By Jim Bell
A doctor, who hailed from rural America and described himself as “a certified hillbilly,” is the 2021 recipient of the Animal Health Foundation’s prestigious Cortese-Lippincott Award.
Dr. Michael J. Smith worked in Southern California more than three decades, though he arrived expecting to be here only a couple of years before returning to Arkansas where he grew up.
He expressed his gratitude to the foundation “for this great honor.” Veterinary medicine, he said “has always been a vocation which I cherished, always a vocation, not a job.”
The Cortese-Lippincott Award is presented annually to someone who has gone “above and beyond” to make the world a better place for humans and animals, someone who excels in community service and education in the veterinary community and someone who supports the human-animal bond.
Dr. Smith developed a love for the mountains while living in the West and left Southern California in 2012 for Westcliffe, Colo., and his home, Crooked Spruce Ranch, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the southern part of the state. “It’s truly paradise on earth,” he said.
“When I moved to Colorado, the single practitioner who had the small animal practice in Westcliffe was referring all her orthopedics and more difficult surgeries to Colorado Springs, which is 75 miles away,” he said. For six years, Dr. Smith lent his skills to the practice, doing surgeries part time.
He also flew back regularly to Southern California to do surgeries at his old practice he said. “The first few years, it was every six weeks. The practice would schedule a week’s worth of surgeries. But it started spreading out a little further to three or four times a year. Last year, with everything that was going on, I only went twice.”
Winning the Cortese-Lippincott Award was “extra special because I knew Joe [Cortese] real well and Larry Lippincott, too. Both of them I considered friends and Larry more of a mentor. One surgery that I specialized in is called Caudal Equina Syndrome. I once referred a police canine to Larry and then assisted him in the lumbosacral decompression surgery [that repairs the condition].
“A few years later, I met Larry at one of the SCVMA meetings and I thanked him for teaching me that surgery because at that point I had done 300 to 400 of them. He was totally surprised because that was more than he had done.” A primary reason Dr. Lippincott did fewer surgeries for Caudal Equina is that the condition is not aggressively diagnosed by general practitioners and referred for surgery, Dr. Smith said.
He and Dr. Cortese served together on the SCVMA Board of Trustees. “Joe was president in 1991, the year before I was,” Dr. Smith said. “He changed his installation banquet from a formal dress affair to a themed banquet. Because of his rural west background the theme was western attire.
“Not to be outdone, and having gone to Louisiana State, my installation theme the next year was Mardi Gras, costumes optional. It was the only time I have worn green tights in public. (I was Robin Hood.)”
Young Mike Smith “grew up on a 400-acre farm near the small town of Sidney, Ark. His father raised beef cattle and planted 12 to 15 acres of watermelons every year.
Mike earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and did graduate work at the University of Arkansas before being admitted to LSU’s School of Veterinary Medicine. After earning his DVM degree in 1980, he took a job in Hermosa Beach.
“I never thought I would ever live in a city, yet I ended up living in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. The advantage this provided was being able to practice the highest quality veterinary medicine. In the South Bay we had group radiology rounds each week. We would meet at Coast Pet Clinic with three or four other clinics and Bill Zontine, a board-certified radiologist. We shared our challenging or interesting cases. I learned more radiology in the first few years in these rad rounds than I did in school.”
Dr. Smith worked five years as an associate veterinarian in Hermosa Beach, then bought into Country Hills Animal Clinic in South Torrance in 1985. He owned the practice until he moved to Colorado, when he sold it to a younger veterinarian he had brought in as a partner five years earlier.
He and his wife, Christine, met and married while students at the University of Arkansas. They have two daughters – Janine, who lives in Lakewood, and Jennifer, who lives in El Segundo. Both work at Emerald Health Services. Janine is expecting their first grandchild.
Dr. Smith has always enjoyed working with wood. “When we moved to Westcliffe, one of the first things I did was build my dream woodworking shop. Christine calls it the ‘Garage Mahal.’” Among his wood shop projects: custom split bamboo fly rods and custom wooden trout fishing nets. “I’m really proud of my bamboo fly rods,” he said. “It’s an original art form.”
He also is an avid traditional archer and makes his own longbows and custom wood arrows. He built a greenhouse on the back of the garage which heats the shop in winter and keeps him and Christine supplied with tomatoes year around. He is an avid hunter and fisherman Hand, at 68, an enthusiastic hiker.
He celebrated turning 50 by climbing California’s 14,497-foot Mt. Whitney – highest peak in the contiguous 48 states – in a day hike that started at 1 a.m. and covered 23 miles, up and back. Dr. Smith repeated the hike each of the next seven years, ending when he moved to Colorado.
In Westcliffe, he has volunteered as a member of the Custer County Search and Rescue unit and with Outdoor Buddies, an organization that takes young and handicapped people on hunting and fishing trips.
Dr. Smith remains an appreciative fan of SCVMA. “I’m sure there are other areas of the country which provide excellent opportunities for career development but none better than SCVMA,” he said. “Even though I missed rural life, I have no regrets about my veterinary career in Southern California.”