William S. “Terry” Swecker Jr. has been connected to the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine for all but two of the last 44 years.

Swecker stepped down after nine years as director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital on May 10 and officially retires from Virginia Tech on June 30. Tanya LeRoith, director of Virginia Tech Animal Laboratory Services (ViTALS), has been named to succeed him as hospital director. 

Swecker, from Stuarts Draft, was among the first class of graduates from the veterinary college in 1984, and after two years in private practice, he returned in 1986 for a residency and obtaining a Ph.D. He joined the veterinary college faculty in 1990.

“Terry Swecker has made focused and impactful contributions to this college since its earliest days,” said M. Daniel Givens, dean of the veterinary college. “I value and appreciate the impactful role that Terry Swecker has played.  As a student, faculty member, and administrator at the college, Terry Swecker has navigated multiple challenging situations with a calm demeanor and reassuring approach.” 

Leadership through changes

Swecker looked back with a sense of gratitude for all he has had the opportunity to be a part of as the veterinary college has grown from makeshift classrooms in scattered buildings to the nationally recognized educational and clinical complex it is today. 

“Our team is well trained to do amazing things on a routine basis,” Swecker said. “And we can forget that. We shouldn’t forget the joy and the benefit that is brought to many people for things we can consider pretty average.”

Swecker stepped into the role of teaching hospital director in 2015 and, five years later, oversaw the hospital as it dealt with adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Our staff are some of the most engaged passionate people I've ever met in my life,” Swecker said. “We were able to serve our patients, clients, and students during COVID and that wasn't easy.

“We were able to operate in a fiscally responsible manner. We had a slight deficit in the COVID year, and modest surpluses in other years that is reinvested in new and upgraded equipment. “  

Among the accomplishments during Swecker’s time at the teaching hospital were adding a veterinary social worker position, facilitating the development of small animal emergency and critical care, and initial planning for the proposed veterinary hospital expansion and renovation.

Swecker has had to manage much staffing change during his time as director. 

“We are used to turnover of students and interns every year and residents every three years,  but I've also had a large number of faculty and staff who have retired after successful careers or moved on for better opportunities,” Swecker said. “We've been able to replace them with an extremely talented and dedicated group of staff and faculty.”

Swecker’s greatest pride in serving as hospital director is, as it was in prior years as a professor, the students. 

“I'm proud of the approximately 1,200 DVM students, 50 interns, and 70 residents who finished their programs during my tenure and the dedicated staff and faculty who guided them though that journey” Swecker said.

Influence beyond campus 

Swecker’s influence has gone far beyond Virginia Tech, as he served a six-year term on the Council on Education within the American Veterinary Medical Association and was president of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced virtual meetings.

Swecker said he has enjoyed traveling the world and attending conferences to see how agriculture is conducted elsewhere. 

“The fun thing for me is that farmers are farmers, no matter where you’ve landed on the globe, that farmer gene is pretty consistent across the world,” Swecker said. “And the dedication and passion of students is also consistent across the globe.”

A teacher first 

Before becoming hospital director, Swecker rose from associate professor when he joined the veterinary college faculty in 1990 to professor and associate department head of the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

His heart is still very much in teaching. 

“I feel as a teacher my job is to empower people to make decisions and perform skills and then when they are challenged, help them through the process,” Swecker said. 

He encourages current students and those recently graduated to focus on the positive aspects even though veterinary medicine can sometimes be disheartening. 

“One of Jimmy Buffett’s rules of life is that if you want to carry the ball, just remember, you’re going to get hit,” Swecker said. “But never ever forget how much fun it is to run with the ball.”  There are going to be days that are incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, we as humans internalize those frustrations viscerally. They take up more space than victories. And so please count the victories. You've been trained well, there's stuff that will be scary, that you don't understand. But you have the skill set to do it. And don't forget to celebrate the victories.”

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