“There’s nothing more daunting than taking a blood sample from a lion,” Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez resident and retired veterinarian Denny Bohlke observes. He ought to know because his Yakima office was close enough to a retired circus animal ranch to hear them roaring and to make a ‘home visit’ from time to time. Oh, by the way, how do you take the sample? From its tail, he says.
Denny was born in 1931 and grew up on a 12-acre farm near Yakima. His dad was a fruit inspector in Washington’s largest fruit growing area. It was the beginning of the Great Depression so keeping the wolf from the door meant everybody in the family worked. His two sisters had their tasks. His mother and he would get 500 chickens and butcher them for sale to folks who came from miles around. Occasionally they sold a cow. Denny got up each morning before school to milk them. They also had pigs. Two they ate over a year’s time. The rest of the piglets were sold.
“I wanted to be a vet since 5th grade,” he says. He made pocket money during World War II by raising rabbits and selling them to area customers for meat. After the war ended and while he was still in high school, he continued raising them for sale to French restaurants which often featured rabbit on their menus.
Graduating from high school in 1948, Denny attended Washington State in Pullman for both his Bachelor of Science degree and his veterinary degree. He stood out in his vet school class as the only student who entered the program only to be thrown from a horse on the first day because he had never ridden one before.
When he graduated with his veterinary degree and certification in 1956, he was drafted by the Army for two years of service between the Korean and Vietnam wars.
He feels a bit guilty now that he did not serve in either of those wars. But he did help feed the troops when he and another veterinarian graduate were posted in Seattle during their entire service as army meat inspectors for troops stationed in Alaska.
It was a good posting. “We got meat to taste and whatever we said went. The officers always took our word for it. We saved the Army lots of money as there was $60,000 (in 1956 dollars) worth of meat in each shipment. I think we did a good job. We didn’t reject any good food and we didn’t accept any bad.”
Besides Denny’s military duties, he could always get a job on the side as a night or emergency vet. When he left the army in 1958, he worked for a Seattle veterinarian and lived at the clinic. He handled emergency night calls and other tasks. The owner later hired him to manage another clinic which gave him valuable experience in the business side of the profession and no doubt encouraged him to move back to Yakima to establish his own clinic in 1960.
A nurse from Minnesota was living in Yakima with friends all of whom were working there. The vet met the nurse and the rest was a slow move to history. “I was slow to propose,” Danny admits. “But when she told me she was moving back to Minnesota, I said “No, you can’t because we are getting married!”
“I always owned part of my own business and I always had great partners.” His first partner, a Yakima Indian, stayed for 32 years before retiring and the second worked there for ten or 15 years becoming a partner when the first one retired. He bought Denny out when he retired. They still talk frequently 30 years later.
At first, the business took in any animal that came along such as the retired lions but as time went on, they would focus only on the smaller animals with Denny working on the occasional wild eagles and hawks.
As a good businessman, Denny felt it would be smart to have some type of specialty no other veterinary business provided which would increase profits and financial stability. In the 1940s a University of Washington veterinarian and a physician had developed a new way of setting broken limbs in humans and animals by putting steel pins in the bones rather than using splints. Denny was one of the few in Washington State to use that technique in his veterinary practice. Soon, other vets in the surrounding area were referring their bone business customers to Denny.
“Putting a splint on a dog is not easy. Most dogs would jump over the fence (after the process) to get rid of it. The new method was time-consuming surgery, but I loved it.”
“I always liked the way we got on with our employees, nearly all of whom stayed for a long time.” Denny likes people as well as animals and appreciated his clientele who took good care of their pets. He did have to tell a doctor’s wife who always insisted on being taken first even if she was fourth in line and was always rude to staff, “you mistreat our help. We’re going to send you to another vet because you are too much to deal with.” But most were fine people.
He and Joyce owned a 10-acre farm like the one he grew up on. A contractor friend built a beautiful house for them. Their three children and Denny kept the lawn groomed. Denny planted 10 redwoods that thrived as well as fruit trees and a few cattle.
But as time went on, Denny’s health faltered. He says he knew from his own education that he had symptoms that could result in a heart attack, so he sold his part of the practice two months before it actually happened. “For our area, we were a very successful business. Veterinarians don’t get rich, but we usually are comfortable.
When he recovered, Denny became a relief veterinarian working a month or so at a time to cover vacations and such. “I really enjoyed it. You work with different people and clients.”
Joyce had been skeptical about buying a trailer, even a nice one, but she soon grew to like it. They traveled around not just Washington but as far away as San Diego, working at many clinics and meeting lots of people through that and eating out. Soon they were being invited to local events including a family wedding, by people they had just met. They even took a trailer trip across the US once working along the way.
As the children grew up and left home, Denny realized taking care of the lawn etc. would become his job. Joyce suggested that they move to Concord where they could help one of their daughters who was married and starting a family. They bought a house there, once again making lots of friends while Denny still served as a relief vet and also worked in five area vaccination clinics getting to meet a variety of people from all parts of the East Bay. He loved that job.
Joyce died eight years ago after 52 years of marriage, a blow which took time to adjust to. By coming to Carlton and developing a very good relationship with a close friend of Joyce’s in Concord, he regained his equilibrium.
Now 89, Denny recalls that once when he was much younger, he thought about going into research because, as he says, “I like science.” So, the family lived in a trailer in Seattle with the children while he went to a three-week class on research animals. “I didn’t like it,” he recalls so he happily returned to where there were plenty of people and animals. Joyce may have been relieved Denny admits because as he says, “of course, she carried all the water. She bought the food, cooked the meals, and chased after three young children in an RV park.”
Looking back, “I have had a good life,” he volunteers. “I never got tired of animals and I never got tired of treating animals.” And talking with him shows he has never gotten tired of people either to which he agrees.
Written by Harriett Burt, Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez Resident