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At 90 years young, Acampo resident still the animal doctor

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Posted: Friday, January 20, 2006 10:00 pm

Henry Charles "Buck" Harris may be 90 years old, but he's sharp enough to perform surgery on the animals he loves.

"I did a caesarian on a Chihuahua today," the soft-spoken Harris boasted earlier this month at his veterinary hospital at Victor Road and Highway 88.

"This is the small extreme," son Hunter Harris added. "He used to do C-sections on cows."

An Acampo resident, Harris may be the oldest veterinarian in the state, the nation - or even the world.

A Lodi-area veterinarian for 53 years, he still pretty much runs the show himself, and he often has a grin on his face.

His only help among licensed veterinarians in his office is a part-timer, Deborah Cousyn. He also has a veterinary technician, Delisa Thorns.

Despite his 90 years, Harris looks more like he's 70. He works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week-and-a-half day on two Saturdays a month.

It's the only job he's ever had. He's "retired" three times, but he keeps coming back. In fact, he maintains he'll continue treating critters as long as he enjoys it.

"Pretty amazing," said Hunter, 30, who manages the veterinary office.

Clements resident Lois Maitia and her granddaughter, Mackenzie Moore, credit Harris for saving two of their loved ones' lives.

Maitia's 13-year-old cat, Mokie, had a constant cold for some time. Two weeks ago, she brought him in.

"He said it's time to put him down because he's had this same stuff for years," Maitia said of the veterinarian.

But after he saw how emotionally upset Maitia was at losing Mokie, Harris put his arm around her and said, "I'll try something else."

He gave Maitia some medication that seemed to work.

"Before the bottle was half done, he acted like he's a kitten," she said.

Harris also saved the life of another cat, Marnie, 6, who swallowed some caustic material, Moore said. He's also treated Punkie, age 7 or 8, who broke her jaw after jumping onto the kitchen counter trying to get to a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Cowboy, who had his stomach opened after swallowing a nose from a stuffed animal, Moore said.

Lockeford-area resident Aileen White is another faithful customer. Her four dogs and three cats keep Harris busy these days. On Tuesday, she brought in Bella, a 6-month-old Chihuahua, who swallowed some Nicorette, a gum for people who want to stop smoking.

"I think he does great," White said of Harris.

While giving a recent tour of his veterinary hospital, Harris greets Sassy in her cage. She is a cat with twoand-a-half legs after being hit by a car. After Sassy's owner spent $400 in veterinary care, Harris didn't have the heart to charge any more. The rest of Sassy's care is on him.

Upon entering the surgery unit, Harris recently told a reporter to put his hand on the operating table. The table was somewhat warm to the touch, the direct result of two heating lamps overhead.

"It's not cold like it is at Lodi Memorial," Harris noted.

Growing up on farm in Northwest

Born Sept. 18, 1915, in Vancouver, Wash., Harris grew up on a farm in Vancouver until 1952, except for four years at Washington State University and four years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served in the South Pacific.

A 1952 graduate, Harris is still proud of his 3.9 grade-point average in college.

"I goofed off my senior year; I got a 'B,'" he said.

Harris said he acquired the nickname, Bucky, in high school, after baseball Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, who was manager of the Washington Senators at the time. "He was known as a boy wonder."

So why did his classmates pin him with the name?

"I was a little bitty squirt and played baseball, I guess," Harris said.

He was known as Bucky through his Navy and college years. Then he shortened his name to Buck.

"I do not answer to Henry," he said. "If someone calls and asks for Dr. Harris, I answer. If someone calls me Buck, I know it's a friend of mine. If they call me Henry, I say he's not here. I know it's a salesman."

Harris, who grew up with cows, pigs, rabbits, horses and other animals on his parents' farm, knew a lot of veterinarians in Washington. One of them recommended him to Washington State.

"I was working in a printing shop at the time," he said. "I was making a pretty good salary at the time - a buck and a quarter an hour."

So off he went to Pullman, Wash.

Moving to Lodi

Upon graduation in 1952, he saw a trade magazine advertisement about a Lodi veterinary clinic up for sale. Harris and the late Al Grim bought a clinic on Ham Lane. Grim later moved his practice to Washington state and died about six years ago, Harris said.

"I could make as much as a U.S. senator (in 1952)," Harris said. "I can't come close now."

At the time, Lodi had about 12,000 residents. "I guess I knew 98 percent of them," he said.

And, one of them was Maitia.

"When I first went to him (in 1952), I had a gray Persian cat," she said. "All of a sudden he got sick. Buck said he had distemper."

Harris squirted some medicine down the cat's throat, and he got well quickly. That sold her on Harris to this day.

It was a might cheaper to get some help treating animals 50 years ago than it is today.

"In those days, you could hire a vet out of school for $400 to $500 a month," Harris recalls. "Today, you're looking at $6,000 to $7,000 next month."

He and Grim worked together until 1958, when Harris bought him out. Harris sold half his interest in 1960 and the remainder five years later so he could relax on a ranch except for a small amount of dairy work.

"That's the first time I retired."

But residents kept wanting to treat their parents, so he changed his mind.

But in June 1992, he "retired" again after suffering a severe heart attack that nearly cost him his life. The hospital reopened in January 1993.

Two years later, his family built the current animal hospital. It opened on his 80th birthday. "And we're pretty proud of it," quips Harris.

His wife, Mary, whom he married in 1972, was a veterinary technician in her husband's practice. She retired about five years ago. They have four sons in the Lodi area, a daughter in Palo Alto and a stepdaughter in Chico.

It's difficult to determine whether Harris is the oldest veterinarian in California or points beyond.

A representative from the California Veterinary Medical Association noted that a database search shows that the association has some 300 members born between 1900 and 1915. However, it can't be determined whether they are still practicing, retired or dead, she said.

Treating large animals

Harris treated small animals like cats and dogs, along with livestock. He made house calls to ranches. After all, it was easier to get Harris to the ranch than a cow or horse to his hospital. Harris treated his last dairy cow in 2001.

"The dairy is now a subdivision in Galt," he said.

How has veterinary medicine changed in the last 50 years?

"I'm seeing a lot more cancer. I operate on three to four cancer patients a week."

During his years in Lodi, Harris has been active with the Lodi Lions and Elks. He is a former exalted ruler of the Elks.

He also showed cattle and once won a grand champion female polled (without horns) Hereford in Louisville, Ky.

When he isn't treating critters, Harris grows winegrapes - zinfandel on his Acampo ranch and five varieties of grapes on a ranch adjacent to the veterinary hospital in Lockeford.

"When he gets bored here (in the hospital), he'll go out in the fields," son Hunter said.

But his heart is with the critters he cares for.

"I've had a mighty good life. I wouldn't have wanted to do anything else. I wouldn't change a thing."

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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