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Golden Times: A veterinarian looks backWarren VerPloeg is the last remaining member of the 1953 ISU Vet Med class

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“When I get out of bed my first thought is, ‘What can I do to help others today?’”

The sole survivor of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 1953 is a spry 95-year-old Storm Laker.

Warren VerPloeg’s life — so far — has been marked by hard work, generosity and the desire to keep learning.

He lives by himself and keeps his own house. His lineup of flowering geraniums at his south window oxygenate his home, he says. He cooks for himself and enjoys the Dinner Date meals each weekday at the senior center.

Look up there on a shelf. It’s a pair of wooden Dutch clogs, real ones, that hark back to VerPloeg’s thoroughly Dutch heritage. His great-grandfather Engel VerPloeg was one of 800 who came from Holland in 1874 to settle the town of Pella.

Warren grew up in Pella. His parents were share croppers. “Then came the 1929 crash when things really went downhill,” he recalls. “I realized we were dirt poor.”

At age 17 and straight out of high school, “I was kicked out of the nest,” as he says. “On my own.” He would support himself, completely, since then.

Inspired by a relative who was a respected veterinarian, VerPloeg entered ISU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Somehow I made the cut,” he jokes.

After two years of pre-veterinary medicine and four years of vet school, Dr. Warren VerPloeg was ready to practice.

He started out in Brooklyn. “I became acquainted with Don Gallagher (a well-known Storm Laker, deceased in 2022),” he adds as an aside. “The town is full of Gallaghers.”

VerPloeg was drafted and spent two years in the Army, after which he settled in Paullina. He would spend the rest of his veterinary career there.

He thinks back to the different landscape of rural Iowa at the time: “In the 1950s farmers had a quarter section. They milked 8-10 cows. They all had chickens, 2-4 batches of hogs per year. Most had 20-30 cattle.”

His cases were mainly routine — sick animals, fertility problems and frequent night calls. He matter-of-factly speaks of the occasional injuries to dogs hidden in an alfalfa field when a mower came along. The vet would be called, often to amputate a leg. “You remove the bone further up and sew the skin over the top,” he explained. “You saw three-legged dogs in those days.” With the mentality of another era, he said, “Farm dogs were often expendable. If you lost a dog there were pups or other ones to take their place.”

It wasn’t fun anymore

At age 65 Warren retired. “It wasn’t fun anymore,” he said of his career. His wife had died and the physical demands of his profession became too much. Working outside with cattle on cold winter days and inside hog confinements on hot days was unpleasant.

“The smell became overwhelming,” he said of the swine environment. “The buildup of ammonia, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide in the pits is injurious to the respiratory system. People don’t realize that. I don’t know how they’re ever gonna live to be old.”

Warren himself would contract COPD, but not from inhaling chemicals in the hog barns, but from breathing in dander during his long years working with animals.

Retirement – time to give back

Retirement would open up an entirely new chapter of VerPloeg’s life. His volunteer work would take him to dozens of foreign countries. Locally, he became involved with Habitat for Humanity in Paullina and Sheldon.

Through Christian Veterinary Mission, he assisted farmers in Mexico and on a Navajo reservation near the four corners area out west.

He became a pilot and went on trips with Christian Aviation Fellowship in Guatemala flying patients from remote villages to hospitals for surgeries and other medical necessities.

He made several missions with Jimmy Carter’s Friendship Force of America. Often he would take extra time to sightsee. His favorite country? New Zealand is near the top of the list because of its friendly easy-going people and “very little government.”

Thirty years ago Warren said goodbye to O’Brien County and moved to Storm Lake.

He still loves to travel. Last summer he and his daughter Jan took a European cruise to the Black Sea and up the Danube River visiting Romania, Serbia, Hungary and elsewhere.

A vow to send all his kids to ISU

“God has blessed me,” says VerPloeg. He reasons that because he was raised in poverty, he is grateful for his successes and opportunities. “I vowed that if I ever had children, I would be able to afford to sent them to ISU. I saved and saved when I was young.”

He invested in small companies, and whatever wealth he accumulated he wished to share with others. Scholarships at three universities bear his name, including an endowed $3,000 scholarship for an ISU vet school student.

He established five $1,000 scholarships for first generation students at both South O’Brien and Storm Lake High School.

In all, 24 students benefit from his generosity each year.

As he says, “My parents didn’t get past the eighth grade” and “I never got any scholarships.”

And his children all went to ISU, all three earning advanced degrees.

Aging with grace

VerPloeg is thankful for his health. “My mind is clear,” he says. But staying active and purposely maintaining a good attitude is key: “When I get out of bed my first thought is, ‘What can I do to help others today?’”

He’s found exercises that help keep arthritis at bay. He goes to both Storm Lake Public Library and the Buena Vista University library to read newspapers and magazines.

He drives, by himself, to Ames where he can visit grandchildren.

For the past eight years he maintained relationships with the last three fellow graduates of the Veterinary class of 1953.

And now, he proudly stands as the last one.

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