Amazing Alumni: Dr. Jerry Billquist

man leading a horse by a rope
Dr. Jerry Billquist warms up his buckskin mare, Sister, before a ride. (Provided by Jerry Billquist)

Dr. Jerry Billquist, M.S., ’77; D.V.M., ‘81

1957 snapshot of a little boy and his dad wrangling a calf
Jerry Billquist helping his dad brand a calf in 1957. (Provided by Jerry Billquist)

Dr. Jerry Billquist has done it all in veterinary medicine: small animal practice, service in the U.S. Army, caring for rodeo horses. He was recently recognized for his significant impact when he received the 2017 Zoetis PRCA Veterinarian of the Year Award. I spoke to Billquist at his home near San Antonio, Texas. Our conversation was wide-ranging and insightful as he reflected on his memories from years at Colorado State University and from decades as a busy practitioner.

Family First

Dr. Jerry Billquist with his parents Avalon and Ole, on his ranch in Boerne, Texas. (Provided by Jerry Billquist)

“My dad was my hero. He was one of those all-around gentlemen that you’ll only meet a few times in your life. I have a picture of me that shows me at the age of four or five hanging off a calf’s leg, with my dad next to me. We were at my grandfather’s ranch in Montana and we were branding calves. They were homesteaders in Montana around the turn of the century, fiercely proud of their emigration from Sweden. My dad and grandfather got into pure-breed Angus cattle, some of the first people to bring the now-popular breed to the state.”

Step one: master’s degree

“When I graduated from Montana State University in 1974, I decided to go to graduate school at Colorado State University. I studied under Dr. Bill Pickett who was the Animal Reproduction Laboratory guru at that time. My master’s thesis was looking at if the luteinizing hormones level went up after sexual stimulation and if it causes a corresponding increase into testosterone. This technical research ignited a lifelong passion in equine physiology and medicine.”

 D.V.M. memories

The CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, circa 1980. (CSU photo)

“My class was the first class in the brand-new veterinary hospital on South Campus. We were all enamored with the new space. We thought we were at the Taj Mahal of education. But beyond the building, I think my class had access to some of the most premiere faculty to come through CSU. Dr. Wayne McIlwraith was just starting his career, Dr. Simon Turner, Dr. Les Ball, Dr. Robert Shidler, Dr. Bob Pierce, Dr. James Creed, Dr. Dave Twedt, Dr. Dennis Macy, Dr. Steve  Withrow. All amazing clinicians and teachers.

“I remember one experience with Dr. McIlwraith so clearly. My rotation mates and I had been up studying all night for a large animal block test that would determine whether we passed our large animal rotation. But we also had surgery with Dr. McIlwraith that morning. We thought we would just slide into surgery and keep our mouths closed. But when we were unable to answer the landmarks for a cryptorchid castration, he was incensed. We then spent the evening studying the anatomy of cryptorchidism and could recite it in our sleep for the rest of veterinary school.”

 Networking to a new gig

“A CSU connection got me one of my first jobs. At an equine short course at CSU, I mentioned I was looking for something new as I was leaving the Army. When I got a call from a guy inviting me to check out his ranch in Texas where he was looking to hire a resident veterinarian, I didn’t realize initially that it was Cloyce Box, a Texas millionaire and oil developer. He played football with the Detroit Lions in the 1950s, where he knew Frank Gifford and the CSU Athletic Director Fum McGraw.

“Box called the AD looking for a veterinarian and connected with Dr. Jim Voss, who remembered I was looking for a job. This gentleman had horses in Kentucky. We built an equine training facility in Florida. We raced horses in Mexico. We trained and rode cutting horses on the Texas ranch.  I lived right on the ranch, which was the original site of the Dallas T.V. show. It was truly a dream job.”

 The joy of the practitioner

man and woman on horseback
Dr. Jerry and Bonnie Billquist on a trail ride in Texas. (Provided by Jerry Billquist)

“After Box sold the ranch, we returned to Montana, spending 17 years in the Great Falls area. I worked for a CSU graduate and then opened my own place. The practice ownership aspect required you to be on the ball and watch where your money was going. We built a clinic and horse facilities on a 38-acre property. In the summers, I’d follow the racehorses around the state and be the attending veterinarian at rodeos in the evening.

“Eventually, my wife got sick of the cold and convinced me to return to Texas in 2003. Since then, I’ve done relief work in the San Antonio area, working in probably close to 100 veterinary hospitals in the last 12 years. I’ve seen everything – every imaginable type of veterinary medicine. Practice has been very rewarding for me. I enjoy what I do immensely. I actually enjoy practicing now more than ever. I don’t have to worry about emergencies. In Montana, I rarely got to eat dinner without getting interrupted with a call. I’m going to keep going until it’s not fun. Right now, it’s enjoyable.”

Rodeo veterinarian of the year

man in cowboy hat and woman in sparkly black dress
Dr. Jerry Billquist and his wife Bonnie at the 2017 Pro Rodeo awards in Las Vegas. (Provided by Jerry Billquist)

“I received the Zoetis Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Veterinarian of the Year Award in 2017. I wasn’t used to that kind of publicity. As a rodeo veterinarian, you are not in the spotlight. You are busy making sure those animals receiving the best care possible. My mother is 91, I didn’t think she could make the trip to Las Vegas to watch me accept the award. When my mother found out she could have gone to the banquet, she chewed me out! But she was quite proud. It was a true honor to receive such an award from my rodeo colleagues.”

Advice: Choose experience over salary

“I wouldn’t trade the education I got at CSU for anything. Graduates of CSU come out with a true ability to think and solve complex problems. As a graduate with a D.V.M. degree, you have so many doors that you can open and go through. And the best part is you can always back out of that door and try another one.

“Don’t get discouraged early. The first job you take will not be your last one. Prioritize mentorship over salary and you will last longer and be happier in this profession.”