Iowa veterinarian reflects on 42 years of practice

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STUART, Iowa — Rex Wilhelm graduated from Iowa State’s vet school in 1968 and figured this western Iowa town was a good place to start.

“There were a number of practices available to me, but I needed to stay within driving distance of Ames,” he says. “You see, I had met this young lady there, and I didn’t want to get too far away.”

One year later, Wilhelm married his wife Hope. Fifty years later, he is still in Stuart, Iowa.

Wilhelm, who sold his practice in 2010 and entered semi-retirement, grew up around the southwest Iowa communities of Essex and Villisca, where he graduated from high school.

“I didn’t have any money, so I went to junior college in Clarinda for a year, then went to Ames for pre-vet,” he says.

Wilhelm was admitted to the vet school before he graduated, getting an early start on a career that has covered thousands of miles, clients and animals.

His first experience in the vet practice may have had him questioning his career choice.

“My first winter in practice, my boss broke his leg,” he says. “We were vaccinating for hog cholera at the time, and we also worked at the sale barn checking cattle. There were some nights we never slept.”

Four years later, Wilhelm purchased the veterinary practice. His early colleagues were Cary Christensen and David Schmitt, who recently retired as state veterinarian.

“We were together for 18 years, and of course those two went on and did amazing work,” Wilhelm says. “I’ve always been blessed to work with very talented and passionate veterinarians over the years.”

The Stuart clinic was one of the early advocates of using ultrasound to check pregnancies in cows. Wilhelm hired Shawn Nicholson, who worked with Doyle Wilson and Gene Rouse at Iowa State on their pioneering work with ultrasound. Nicholson purchased the Stuart practice from Wilhelm in 2010.

“Shawn worked as a researcher with them before becoming a veterinarian, and he was really sharp,” Wilhelm says. “There weren’t many scanners out there at that time, so we learned a lot as we went along.”

He says the clinic was always open to vet students who wanted hands-on experience. Wilhelm says the practice offered a good mixture of livestock and small animals.

“I was never a scrapbooker, but I should have been,” he says. “We have had so many wonderful people at the clinic over all these years, and we should have been taking photos and collecting stories. I regret not doing more of that.”

In addition to his duties at the clinic, Wilhelm worked with state and national organizations over his 42 years of active practice. This includes a stint as part of a team that approved accreditation at veterinary colleges.

“I enjoyed doing things like that, getting out and meeting other vets and seeing how they did things,” he says.

After he sold the practice, back issues resulted in surgery in February 2011, and Wilhelm credits the surgery with “giving me my life back.”

Retirement allowed him to devote more time to his purebred Angus cow herd.

“We calved about 70 cows this year, and I have enjoyed working with this herd over the years,” he says. “But I need to start phasing out of it, and we’re hoping to find a young family to take on the cows and rent the ground from us.”

Wilhelm has seen changes over the years, with most of those in the areas of technology, medications and livestock management practices.

“If there was something wrong, I knew there had to be a cause, and I wasn’t going to stop until I found it,” he says. “There’s a cause for everything. I wasn’t just going to accept someone telling me it couldn’t be explained. Sometimes it took me a while, but I found that cause. It was very rewarding to be able to do that.”

Later this year, the Wilhelms will celebrate 50 years of marriage. They enjoy having the freedom to go visit family and to travel when they want.

But once a country vet, always a country vet, Wilhelm says.

“I miss the people and the relationships we built over all those years,” he says. “I miss being able to help people develop strategies and programs that would help make their operations successful.

“There are absolutely parts of the job that I don’t miss, but I feel truly blessed to have been able to do this so long.”


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