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The sweet life

Article

There's still something very James Herriot-like about jumping in your truck and visiting farms every day," he says with palpable satisfaction. The analogy isn't too far off. Dr. Peter Ostrum relishes the lifestyle as much as the medicine, and he thrives on the bonds he creates with his clients and the close-knit community he serves.

There's still something very James Herriot-like about jumping in your truck and visiting farms every day," he says with palpable satisfaction. The analogy isn't too far off. Dr. Peter Ostrum relishes the lifestyle as much as the medicine, and he thrives on the bonds he creates with his clients and the close-knit community he serves.

"Over time, the relationships you build with your clients keep you going," he says. "The longer you've been in practice, you think it will become boring, but it doesn't. It becomes more satisfying."

He and the legendary English author might share something else in common: international adoration. Ostrum was introduced to the world as Charlie Bucket in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" 35 years ago, and countless children have continued their fascination with the pure imagination of his only feature film. Today, however, his most adoring fans are Lewis County's No. 1 businessmen: dairy producers.

Cows still outnumber people in New York's Lewis County, where population has stagnated at about 27,000 for the past 15 years. Not quite 4,000 live in the county seat of Lowville, where Ostrum is a partner at the Countryside Animal Clinic.

Dr. Peter Ostrum dehorns a young bull.

"These guys live and die by these animals," he says after an unscheduled stop to examine a cow he operated on two days prior.

It's that blend of economics and empathy that helps solidify the decades-old connection the mixed animal practice has with the community.

The 70-year-old Countryside Animal Clinic built a new facility 20 years ago to house its expanding business and includes a function room, which the practice loans out for community events. It's complete with two trophy bucks, but Ostrum didn't bag them. He gave up the sport after a couple missed shots years ago, but if his clients hunt, then you can bet that he still knows the best areas to spot deer in autumn rut.

He knows how their kids are doing in school, too, and what new toys they might be riding on the slopes of Tug Hill come snowfall.

Dr. Peter Ostrum uses ultrasound to get a more definitive result from his palpation.

The rapport translates into trust, and for the mostly one-family operations he serves, Ostrum, like many farm docs, is their closest adviser. Herd health and nutrition top the list of inquiries, but he fields increasing more questions about business, operations and equipment, too.

"It would help my clients and practice if we were given more business training," he says. "It's the next big challenge."

But it's not his only challenge. Rural life and the rigor of dairy practice have many practices in dire straits for manpower, so to speak.

"Mixed animal is dying. I graduated with a class of 80, and at least 25 to 30 were going to do mixed animal," he says. "Now, there are three to five that want to do dairy. We are fortunate because we have a couple, but they are diamonds in the rough."

With so many practices competing for fewer large animal practitioners, Ostrum says it's important to engage young minds and young veterinarians. He does both, and he's got a pretty good pitch for the grade-school and junior-high crowd given that at some point in their lives, they wanted to be his silver-screen persona: the lucky boy who found Willy Wonka's last golden ticket.

Like much of his audience, Ostrum was 13 when he was plucked from Cleveland Playhouse productions to play the winner of an eccentric candymaker's competition. Although he grew disillusioned of the monotony and tediousness of shooting scenes and later turned down a multi-movie contract, he says he never tired of living abroad or the camaraderie of the cast.

"Gene Wilder and I would always share a bit of chocolate every day after lunch," he says. "Part of that was living in Munich, Germany, for five months, which was an adventure unto itself."

Farm owner John Rhoades keeps a notebook for Ostrum's recommendations for the health of his herd.

He says he grew fond of the long, leisurely lunches and his three-hour school days.

"We were always being pulled in and out of school to shoot scenes," Ostrum says. "You had to be there at least 15 minutes for it to count toward your three hours," he says.

His tutor coordinated his assignments with his home school in Cleveland, where he returned after his turn in the spotlight, and he bought a horse with a portion of his earnings. He grew fond of the animal husbandry that horse ownership required, which nurtured his eventual ambition for veterinary medicine. "The vet that came out seemed to really like what he did," he says.

It's that catalyst that Ostrum tries to trigger for tomorrow's cast of veterinarians. He says it's important to engage aspiring practitioners and veterinary students as early as possible so mentorship opportunities can steer the best and brightest into large animal disciplines.

"You've got to find kids early in their veterinary career to recruit them," he says. "You need to show them your practice and engage them so by the time they graduate, you've already hired them."

As if wrestling cows wasn't enough exercise, Ostrum finished the 2005 New York Marathon in less than three hours. "There is a very physical aspect to this job, but there is also the mental aspect of problem solving that is very gratifying," he says. "That's why I like this job."

The practice participates in Cornell's Food Animal Medicine Exploratory to help recruit. It's also part the Academy of Rural Veterinarians (www.ruralvets.com), a collaboration of Midwest veterinarians who are developing a proactive network of internships, externships and other mentorship opportunities to keep third- and fourth-year students engaged in the discipline.

"If we started earlier, then you have a shot at recruiting them," he says. "The hardest sell for some of these kids is the isolation because no one grows up on farms any more."

Pure imagination

Author Roald Dahl didn't look amused the couple days he visited the set for the movie version of his book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".

"He was pretty quiet, and I got the impression he was rather disappointed," says Dr. Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket in the 1971 film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory".

Of course, in just a couple of days, any movie set could appear to be a disjointed disappointment depending on what scene was being shot. It could be a bit frightening, too. A psychedelic boat ride springs to mind.

Even the actors aren't always sure how production will translate to the silver screen.

"I was surprised that our editor was able to make sense of it," Ostrum says.

The movie that people weren't sure would turn out has grown into a cult classic with every bit as much entertainment power as its big-budget successor. The recent remake, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," earned about a half-billion dollars worldwide. And although many were wowed by the special effects and computer-generated graphics that the $150-million movie had to offer, many critics didn't think it outshined the original, which was made for $2.9 million, plus wages for an entire country of Oompa Loompas (but they work pretty cheap).

"The whole Johnny Depp/Michael Jackson thing was really creepy," Ostrum says. "And despite all the special effects, the chocolate room still looked as fake as ours."

Thirty-five years after sharing the limelight with Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson, Ostrum talks about starring in the feature film with a shyness and uncertainty akin to watching a family movie with a stranger.

"I wasn't receptive to talking about it for a long time, but when I had kids, they became interested in the movie," he says. "But I still love movies, and sometimes I think: 'What if?' My life could have been very different. Luckily, I had enough other interests and irons in the fire to go other directions."

The kids in the movie got together in New York for the film's 20th anniversary party. It was the first time they had seen each other since 1971.

Julie Dawn Cole (Verucca Salt) was the only actor to make show business a career. Paris Themmen (Mike Teavee) has had a couple other Hollywood roles, but now he is a financial consultant for Smith Barney. Denise Nickerson (Violet Bouregard) dropped out of tinsel town after a stint on "Dark Shadows." Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), a native of Munich, used his home as his dressing room when shooting his only feature film. He is a tax accountant in Germany.

Ostrum lives in Glenfield, N.Y., with his wife and two children. He is an avid runner, finishing the 2005 New York Marathon in less than three hours. He plans to enter again this year.

"You've got to do something else: get involved with something," he says. "You can work all the time, but that gets old after a while."

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