Lawrence veterinarian brings old-time feel to treating animals

Veterinarian Herschel Lewis, 78, has been practicing in Lawrence the same way for decades: not taking appointments, no fancy equipment or technology. Here, he examines Kelly Farlow's dog, Skye, for a skin ailment at the clinic at 3101 W. Sixth St. on Friday.

Walk into Lawrence’s Lewis Veterinary Clinic, and you might you feel like you’ve just stepped off a time machine, 50 years in the past.

There’s not a computer in sight, no beeping from high-tech medical equipment (because there isn’t any). The receptionist still uses a typewriter and keeps patients’ records on paper. The office has an intercom system that’s never been used.

But if you’re going to the no-frills clinic at Sixth Street and Lawrence Avenue, there’s a good chance veterinarian Herschel Lewis, 78, and his longtime office manager, Brenda Newell, know you, your family and your pets. Heck, they might have even taken care of your grandparents’ animals.

Lewis, the oldest clinical veterinarian still practicing in Lawrence, started all the way back in 1969 at 809 Vermont St., in the former office of the first American woman to graduate from dental school. A few years later, Lewis put up the building at 3101 W. Sixth St., where his practice remains to this day.

Lewis Veterinary Clinic hasn’t changed much in that time. It still has the same phone number Lewis inherited from veterinarian T.J. Leasure when he took over his practice. “I don’t have a $100,000 digital X-ray, and I’m not going to get one, at my age. If I want an ultrasound done, I’ll send them to Dr. Tom,” Lewis said, referring to Clinton Parkway Animal Hospital’s Tom Liebl, who often gets Lewis’ more complicated referrals. Lewis readily admits that if he doesn’t know something he will refer a patient to someone who does.

That’s another that’s changed about veterinary care, he says: specialization. That didn’t exist before, so vets would simply do what they could and hope for the best. At that time, people didn’t usually consider pets family members, as they now do.

But Lewis isn’t anti-progress. The advances in medical treatment and technology since he started have been exponential, extending the lives of countless family pets in the process. “I suppose I’m being forced kicking and screaming into the 20th century, not the 21st century, the 20th century,” he said. “I don’t have a computer. My wife has one. But I can do most of the things I want to do without a computer.”

The clinic is walk-in only (except for veterinary procedures). Asked why he does it this way, Lewis said: “People won’t keep half the appointments they make, even for surgery, and they don’t even bother to call.”

The lack of bells and whistles, as well as products for sale, helps keep visits to the clinic affordable. “I hear that all the time: ‘You don’t try to sell us stuff we don’t really need,'” said Newell, who joined in the early 1970s and, besides breaks for raising kids, has been there ever since. Behind where she sits are metal filing cabinets topped with packages of flea-and-tick medicine and a rack of pet treats with a couple bags left on it. Lewis’ laid-back approach must be working, she added, because people “keep coming back, generation after generation.”

Lewis grew up in southern Kansas, where he met his wife of 56 years, Donna, with whom he has two children and three grandkids. After serving as a medic in the military, he attended veterinary school at Kansas State.

Why did he choose Lawrence?

“It’s far enough away from southern Kansas to be another country, to be honest,” he said. Plus, Leasure and local realtor John McGrew were willing to help finance him to get his start.

Lewis rarely advertises, not for financial but ethical reasons. Veterinarians just didn’t advertise when he started; he thinks it might have even been ground for them to lose their licenses. His recent ad in Best of Lawrence magazine said, ‘Thank you, Lawrence for your vote! From the Douglas County Veterinary Medical Association.” “That’s all of us,” he noted. Lewis Veterinary Clinic is only mentioned across the bottom.

If Lewis reminds you of the old-time country doctor, that’s because, in a sense, he is. “My wife and I have said for years he’s the James Herriot of Douglas County,” said rural Lawrence resident Tom Sloan, referring to the late veterinarian/author who told tales of caring for animals in the British countryside. For instance, Lewis visits the Sloan residence to care for the couple’s sheep.

Nadine Dolan, a retired proofreader for the Journal-World, said she started going to Lewis Veterinary Clinic “at least four or five dogs ago.” She said she has stuck with Lewis ever since because he treats clients like longtime friends (oftentimes because they are) and has a great sense of humor.

“I hope the world that he outlives me,” said Dolan, 81. “I wouldn’t want to change vets, that’s for sure. He’s just a swell guy.”

Lewis says people sometimes come into the clinic and say, “Dr. Lewis, I heard you were retiring.” But the almost-octogenarian doesn’t have plans to hang up his green doctor’s coat anytime soon.

“What am I going to do? Sit home. Even my television doesn’t work. It does, but the sound doesn’t work,” he said. “Why have I kept doing this? Basically the long and short of it is, I’ve always liked it. It’s been good to me, all the way around.”