Witter gives $175,000 for LSU SVM scholarship, clinical skills space

Hoover, Dr. Patton, Dr. Riggs, and Kitty

Hoover, Molly Patton, DVM intern, Laura Riggs, DVM, surgeon, and Big Brown Kitty (daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown), who Phil Witter eventually adopted.

Phillips C. Witter has made a gift to the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine of $175,000, which will allow the school to establish the Eleanor Connell Witter of Live Oak at Cedar Lodge Farm Scholarship. The first scholarship will be awarded in the fall of 2021. A $25,000 portion of his gift names the Garig–Connell–Witter Exam Room, where students move from the classroom into a clinical setting in the LSU SVM’s new Stephenson Pet Clinic. There, they conduct mock examinations and improve communication skills. The clinic is expected to open in early 2022.  

“I have always wanted to do something to honor my mother and to help out the vet school,” Witter said.

He is grateful for the care his animals have received at the LSU SVM since the late 1970s. “When I started in the business, I had to haul horses all the way to Texas A & M and dogs to Auburn University Veterinary Clinic for treatment of complex issues. It’s a blessing to have the LSU vet school here,” he said.

Witter has brought many animals to the LSU SVM for treatment, including Hoover, a quarter horse then 18, who underwent life-saving emergency surgery. Horses have 70 feet of small intestine, and fully two thirds of Hoover’s had adhesions from a previous surgery, causing colic. Typically, no more than half of the small intestine can be removed successfully because it becomes hard for the horse to absorb nutrients. But, because Hoover’s remaining intestine was healthy, surgery was an option. Drs. Laura Riggs, Mustajab Mirza, and Molly Patton were clinicians on the case. 

“I explained to Mr. Witter that it would be a long and complicated procedure. He decided he wanted to give Hoover a chance,” said Laura Riggs, DVM, Ph.D., DACVS, associate professor of equine surgery.  

The April 2019 surgery on the 1,200-lb. horse took nearly four hours, during which he was under anesthesia. 

Twenty-five blood vessels needed to be tied off and the intestine resectioned. With both Drs. Riggs and Mirza, plus others on the clinical team, they were able to work faster. Surgery involves three critical junctures: the surgery itself, recovery from anesthesia, and post-operative healing. 

“I called Mr. Witter when Hoover was in the surgery recovery room. We weren’t certain Hoover would wake up. But he did wake up and stood up immediately, as horses must. Hoover has a strong will to live,” Dr. Riggs said.

Hoover remained in intensive care for 60 days. Now, at 20 years old, he is doing well. 

“Mr. Witter’s animals are lucky to have him as a decision-making authority for their needs,” said Mustajab Mirza, DVM, DACVS, associate professor of equine surgery.

Another such complex case handled successfully by the LSU SVM was that of Witter’s half-Arabian mare, Beyond Compare, who underwent a resection of the colon.

“The love and dedication of everyone on the veterinary team showed for these animals is the inspiration for this scholarship,” he said.

Witter structured this scholarship so that the school could use it at the discretion of the dean and Student Affairs staff to best meet the LSU SVM’s mission-based needs over time.

“Phil Witter’s gift has given us the ability to address both current and unforeseeable needs well into the future. We are deeply grateful for his generosity, wisdom, and trust,” said Joel D. Baines, VMD, Ph.D., dean and Kenneth F. Burns Chair in Veterinary Medicine.

It could be said that Witter’s gift to help advance students’ study of veterinary medicine runs in his blood. Witter’s scholarship is named for his late mother, Eleanor Connell Witter, who established a scholarship in her father’s name at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University. Witter’s father graduated from McGill Medical School in Montreal and conducted respiratory studies on horses, including Man-O-War, a champion American thoroughbred racehorse, at Faraway Farm, adjacent to Poplar Hill Farm, in Lexington, Kentucky. The two met on a train traveling to New York. Witter’s father opened his first medical practice in Baton Rouge and was a general practitioner who made house calls in the area.

Both of his parents loved animals. Witter grew up on the family land where he currently lives, and it was filled with cats, dogs, working horses, and cattle. As a child, he learned to drive teams of horses and mules while sitting in the lap of an overseer. He started riding horses at age 4 on the Baton Rouge land that once spanned 1,800 acres, including what is now the I-10/I-12 highway split, once a virgin cypress swamp adjoining Burden Plantation. His land is now a 250-acre pastoral oasis surrounded by city. 

Witter left home for Vanderbilt University, where he studied political science and economics, earning B.A. and J.D degrees. He briefly studied international law abroad and returned to Baton Rouge in the early 1970s. That’s when he began a business showing horses and cattle that invented a new direction for his family’s farm, launched a stellar career, and started his relationship with the LSU SVM.

Since he began keeping digital records, Witter has had 3,500 winning show horses in various national and regional events, including Western, country pleasure, English, driving, halter, and hunter. Witter now has about 60 horses, 300 cattle, and a scholarship and clinic room down the road at the LSU SVM, where he knows animals will receive excellent care.

“You see the kindness and caring and investment the veterinarians, students, interns, and residents put forth for the animals in their care. Anything I can do to help attract the best and the brightest to the LSU vet school and help those students when they really need it, I want to do,” he said.

CONTACT

Sandra Sarr, MFA

Communications Coordinator

sarr1@lsu.edu