Appalachia native brings new veterinary school to the hills of home


From a blue-collar background working summers in mining camps to the life of a successful entrepreneur, Pete DeBusk brings a combination of get-it-done attitude and business sensibility to the business of building a progressive school of veterinary medicine.

Entrepreneur and LMU board chairman Pete DeBusk. Photos by John LofflinNinety-five veterinary degree hopefuls wound their way this August through Appalachian valleys still hung with fog in the late morning to the opening ceremonies of the first class of the new veterinary college at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in Harrogate, Tennessee. LMU sits on high ground across Tennessee Highway 33, just above the pocket of hills bordering Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia known as the Cumberland Gap.

The campus-which President Abraham Lincoln ordered Gen. O. O. Howard to build for the people of Cumberland Gap who kept the Union Army supply route open during the Civil War-consists of four brick buildings on a square, known as The Quad, bounded by historic trees. This part of the campus first opened in 1897. But down the hill to the south rolls a campus of newly minted red brick buildings, dormitories, a field house and soccer and baseball fields, all scattered along seriously winding roads. The new veterinary school is, for now, located in a wing of the Math and Natural Science Building, carved out of the mountain in 2012 with the vision and sweat of the one-of-a-kind chairman of the university's board of trustees, O. V. “Pete” DeBusk.

When DeBusk tells you he built this building, he isn't speaking metaphorically. He really did build them with the help of his seven-man crew and his own small fleet of earth movers. “I've moved 3 million tons of dirt,” he says, sweeping his hand across a partially leveled hillside where a yellow grader is parked. He's a man people will tell you is far more comfortable in the khakis and faded work shirt he keeps on a hanger in the back seat of his pickup than in the striped charcoal suit he is wearing this muggy morning in early August. “Truth is, I actually like the blue-collar life,” he says.

He certainly grew up blue collar. He went to 13 schools to graduate high school. His family moved from coal mining town to coal mining town in Appalachia. He worked grueling hours each summer in mining camps. The education he received was spotty. But he could play basketball. “I could play some basketball,” he says with a grin suggesting that at 72 years old he might still be a formidable challenge in one-on-one. In 1961, basketball helped him enroll at tiny Lincoln Memorial University.

When he graduated in 1965, DeBusk went into pharmaceutical sales, a green rookie. “But I was selling in this corner of the Appalachians, country I knew well,” he says. “I was very successful.”

He was also curious-and he knew how to figure things out. In his autobiography, The Rabbit's Got the Gun, he describes figuring out how to build a better boot for foot patients to wear, piecing it together in a rented warehouse from closed-cell rubber sanded to the right pitch and Velcro fasteners, then driving himself crazy trying to keep up with sales. In 1973 he patented the boot, the one you wear today after foot or ankle surgery. Other patents followed.

“Successful” barely describes the subsequent growth of DeRoyal Industries. Today, the private firm holds 70 patents, sells 25,000 different products in more than 70 countries and employs 2,000 people in the United States, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Estonia.

Two weeks until opening day

With the opening ceremony for the new veterinary college at LMU two short weeks away, there is no earth left to be moved, but there is a lot left to finish. DeBusk is taking time out from supervising those final preparations at the DeBusk Veterinary Training Center-otherwise known as The Farm-to give a tour of the university where he has served as a board member for three decades and as chairman for 15 years. DeBusk works his way quickly from the bottom of the building to the top, opening doors on computer-friendly classrooms fitted with sophisticated audio-video equipment and spacious anatomy and surgical teaching labs.

But the smaller details are not lost. He points out the marble walls he acquired from a closed Baptist hospital in Knoxville, the positioning of restrooms away from classroom doors where traffic jams might otherwise occur, the placement of the building's physical plant in a separate area away from classrooms to muffle sound, and the spaces beyond the building where more development is possible. He comments on the value of sunlight to enhance student learning, the need for spaces to study with Internet and computer access, and the availability of all lecture and class sessions on the university's intranet system.

Back in the pickup, he circles the campus, tapping on the outside of the white Tundra door for emphasis talking about the 330 students on campus when he enrolled to the 4,000 students here today, 1,200 residential. “I think we could top out at 6,000,” he says. “We own a thousand acres, everything in sight.” The university plans to open a new building for the veterinary school in fall 2016 on a plateau DeBusk's crew has already begun to grade. Students and faculty will have a generous view of the rolling landscape south from the campus to the distant horizon.

From the plateau, he winds up the hill to the original campus, but decides against a hot walk up the sidewalk, instead turning sharply off the road and rambling up a grassy hill in the pickup. From here, the effect he's engineered on the campus is visually complete. His idea when he became chairman of the board of trustees was to turn the university in the direction of something he knew well: health sciences. “Coming out of the business world I could see we would have to reinvent ourselves,” he says. “You could see the effect baby boomers were having. You could see where the jobs would be. We've had an indication for a long time healthcare would be challenged in this country.”

So healthcare became a major emphasis of the new campus. The DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine was built in 2007 and graduated a class of more than 600 students last May. Then they added a physician's assistant program and a veterinary medical technology program. The nursing school grew to a current class of 840 students. The university budget went from $12 million when he became chair to $176 million today. “We run this like a business,” he says. “And you drive a business by quality.”

In their wheelhouse

Nearly six years ago he first asked the question, “Why not a small veterinary  school?” After all, DeBusk had chosen Lincoln Memorial in 1961 precisely because that's where he could get the science and math courses he would need for veterinary school. He entered the University of Georgia veterinary school in 1963 before graduating from LMU. But after two years he decided his future wouldn't be as a veterinarian and returned to Lincoln Memorial to finish two classes and graduate with a bachelor's degree in 1965.


He could also see the need in the profession, he says, for a veterinary medical school to serve rural Appalachian communities and to provide opportunities for Appalachian students. “Mountain kids never have a chance,” he says. “We give 'em a chance here.”

Although DeBusk thinks many of the students who enroll in the veterinary school will come from the surrounding mountains, he's also a businessman. To be economically feasible, the school will have to attract students from elsewhere. The largest concentration of students in the first class of 32 people came from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, but most were from other parts of the country. “You just can't find enough students in Appalachia,” DeBusk says. “The area is too sparsely populated. And the high schools are often not that good.”

DeBusk says he asks new students in the osteopathic program each year to look at the person next them. At an Ivy League school, he tells them, that person would likely not be around for graduation-but that won't be the case at Lincoln Memorial. “We will work you to death. I'm just telling you right off. That's us,” he vows. “But you will succeed. A little kindness goes far.” He promises to deliver the same message to new classes of students in the veterinary college.

For undergraduates, the university has a cornerstone program of courses and mentoring to get at-risk students ready for college. A similar plan is available to some graduate students in the osteopathic program before admittance. They are fully admitted only when they pass the anatomy exam. But after passing they're required to become tutors for the next class. “Who do you think the best anatomy tutors usually are?” he asks.

Students aren't the only ones who have to prove themselves. The accreditation process was difficult for the new veterinary medical school. The university brought in a consultant to help write the self-study and other experts to complete the process. The university received a “letter of reasonable assurance” from the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education in July 2013. The next step will be to secure provisional accreditation this fall and full accreditation in 2018, before the initial class graduates.

These days many are raising tough questions about the number of veterinary graduates and the available jobs in the profession. Lincoln Memorial would not release its research on need compiled for the self-study, but in an email Dean Glen F. Hoffsis, DVM, MS, DACVIM, wrote, “What I can discuss are a couple of aspects that relate to veterinary supply. First, we are situated right in the epicenter of Appalachia, and part of the mission of LMU is to be of service to our region. So we have a mission. We have conducted demographic research on our multistate region to determine where there are underserved areas and to quantitate the magnitude of the need. In many regions the need is great. One of our initiatives will be to teach business and professional skills so that graduates will be better prepared to generate new business in the expanding animal health market.”

700 acres of teaching space

Pete DeBusk is obviously anxious to get to The Farm, both to show it off and to check on progress toward opening day in two weeks. On Highway 58 into Virginia, he talks easily about life growing up in these parts. He tells the story of his hopped-up '52 Ford with the classic flathead engine and baby moon hubcaps on threadbare tires. “I had three flats along this road,” he says, “in front of five of these farms. I own all five today.”

This is the same road veterinary students will travel each day after their morning didactic classes on campus in Harrogate. The Farm is a 12-mile drive to the east, past mountains and buffalo herds, churches and farmhouses, crossing lanes such as Flying Pig Road.

DeBusk donated all the land for The Farm, including the farmhouse shown here. The 700-acre site also includes a teaching center, a stable, a bovine clinical skills center and an equine teaching center.The newly named DeBusk Veterinary Teaching Center comes up around the bend on the left. DeBusk donated the land to the university along with the farmhouse out front. Black wooden fence stretches north from the highway along a curved lane to the brick porch. Behind, crews of workers are busy finishing up construction on four buildings. The main teaching building is 13,080 square feet with a brick front echoing the farmhouse and two long wings for teachers and students. Three other long buildings are to the east-a stable, a bovine clinical skills center and an equine teaching center.

Assistant Professor Jason Johnson, DVM, DACT, medical director for the teaching center, takes over the tour while DeBusk gets busy asking workers about their progress. Johnson points to classrooms, facilities for visiting professors, a secure pharmacy area, a clinical laboratory, showers and lockers for faculty, and a break room, lockers and showers for students.

Outside, he points out the pasture system to channel animals to the teaching unit; 30 horses, a herd of Angus and a recently purchased herd of Jerseys. A welding torch blazes in the stable where stalls are being modified. In the equine center a new set of paddocks specifically designed to solve problems Johnson identified in commercially available units have just arrived, fabricated in DeRoyal's plant and painted LMU blue.

Eighty-one-inch plasma TV screens are being tested in the equine teaching facility, mounted in the middle near the ceiling in a square like a scoreboard in a basketball arena. Students in surgery or anatomy classes or those learning proper exam techniques will be able to watch the professor's hands on those screens before tackling the job at their own stations.

Like DeBusk, Johnson anxiously asks each crew about the progress made thus far. The TV screens were recently moved closer to the ceiling for better visibility. Johnson refers to the 2011 North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium (NAVMEC) report, the so-called “roadmap for veterinary medical education.”

“One of the things NAVMEC challenges us to do in those five key points is to provide innovation in education,” Johnson says. “That's really what Dr. DeBusk has done here through the osteopathic program. What we plan to do with this is educate career-ready veterinarians. We have the land. We have the resources. These students will be hitting out here doing clinical skills on day one.”


Similar to the osteopathic program, the veterinary program will feature a distributive model for the students' final three semesters of clinical experience. Students will be assigned clinical work at other area facilities, including the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky Department of Veterinary Science, two hours away.

The distributive model has worked well for the osteopathic program. “We use a lot of rural hospitals for training sites,” DeBusk says. “The students get to do five times the amount and variety of work as they would in a big hospital or a teaching hospital. Students want to go where the action is, not be in a static hospital where you have to stand on tiptoes to see what the doctor is doing.”

Short retirement, then a start from scratch

Dean Hoffsis has embraced the distributive model, DeBusk says, bringing his own network of associates, colleagues and graduates accumulated across nearly a half century in veterinary medicine to provide clinical experience. DeBusk lured Hoffsis out of retirement to serve as the school's first dean after he consulted with the university on the accreditation process.

Dr. Glen Hoffsis, dean of the LMU veterinary school, was coaxed out of retirement by DeBusk.Hoffsis wasn't retired long. He stepped down as dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in July 2013, and exactly a year later he stepped in at Lincoln Memorial. Before Florida, he spent 11 years as dean at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“After 18 years in administration, it was attractive to step outside and start from scratch,” Hoffsis says. “There were things I thought could be done better.” For example, he thinks more clinical work will better prepare veterinary students for practice as primary care doctors. The curriculum he's helped develop will immerse students in clinical experience in addition to lectures and demonstrations. Students will experience clinical work and work in the animal health center from the beginning, then complete their studies in clinical settings across the region and the country. And he embraces the move at Lincoln Memorial for a more cost-effective education so graduates aren't saddled with heavy debt. The university, he says, will be positioned at the lower end of nonresident tuition nationwide.

“What we have here is a low cost of living environment, a safe environment and a beautiful environment,” Hoffsis says, his back to a window opening up on a hillside that appears close enough to touch. “Not many colleges are located next to a national park.” Students at Lincoln Memorial hike trails starting on campus that lead into the Cumberland National Historical Park.

DeBusk played no small role in convincing Hoffsis to return to academic administration. Hoffsis puts it simply: “I heard his vision and I sampled some of his energy.”

In early August, the dean was already composing the remarks he would make to the first class of students at the white coat ceremony in the Tex Turner Arena Aug. 15. Just 29 deans have welcomed an inaugural class to a veterinary school in America. And he plans to remind students they will be just the 30th inaugural class of veterinary students ever.

Pete DeBusk echoed the same idea. “I take great pleasure in growing this thing and growing this community,” DeBusk says. “And veterinary medicine has a lot of opportunity in front of it. But they've got to think positive, not negative.”

John Lofflin is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri.

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