women.
I would come in there and listen to their ideas and I’d throw out these ideas that, “Oh man, academia, we could help you get this done and we could help you get that done.” And I go back, “I’ve got a faculty member that could really work with you and work on that,” and I can’t remember who it was, but it was one of the CEOs of a major animal health company. He looked at me, he said, “Ralph, we love hearing your ideas. They’re so fun, but you got to understand something. If it doesn’t make money, it’s not worth us listening to.” And so the understanding of what has to happen in veterinary medicine to … They’re probably okay on providing a service in a specialty way for pet animals for a long time, but agriculturally, if we don’t do that in a way that helps the farmer make money, then they may not need us as a veterinarian.
I think that the other thing that I have seen in the veterinary world has come through my understanding and working with the American Association of Industry Veterinarians. These are veterinarians that have left practice in most cases, usually after a number of years. But with that knowledge, they had started working for animal health companies. And what an opportunity there is. And I lived in it, the public health aspect and what an opportunity there is. And I’ve looked at the military, what an opportunity there is. We have so many things that we can do as veterinarians, but we have to be more bold. We have to be more willing to try to do some of these things. And that’s a continual change. So it started out within the practice element, but I’ve seen it change dramatically in our public health, in our other aspects of veterinary medicine.
That may be where I first met you. Because I’ve been a member of the AAIV since about the year 2000, I think so, or maybe 2001. So it’s been close to 23 years. And then also serving on the advisory board for the KSU Olathe campus. So I know you and I have done work together, and both of those organizations. AAIV, is a fantastic organization for those veterinarians who want to explore opportunities outside of clinical practice and industry. And Ralph, what’s been the most surprising thing along the way to you during your career in the veterinary profession?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Oh my goodness, for me personally, it was such a surprise, and I’m eternally thankful for my year in Miami as a practitioner, even though I was miserable, that the biggest surprise for me personally was how much I loved helping students and then helping faculty members. I never thought of that for a moment until I was back at Purdue as a young faculty member. And then that helped me surprise from the profession standpoint is that I’ve been surprised at how big specialties have become and specialty practice that in any type of a reasonable size city standard of care is very different where there are specialists around.
And if patients are not offered that high end standard of care, veterinarians may not be doing the job that they should be doing. So I think we’ve got a whole different element. And you can’t take that and just transfer it right over to small town America where there are no specialists and there are no veterinary schools nearby. There’s got to be a different standard of care there. But we just keep growing and growing and growing as specialists. I think oncology is one of the fastest growing specialties that is there. And I never dreamed that would happen. When we first made that proposal to the ABMA that we established that specialty. Big surprises. Gosh, I’ll bet you there’s millions of them, but I’m just not thinking of them right now. But those are the ones, I guess, top of my head.
Well, what are some of the things that you’re up to today or these days?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Well, I’ve become a gentleman farmer, I guess we have 40 acres of land just west of Olathe on its way toward about, between Olathe and Lawrence. And it’s just a little over half woodlands. And the other half were pastures. They were unfenced pastures. And we thought when we moved and well, I flunked retirement from the veterinary school. Six weeks before I left, they invited me to become the dean and CEO at K-State Olathe and run that campus. And it was a sudden change because they had had makeup, a personnel change, and they didn’t have a leader. And we had purchased this land before then we purchased it back in probably 2013. And we thought we’d build a house there and we didn’t have time to build a house, but we were well on our way to an apartment in the barn.
We called our barn dominion. And we moved into that. And we realized after about a year in that we would be wiser to have a real house and not just live in the barn or try to build a new house out there in the middle of the country with a half mile of dirt road to get to the property. So I thought we’d have to sell it, but we got to keep that property. And that property has been a real godsend to me. I never missed a beat during COVID. Every day I’d be up and at them and doing some kind of a project that would keep me busy. The big overlying picture of it is twofold. One is it’s a retreat place for people. People can go there and recover. People can go there and have a celebration. Groups of young people can go out for a weekend overnight and graduating high school kids can have their high school parties there.
Thankfully, we have a place where they can fish. We have added amenities like a big gym set. And I built one, first of all, out of tractor tires and logs. And we have a Frisbee golf course, we have trampoline, we have tight ropes, we have a big tree house, and we have trails cut through the woods and ATV riding. And so we can use the apartment as kind of a decent place to get in and sit and recover. But we don’t see people out there looking at their cell phones. We don’t see kids looking at their different computer games. They start using their imaginations. We’ve had a young couple with a baby that needed to place the land when their job fell apart. And so they could live there for a few months. But the property, the use of it, I’m really trying to make the property a wildlife sanctuary.
I’m turning the pastures into prairies where I’ve got big blue stem and little blue stem and side oats and different kinds of real prairie grasses growing. And that speckled throughout with wildflowers and with black-eyed Susans and Indian paintbrush and different kinds of cone flowers. The woods, I’ve had the area forester walk the woods with me and I’ve been able to learn that there are some trees that need to be cut down or at least not allowed to grow because they will shade out the nut trees like oaks and walnuts and hickories.
And so applying for grants to be able to help fund the forestry control. And we’ve planted a few tree fruit trees, and there’s a particular variety of apple that I want to have, and I know where it is in a orchard, but I can’t buy it anymore. They don’t make it. It’s not available. And so I’ve studied up on how to do grafting of cuttings from dormant cuttings from those apple trees at that orchard and putting them on my apple trees where I have one honey crisp apple tree that now has a half a dozen limbs of what’s called ultra gold. The variety that we like. I’ve taken other cuttings. These cuttings are called [inaudible 01:01:33], and I take them and put them on a root stock so they’ll produce only an ultra gold tree.
Even in doing things like building a tree house, I’ve learned a lot about construction and what started out to be a little platform has turned into a tree castle, but it has zip lines nearby. It has pulleys that you can pull up different things from the ground. And just having a good time with that. We’re very involved in our church, try to serve there in ways that can make a difference. And then we love our family. We have three boys and 14 grandchildren, and we love to go see them. They’re scattered around the Midwest. One’s here in the Kansas City area, one’s in Indianapolis and one’s in Louisville. And so we’ll visit them a couple times a year. And they seemed to come to visit us every once in a while. We had two boys that were on spring break in college, and they decided they were going to come to grandma and grandpa’s house for spring break. And so they did.
With a property like that, I’d imagine everybody would want to visit there.
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
So it kind of keeps my days going and there’s always something to do. And I do continue to watch the list serves about veterinary medicine. I don’t get deeply involved in it anymore, but I like to be able to see what’s happening. So I get a number of newsletters and I’m going to have to get on this podcast and listen to that.
Well, I’d love to know what message or principle you wish you could teach everyone that’s listening on our podcast today.
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Oh goodness. I guess it goes back to be excited about change. Let it drive you. Let it help you be a better person. Let it be a new journey. And along the way, just do your best to be a good steward, to grow up that opportunity as you go. And you’ll be amazed at how many different places those two principles affect your life.
Well, that’s such great advice. So you’ve got the mic, Ralph. Is there one last thing you want to share with the listeners of the People of Animal Health podcast before you drop the mic today?
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
It’s so special to be able to reflect back here and think about the people that made a difference. I was certainly not interested in becoming Dean at Kansas State University. And at a meeting one time, a faculty member sat me down for a lunch and said, “You’ve got to apply.” And I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And then I got nominated and I finally had to write a letter and I had to look back and write down things that were important to me and that I would be an advocate for if I were a dean. And I kind of put that out there to see if I had any market value in all honesty. I thought a dean would have to have a PhD. I have a DBM, that’s my only degree. Well, a bachelor’s and a DBM. Yeah, I’ve got a couple boards, but I don’t have the kind of things that most academics look for.
And I went out from Purdue to Kansas State just on a whim to see if there was anything of interest or if they had any interest in me. And I got there and I thought, “Oh my goodness. K-State is at the place where I was 10 years ago at Purdue, and I think I could do this over here. And I could do that over there.” But I realized I couldn’t do it. I had to work through people to do that. And I went away from that interview thinking, “Well, maybe it is something I could do, but I’m happy where I am.”
Well, they called me back for a second interview, and at the end of that, if they wouldn’t have offered me that position, I’d have been deeply, deeply disappointed. I wanted to come home. I wanted to implement some of the things that I knew would make Case State really grow and be stronger. And that was just an example of reluctantly. But finally being willing to take something on that was different. And the people along the way, I mentioned Hugh Lewis, at Kansas State, John [inaudible 01:06:17], Jim Kaufman, Bob Kraus created an environment when I came back home in 1998, that was a can-do environment. Go do it, and if you get into trouble, we’ll back you, but go after it and do what you can. And just at every turn, we talked about growing and they were such great mentors to me in a way that was so helpful.
There were peers that helped me along the way. There were people that worked under me that helped me along the way, but just I appreciate them so much. It wasn’t always that way. I’ve had that settings where I’ve had supervisors that were micromanagers and I tried to accommodate them. And in all honesty, I only decided I can’t operate this way. And I came back to being true to myself. And if they didn’t want to keep me in that position, then so be it. I am not going to just try to do a job for somebody else. I’ve got to do what we are as a college or as a department that we were motivated to do. And that was hard. That and Miami, Florida were the two hardest times of my life. But I look at those hard times and I’m so thankful that I had to get through them because it helped me understand more and more what I was drawn to do. And so as hard as they were, I’m just thankful for them. So being a good steward.
Well, so many great stories and such good advice from being a good steward, working hard, taking risks, growing, not get stagnant, and seeking out opportunities and working with and through people. So Rob, thank you so much for being here today. I enjoyed hearing all these stories and I can’t wait for our listeners to be able to hear them as well.
Dr. Ralph Richardson:
Well, thank you, Stacy. It’s been a delight. Maybe I got too wordy in all of this thinking and talking and reflecting, but it’s just the veterinary world is so special. There’s so many things that can be done. And like I said earlier on, I’ve never had to go to work a day in my life. And you’re helping through this podcast for people to be motivated and encouraged, and thank you for what you do.
Thank you, Ralph.