For over 50 years, a practicing horse whisperer


March 30, 2007|By Janet Gilbert

Robert Redford, star of the movie adaptation of Nicolas Spark's The Horse Whisperer, has nothing on Clarksville veterinarian Dr. Fred Lewis.

On a superficial level, Lewis - like Redford - has sparkling blue eyes, a trim physique and a full head of hair. But on a more profound level, Lewis is a practicing horse whisperer.

"I've always kind of communicated with [horses]," said Lewis, 80. "They respond to me very well. I wanted to be an animal doctor from the time I was 5. It's a good thing I got into veterinary school - if I hadn't, I don't know what I'd have done."

Lewis has practiced veterinary medicine in Howard County for more than 50 years. He and his wife moved to Howard County in 1954, and opened the county's first veterinary hospital - the Lewis Veterinary Hospital - at U.S. 29 and Route 108 three years later.

In the 1960s, Howard County appropriated the land to build a highway interchange, and Lewis rented it back for 20 years, expanding his practice to include eight staff veterinarians. Lewis eventually built another veterinary hospital on Route 108 that he sold to Veterinary Centers of America in 1995. Veterinary Centers of America focused on small-animal care; Lewis continues to run the primarily large-animal practice out of his home with his wife, Mary Agnes, 79.

"We've both been blessed with energy," Lewis said. "I can't retire because I've never worked a day in my life."

Even if it hasn't felt like work, Lewis has been caring for animals all of his life. He grew up in Dover, Del. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to a 180-acre farm.

"We worked the farm with horses then," Lewis said. He enjoyed being outdoors and was a voracious reader, soaking up everything he could from books about horse training and animal care.

"I just can't get enough learning," he said. He especially enjoyed working with horses, training his pony and breaking young colts.

Whenever the veterinarian was called to the family farm, young Lewis was at his side, asking questions. While in elementary school, he wrote to the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school to say that he wanted to be a veterinarian. Would they please write him back and tell him what to do? He wrote to them again while attending high school, to be sure he was following the proper course of study.

After high school, Lewis went into the Air Force for two years, and then attended the University of Delaware. It was there that he met sophomore Mary Agnes McCarville, who was waiting tables to pay for her board at Delaware.

"Fred was a very slow eater," she said.

"She had to talk to me, I was the only one left," said Lewis.

Lewis applied to veterinary schools after his sophomore year and was contacted for interviews, one of which was at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Would you believe they had those letters on file?" Lewis said. "They accepted me on the spot."

Lewis, however, ended up selecting Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine because Cornell offered more experience with large animals. He and Mary Agnes married Dec. 30, 1950, during Christmas break of his second year at Cornell.

After graduation, Lewis worked in Williamsport, Pa., for the father of a fellow student at Penn - an established veterinarian, Dr. Robert Little, who had a large practice and needed help.

"He was a great role model," said Lewis. "There were two things I liked - he was very receptive to any idea that I had, open to anything new. That was great. Also, I was able to learn a lot because I could ask a question right then and there."

By this time, Fred and Mary Agnes had two young children and were looking for a place to settle. A pharmaceutical salesman in Williamsport told them that there was a great need for veterinarians in Howard County.

"We drove through downtown Ellicott City," Mary Agnes said. "I thought, `Oh my, is this going to be our address?' I was a little frightened."

The downtown area, now a major selling point for Howard County, apparently was nothing like it is today. Still, the Lewises had faith.

"We went to church suppers and introduced ourselves at the county fair," Lewis said.

"The farmers were just wonderful," his wife said. "So receptive. And it was one dairy farm after another down Cedar Lane."

The Lewises decided to make Howard County their home in 1954. They lived and ran their business out of an old farmhouse that still exists on the property of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Their third child and subsequent seven children were all born in Howard County.

At that time, Lewis acquired a horse that had been sorely neglected. He saw the emaciated former racehorse named Durly Lane alone in a stall while on a call at a stable on Rolling Road, inquired about him and was told that the horse was unmanageable. Lewis offered to take the horse in exchange for paying the boarder's bill.

"They said, `You'll never get him in a trailer,'" Lewis said. "I said, `Never you mind; he's my horse now.'

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