KEARNEY — After 58 years as a veterinarian, Roger Neil has made a lot of friends of both the four-legged variety and their two-legged “moms and dads.”
That’s what he calls the thousands of owners who have trusted him to care for their pets.
On Friday evening, many of those two- and four-legged friends flanked First Avenue near Neil’s Hilltop Pet Clinic to say “thanks” for his caring touch.
“He thought he was quietly leaving at the end of the day, but he was mistaken,” said Robin Cross, Hilltop’s office manager.
Friday was a date Neil said he’s been emotionally preparing for during the past several months.
He said stepping away from his work wasn’t easy, but he’s been helping Brandon and Paola Beebout get settled in. They are the new owners of the pet clinic at 4507 First Ave. Brandon grew up in north-central Nebraska and attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He was on Hilltop’s kennel staff during college.
Neil said caring for animals is rewarding — but it also is painful.
“It’s an amazing profession. You can do so much good, and people really appreciate it. I enjoyed the profession so much,” he said Friday.
Asked whether he had difficult days during his 58-year career, he said, “I don’t think any of them are tougher than when you have to put a pet to sleep. We have to deal with death on a regular basis. Putting pets to sleep is something you never get used to. These are people’s kids.”
Neil, 83, said it’s a privilege to have spent his life as a veterinarian, although he nearly became a medical doctor.
He and David Bacon, an internal medicine physician from Kearney, grew up in the Cozad and Lexington areas. They roomed together at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Bacon dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but allergies forced him into medical school, Neil said.
Neil dreamed of caring for humans, but he hedged his bet by applying to some veterinary programs. Colorado State University accepted him for its veterinary college, he said. Two weeks later Neil was accepted at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, but the lure of skiing and Fort Collins was stronger than Omaha and med school. He said he was inspired by the veterinarian back home in Dawson County.
“I’m off the farm and I really, really liked our veterinarian, Dr. Howard Mitchell,” Neil said.
After CSU Neil worked several years for Mitchell and bought his practice. Mitchell retired to Kearney. After several years Neil moved to Kearney in 1977 to set up his permanent practice. Neil discovered after the move that his house was a couple of doors away from Mitchell’s house. It worked out well. Neil cared for Mitchell’s dog and Mitchell watched the veterinary clinic when Neil was away.
He said he is confident that his two- and four-legged friends will be in good hands with the new owners. “The Beebouts are doing really good. They’re super smart, both of them.”
Neil said he plans to pass some of his retirement writing anecdotes about his career.
He said some interesting creatures have landed on his exam table, including iguanas and boa constrictors.
“Pigs are interesting. I put diamond studs in the ears of a pot-bellied pig,” he said.
Cross, the office manager, said earlier in the day Friday that she and other clinic staff members were expecting a large turnout for the surprise send-off, which included a sheriff’s deputy escort and pets and their owners lining the street.
“He doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, but he’s touched a lot of people’s lives,” Cross said. “He’s had a lot of tears this week.”
Neil said he’ll miss his staff, and he’ll miss a lot of things about caring for pets.
“I will really miss the relationship with the people and the pets,” he said. “You treat the ‘moms and dads’ just as much as the pets. I am extremely fortunate I was able to practice for 58 years.”