William B. Nessmith, Jr., DVM, known affectionately as “Dr. Billy” to most, hung up his veterinarian stethoscope for the last time a few weeks ago at Statesboro Bulloch Regional Veterinary Hospital, chalking up a total of 46 years as a vet.
That number doesn’t accurately reflect the truth, though, because Nessmith had been taking care of animals, in some fashion, since before he started grade school.
Raised on a farm in which he can see the old farmhouse from his current front porch steps, a young Billy Nessmith was tasked with feeding and watering cattle, hogs and horses for as long as he can remember.
Nessmith and his only sibling, a brother who passed away 30 years ago, attended the old Westside School through fifth grade. Nessmith was in the first, sixth-grade class at Mattie Lively Elementary School, and then attended Statesboro High School from eighth through twelfth grades.
The now-retired veterinarian said he had fond memories of growing up on the west side of town. “The Westside Community is a great community,” Nessmith said. “I grew up with a lot of great folks, and even today, all my neighbors have been here a long time.”
Billy Nessmith proudly proclaims his Bulloch County “native” status and said, “It was a blessing to be raised here, live here and retire here.”
But that’s about the only thing you’ll hear Nessmith brag about, unless it’s his family, because the longtime keeper of the furry and sometimes feathered is one of the most humble gentlemen to grace the community.
Steve Hein, director of the Georgia Southern Raptor Center, worked with Nessmith as a high school and college student, had much to say about his mentor.
“For those of us that predate smart phones, Dr. Billy is a rock star! You have truly arrived when you are known by the handle the likes of Sting, JT, MJ, Lady Gaga and our own beloved Dr. Billy.”
The similarity stops there.
Ever avoiding the spotlight, Dr. William B. Nessmith, nonetheless, has cast a broad shadow by living a life of humility and service.
“It was some 40 years ago and I had the chance to work alongside a bona-fide country vet,” Hein said. “What I didn’t know then, it was those lessons learned about what it means to be a true Southern Gentleman that I would hold most dear.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Hein added, pausing to smirk just a bit. “Wrangling cattle and castrating pigs is a memorable experience to a transplant, high school kid born in California.”
In seriousness again, Hein said, “Dr. Billy made a significant impact on me as a young man by quietly setting the standard for civility, humility and community involvement. He remains as much a role model for me today as he did in the days before tweets, Google and the Internet.”
Animals on the farm
Not only was a young William Nessmith surrounded by animals on the farm, but an older, school-aged Nessmith actively took part in the 4-H and FFA Clubs in which his projects were livestock related. Nessmith said he often saw veterinarians come out to work on the various animals on the family farm.
The next step for Nessmith following high school was more schooling.
“It was never a question of ‘if’ we were going to college. We were going to college. And UGA was the only place to go for me. Fortunately, I was accepted.”
Eight years of school, four years of undergrad and four years of vet school, and William became Dr. Billy Nessmith. When he was a senior, Nessmith went on a blind date with a beautiful freshman acquaintance of his roommate’s and the two dated for the next three years, marrying in 1967. Carol completed her undergraduate and Masters Degree in math.
Both graduated in 1969 with their second UGA degrees.
In the background of their school careers, the Vietnam War was taking place. Billy volunteered to serve at the end of his schooling. He and his bride, Carol, originally from Jesup, Georgia, moved to Denver, Colo., for two years where he worked at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in the Veterinary Pathologist Research lab.
Following his Army obligation, the Nessmiths moved back to Statesboro. “It was always my dream to practice here,” Billy said.
Working with Comer Duggan and Bennie Gaskins
He began work with Drs. Comer Duggan and Bennie Gaskins, whose practice was located on Westside Road. Assuming Gaskins’ position when he retired two years later, Nessmith and Duggan were partners for about 30 years before Duggan retired.
“We came a long way from the early days, when we had one room for treatment, surgery and examination in the two-room practice.”
They moved the practice to Highway 80 West and had two exam rooms, practicing there for over 35 years. “I concentrated on large animals and Comer concentrated on small animals.”
“Comer decided he wanted to retire about the same time my son, Ben, was finishing vet school.”
Ben and Billy worked together for about 16 years before Nessmith’s retirement.
Ben Nessmith said he learned much from his dad over the years.
“I have worked with him my whole life and have never once seen him give others any less than his best effort, skill and empathy in every situation, work and otherwise,” Ben Nessmith said. “Billy Nessmith is one of the rare people who has not only read the Bible but applies its principles and teachings to every part of his life. He is the picture of humility and servanthood.”
For the last eight years father and son worked together, the Statesboro Bulloch Regional Veterinary Hospital also included Dr. Buddy Morgan following a merger and was housed on Highway 80 East. The new building opened in 2008.
“I was fortunate to have good partners always,” Nessmith said. “It made my life much easier and more enjoyable.”
Nessmith said he wouldn’t trade anything about his veterinary career, but admitted that it was a time-consuming profession.
“My priorities have always been God, family and my profession, but I haven’t been good in getting the last two in order. I was on call every other night and every other weekend. I missed a lot of family events that I wanted to go to.
“The older we get, the more we value family, and of course, our Lord is important all the time.”
Billy treasures the time he’s had since retirement with his family and has already visited out of town kids and grandkids since hanging up his stethoscope. Children Ben and Allyson and their three kids, Katherine, Abby and Paul live and work in Statesboro. Allyson is a teacher at Statesboro High School.
Matt and Jennifer Nessmith live in South Carolina with their two daughters, Jameson and Charlotte, where Matt is a cardiologist. Daughter Susan and husband Jim Hatfield live in the Atlanta area with Grace and William. Susan is a pediatric physical therapist and Jim is a pharmaceutical representative.
Billy and Carol celebrated 50 years of marriage in September. Carol taught in the math department of Georgia Southern University for 28 years.
As he looked back over his years of serving clients, Billy said his relationship with livestock and pet owners was of great importance to him. “Many of my clients, I’ve worked with for three generations,” he said. “They’ve become dear friends over the years.”
Sam Zemurray, cattle producer, longtime client and owner of HoneyRidge Plantation said that Nessmith performed all of his vet work for about 30 years.
“Billy is not just outstanding as a vet, but as a human being,” Zemurray said. “He had compassion and empathy for animals and people.
“Small animals, big animals. He never backed away from trying anything. I never knew him to complain.”
Zemurray said he admired Nessmith’s accomplishments over the years, from the humble first practice to the “magnificent place” from which Nessmith retired.
Zemurray credited “hard work and a lot of people who loved him” with his success. “And his staff was very special, really great people over the years. He is a very special person, and it was a privilege to have him as a friend and vet.”
Changing with the times
Much of Nessmith’s work took place during the middle of the night or on weekends when he was on call and there were complications with large animal births or other farm animal-related difficulties. He often worked in the middle of a field or in the pouring rain or the freezing cold.
Nessmith said that work has evolved over the years.
“Farming has changed tremendously now. There are fewer farmers with livestock. The ones that do have livestock are more concentrated, but less farmers with livestock overall.
Earlier in his practice, Nessmith’s vet work took him often to the stockyard for vaccinations or deworming or clearing livestock of diseases before they left the stockyard.
And his most unusual case? Nessmith treated a giraffe with an eye infection one year during the annual fair.
“I had to use a step-ladder to get to him,” Nessmith remembered.
Another childhood friend, Robert Tanner, semi-retired from Coldwell Banker Tanner Realty, said he’s known Nessmith since Cub Scouts in second grade.
“He’s as good a friend as I’ve ever had from that time forward,” he said.
Laughing, but in all seriousness, Tanner said, “I wasn’t always straight and narrow, and if it wasn’t for Billy Nessmith, I wouldn’t be here today. He is the epitome of good. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anybody. He is rock solid and is the person I would want to be if I could do my life over again.”
Though he worked many long hours, Nessmith made giving back to the community a priority. For 38 years, Nessmith has been a part of the Rotary Club with “perfect attendance” in never missing a meeting. He’s served as pPresident of the State Board for Veterinary Medicine in Atlanta and was a past-director of Farmers and Merchants Bank.
Nessmith was active over the years in helping 4-H and FFA club members to get livestock ready for showing at fairs and other events and offered rabies clinics for the clubs.
Not one to brag on himself, the retired vet admitted, when pressed, many awards over the years in his field, like 2012 Soil Conservationist of the Year for Bulloch County, 2007 Georgia Cattleman’s Large Animal Vet of the Year, US Army Medical Research Lab Certificate, Honarary FFA Degree, Bulloch County Livestock Association FFA Appreciation Award and First Baptist Church Sunday School Director award, just to name a few.
“Day in and day out, my work was very enjoyable and rewarding,” Nessmith said.
Admitting that he loved all of his work, he did say, “It was always difficult to do a euthanasia. I tried to comfort the pet owners during that difficult time.”
What will he do day in and day out now?
“Take care of family and the family farm,” he said. “I’d like more time with my children and my grandchildren now, and there’s always something to do on a farm.”
It’s been a life well-lived for 74 years, and he’s looking forward to many more at his farm on the west side of town.