The 7th Son
Success in veterinary medicine requires three things: hard work, perseverance and being at the right place at the right time.
SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — Success in veterinary medicine requires three things: hard work, perseverance and being at the right place at the right time.
At least that's how it's happened for Dr. Bruce Little, executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. As the group's longest serving officer steps aside to embark on retirement, he reflects on a past that takes him from 1940s rural Illinois into the Army, Kansas State University's (KSU) veterinary program and equine practice before landing AVMA's top seat. He attributes his life's path to being born the seventh son in a family of 13, affording him good fortune tied to an auspicious birthright bolstered by determination and a need to achieve.
In the months leading to his December 2007 exit, the imposing authority figure bearing white hair and a raspy voice expresses the soft side of a tough reputation built on running a $27-million annual business with $43 million in assets, 135 employees and 74,000 AVMA members. "This office requires someone who has a big-picture vision who's able to delegate responsibility so every detail is addressed," he says. Due to his job description or disposition, Little often sits at the heart of controversy regarding animal welfare, personnel matters and political issues. "You have to have a thick skin," he explains. Yet his steadfast nature also is credited for AVMA's unprecedented membership heights, increasing staff efficiency and aiding the profession's economic advancements.
Stoic reflection: He was led into veterinary medicine by legendary equine practitioner Edward T. Hagyard and will end his run as AVMA's frontman in December 2007.
"I've had all this beautiful luck all my life," Little says. "I was able to get a job as a snotty nosed kid in seventh grade that's led me to this career, and I've had huge success at every stop along the way. If I could start my life over today, I would do everything exactly the same."
Little was born in 1936, and by age 13, he had fallen into the Illinois equestrian trade driving contenders to the hallowed floors of Madison Square Garden and other classic horse shows. An interest in veterinary medicine reportedly sparked while working the Junior League Charity in Lexington, Ky., where he helped a veterinarian float teeth.
"He left me a bill to give my boss, and it was $42. I thought that was all the money in the world," Little recalls. "From that time on I was telling everyone I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian."
Little's now convinced that gruff, stocky DVM was Dr. Edward T. Hagyard, founder of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, a practice formally known as Hagyard-Davidson-McGee Associates, PLLC. "He was the leading proponent of doing dental work on horses," Little says. "He's the person who led me to veterinary medicine."
From journalist to practitioner
Leadership for Little was more ingrained. Although he almost quit high school to work with the Budweiser Clydesdales, advice from a family full of teachers convinced him to stay. In a school of 200 students, Little was elected president all four years. After two years in the Army, he married, attended KSU on the Korean GI Bill and presided over the institution's veterinary school chapter in much the same way.
Little played football at KSU, but when it came time to choose between biochemistry and sports, his sibling advisers steered him in the medical direction. To stay involved, he gained part-time employment news writing in KSU's sports publicity office. That job translated to becoming the KSU bureau chief of UPI Sports, a title he held until his 1965 graduation.
"I called in the scores, I set up the press box and typed the play-by-play," he recalls. "It was a good experience. It taught me to always be prepared."
Embrace change, patience
Another life lesson followed in 1969, soon after Little purchased a 95-percent swine practice in Illinois. Three months after moving in, the new owner's excitement turned to panic when the state was declared hog cholera free. "Here I put everything into this practice and by July, 65 percent of my business went away," he says. "So I got busy in a hurry. I built an addition of three little rooms. It was in there that I started taking small animal patients."
Although he adapted, Little wishes he would have waited. The building, a retrofitted two-car garage, had poor ventilation, mismatched roof lines and a layout that proved inefficient. "It was an error, but it taught me to be patient," he says. "Life is full of learning experiences if you pay attention."
Little carried that wisdom into 1985, when he decided to leave private practice with hopes of teaching. But when he realized most professors now carried PhDs and board certification, Little focused elsewhere and applied for an AVMA staff seat. On Oct. 14, Dr. Art Freeman, former AVMA executive vice president, hired the clinician, whom he promoted to assistant executive vice president the following year.
While Little was no longer occasionally compensated in sweet corn and tomatoes, the association's salary was a significant pay cut. "I used to say I had all the headaches of a sergeant and the pay of a private first class," he says.
That was until January 1996, when Executive Board members successfully pressured Little's boss, former Executive Vice President Dr. Roland Dommert, to resign. Little recalls: "All of this took place at 10:30 on a Friday night. By 8 a.m. Saturday morning, they had appointed me executive vice president. And then it suddenly hit me: 'Wow, I've got a lot of work do.'
"I was really lucky. Almost 11 years later and it's still a good experience. Now I'm focused on moving ahead."