Two forces behind Lincoln Memorial’s veterinary college

Published on July 27, 2016
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The heart of Appalachia may not be the first place most people would think to locate a new veterinary college, but then again, Autry O.V. “Pete” DeBusk isn’t like most people.

He is not only Lincoln Memorial University’s board of trustees chair but also a force of nature like the winds that helped shape the Cumberland Gap in which the university resides. If DeBusk has an idea, it becomes reality. In the case of LMU’s recently established College of Veterinary Medicine, DeBusk had the idea, but the man to help carry it out has been Dr. Jason Johnson, dean of the veterinary college, who is building on the work from the program’s founding dean, Dr. Glen Hoffsis (see article). Together, DeBusk and Dr. Johnson are working to create a program they hope will have a profound impact on the region and the profession.

Self-made man

LMU was founded in 1897 as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. While most private colleges in the area have seen some hard times, “LMU went on the path of graduate education to educate the kind of student who was going to have a job after graduation,” DeBusk said.

He was born and raised in Rose Hill, Virginia, but traveled throughout the region as his dad worked on construction jobs around coal-mining sites. He played basketball at Lincoln Memorial and received his bachelor’s there in 1965 but not before attending the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine for two years. (According to his autobiography, “The Rabbit’s Got the Gun,” he dropped out in part because, as a self-confessed compulsive clean freak, he didn’t like the mess of it.)

Autry DeBusk
Autry O.V. “Pete” DeBusk (Courtesy of LMU CVM)

DeBusk started selling pharmaceuticals and then orthopedic supplies all over Appalachia. At the time, no walking boot existed to properly put over a fiberglass or plaster cast to elevate an injured foot.

DeBusk created the walking boot as we know it today, receiving the patent for it in 1973. He went on to found DeRoyal Industries Inc., whose more than 2,000 employees make over 30,000 medical and surgical supplies.

DeBusk joined LMU’s board of trustees in 1984 and became chairman in 2000. “While he prefers to keep most of his philanthropy private, the support he has given in the reshaping of his beloved alma mater, Lincoln Memorial University, is hard to ignore,” according to the forward to his autobiography. The university’s enrollment stands around 4,000.

DeBusk told JAVMA that the veterinary college is “another arrow in my quiver.” He’s an advocate for preventive medicine and one health, which he sees as important to efforts in helping people and animals in the Appalachian region.

Rising through the ranks

Dr. Johnson himself is no stranger to rural life. He grew up in rural Alabama working on the family farm, with its beef cattle and chicken houses. His parents also worked at Troy University in Troy, Alabama, his father as the marketing director and his mother as an English professor.

Dr. Johnson is a 2003 veterinary graduate of Auburn University and a diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists. In 2012, he was a member of the AVMA Future Leaders Program. He also serves in numerous leadership capacities within organized veterinary medicine, including as the alternate delegate for the Society for Theriogenology in the AVMA House of Delegates.

Dr. Johnson and haptic horse
Dr. Jason Johnson, dean of Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine, shows off a haptic horse. (Photo by Malinda Larkin)

Dr. Johnson quickly ascended to the veterinary college’s top position after starting out in 2012 as an associate professor and medical director for the DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center. Previously, he taught at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, where he also developed a skills-based examination and three courses.

Dr. Johnson said it’s been different developing—rather than delivering—the veterinary program. For example, the teaching center in Ewing, Virginia, has broadband and all the latest technology, yet it doesn’t have access to a sewer line. Dr. Johnson and DeBusk are working with the local development agency as well as federal and state agencies to procure funding to extend the sewer line from Rose Hill, which is where it currently ends. So far, they have received a $5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, and the Army Corps of Engineers has begun the initial engineering.

While at Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Johnson also has developed a clinical skills course and founded the Center for Animal Health in Appalachia, which he serves as executive director. It is located at the DeBusk center. It was his idea to develop a Rural Animal Practice Certificate program, to attract and keep veterinarians in Appalachia. The certificate is an optional part of the veterinary curriculum that helps students prepare to work in a rural community. It is also available to students from other schools.

Dr. Johnson looks forward to CAHA’s second conference on animal and public health issues, to be held Oct. 20-21, which will continue the center’s mission to serve underserved populations in Appalachia.