Not many five-year-olds can accurately predict what they’ll be when they grow up, but Don French, ’51 BS, ’53 DVM, never had any doubts. “I grew up in a rural area in southern Minnesota and got a pony when I was four years old,” he says. It instilled a lifelong appreciation for horses and the work that veterinarians do.
So when Don was accepted into the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), no one was surprised. He graduated in the College’s third class.
He spent the next 10 months working for a veterinary clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he cared for large and small animals. But work was slow. “I woke up one morning and decided if my family and I were going to starve, I didn’t want to blame anyone but myself,” he says. “So in 1954, we moved to Chatfield, Minn., and opened an ambulatory practice called Chosen Valley Veterinary Clinic.”
Don, wife Isabelle, and their first child lived in an apartment above a jewelry store and eked out a living for several years. Isabelle did the books, and Don went wherever work took him. He describes a “good day” as getting a call. “The first few times I walked into the barbershop, I was greeted with, ‘Our town already has a vet; what are you doing here?’” He also has vivid memories of emptying a café near the apartment whenever he went into the alley to attend to squealing pigs and stomping horses.
After business took off, Don and Isabelle ran the office on their own until Don realized he couldn’t get by on three hours of sleep. He began hiring veterinarians and moved the clinic to downtown Chatfield in 1971. “I also ‘fired’ Isabelle from day-to-day practice management,” he says with a laugh.
Throughout his career, Don was known for his work with horses, including his help founding the Upper Midwest Endurance and Competitive Rides Association. “The idea was born when one of my clients, a distance rider, wanted to put on a competitive ride in Minnesota,” says Don. He helped care for horses that required attention and occasionally served as a judge.
Don retired in 1998, but his interest in veterinary medicine remains strong, due in part to a son and granddaughter who followed in his footsteps. Don and Isabelle are also regular contributors to a memorial fund at the CVM honoring one of Don’s classmates. And recently, they established the Don and Isabelle French Large Animal Medicine Fund with a generous gift. The fund supports clinical equipment purchases, research projects, and resident training in the areas of large animal medicine and equine sports medicine.
“I had a lot of fun as a vet,” says Don. “I did it all—or at least tried to. But the practice of veterinary medicine is changing. More and more people are going into small animal medicine. You have to go a long way to find a large animal practice, which is why Isabelle and I decided to support that program.”