Retirement keeps South Knox veterinarian busy

Betsy PickleOur Town Stories, South Knox

Dr. D.J. Krahwinkel is probably the only person in South Knoxville who’s had a hyena named after him, but he thinks that’s a dubious compliment.

“I used to do a lot of zoo-animal surgery for Knoxville Zoo, and one night I did a Caesarean section on a hyena,” the retired veterinarian recalls. “She had two pups, and they named one of them D.J. in honor of me doing the surgery.

“I’m not sure having a hyena named after you is an honor. I guess it does fit – a laughing dog to go with a laughing veterinarian.”

Even a pandemic-appropriate mask can’t hide the good-natured twinkle in Krahwinkel’s eye. He loves jokes nearly as much as he loves his wife of 58 years and his home in South Knoxville.

The 77-year-old Kentucky native isn’t just any veterinarian. He came to the University of Tennessee as one of the first four faculty members when the College of Veterinary Medicine was established in 1974.

He and wife Lyda and their two children first settled in Concord. They lived there about eight months before they decided there were too many people in the area. They found a 70-acre farm in the neighborhood of Gov. John Sevier’s homestead, Marble Springs, with an old rundown farmhouse, and decided to sell the house in Concord and move to South Knoxville. Their idyll lasted about 20 years.

D.J. Krahwinkel with a few of his friends.

“All of a sudden I look up, and here come all these people,” he says. “They’re coming out here, too. Subdivisions here and subdivisions there. The roads are more crowded; the schools are more crowded.”

He prefers the South Knox County of 1980, “but that’s been 40 years ago.”

“Some people may call it progress,” he says. “It’s inevitable; it’s gotta happen.”

D.J. and Lyda met in junior high school and married when they were 19. He earned his veterinary degree at Auburn University and practiced for a couple of years in Illinois before serving in the U.S. Air Force at The School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio, Texas.

“It was early in the space program,” Krahwinkel recalls. “We were doing space research – weightlessness, G-forces, all the stuff it takes to go into space. We did some very interesting stuff.”

The biggest celebrity on the campus at Brooks Air Force Base was a retired “space monkey” named Sam, a rhesus macaque who flew to 53 miles high in December 1959 on the Little Joe 2 in the Mercury program. Sam (an acronym for School of Aerospace Medicine) lived out his retirement years there, and Krahwinkel met him long after his glory days, when he had “gotten very fat and had developed a big hernia.”

“He looked like a Buddha, siting on his cage with his big belly-button hernia.”

Krahwinkel was asked to fix the unsightly hernia and was told in no uncertain terms that “nothing can happen to Sam.” Though nervous about being court-martialed if he failed, Krahwinkel performed a successful surgery on Sam, who died of old age years later.

After leaving San Antonio, Krahwinkel taught for eight years at Michigan State University before coming to UT. In Michigan, he did surgeries for the Detroit Zoo, including suturing an elephant’s trunk when it was bitten halfway through by another elephant during a fight.

Krahwinkel came to UT as a small-animal surgeon and taught surgery in addition to doing mostly dog and cat surgeries. For the last 20 years of his tenure, he was the department head of the small-animal hospital.

The vet school grew from four faculty members when he arrived to about 25 when he retired in 2010. Now, he says, there are about 40. Meanwhile, the first graduating class had 40 members, and nowadays there are around 85 to a class.

Krahwinkel calls retirement “a very busy job.” In addition to being active in the South-Doyle Neighborhood Association, he’s on the board of directors for the Farm Bureau, is a county committee person for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and serves with the Knox County Cattlemen’s Association and the Knox Farmers Coop. He also leads a Bible study – currently held on Zoom – every Sunday morning at Stock Creek Baptist Church, which he and Lyda joined upon moving to South Knoxville 45 years ago.

And then there’s the farm.

“We have a big berry patch, a small orchard and a big garden,” he says. On Monday, Lyda was canning green beans, he was shucking corn and they had cucumbers soaking so they could make pickles.

Already this year they’ve frozen peaches, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, and he’ll be hard at work through apple-picking in October.

During wintertime, he cuts firewood, repairs fences, fixes the barns, takes care of his tractors and generally gets ready for spring.

Plus, he raises cattle, which he says is his favorite thing.

He’s somewhat infamous for a cattle incident from about 10 years ago. He bought a cow and a calf at the market in Newport, and when he went to the barn the next morning to check on them, they had disappeared.

“I thought, ‘Where did that cow and calf go to?’ Come to find out they were over on John Sevier Highway, east of Chapman. They were probably 10 miles from here.”

He called the sheriff’s office to report the missing livestock, and when they were spotted grazing along Gov. John Sevier Highway he went to pick them up but couldn’t catch them. He got another call and a warning: “You’ve got to catch ’em, or we’re gonna have to shoot ’em because we can’t let them get on the highway and somebody come along and hit ’em and get hurt.”

Krahwinkel understood, but he wanted to make one last attempt.

“The next morning, I go to the vet school, and I borrow a dart gun; it looks like a pistol. So I go over about daylight and I’m walking down John Sevier Highway carrying this dart pistol. And coming up the road is a Tennessee state patrolman.

“He turns his light on, his siren and his microphone. He stops his car, and he says, ‘Sir, drop the gun. Drop the gun.’ I laid the gun down beside the road. He said, ‘What’re you doing with a gun on the highway?’

Krahwinkel explained the situation, and the trooper said he’d stop traffic while the vet went to sedate the cow and calf. With some help, Krahwinkel put them in a trailer, and then he took them back to Newport – he didn’t want to have to deal with the escape artists again.

“That was an exciting couple of days,” he says.

While the population in South Knox has grown, many things haven’t changed, he says.

“I’ve got great neighbors. I’ve had the same neighbors for 40 years. I’ve got some new ones, and some have died of old age.

“They’re good folks, common people; not much wealth, not much poverty. They’re plumbers, electricians, carpenters. They’ll do anything for ya.

“I had open-heart surgery three, four years ago, and neighbors came and did my garden for me, mowed my yard.

Krahwinkel can’t envision living anywhere else.

“It’s off the beaten path, and it’s in the country. From my house, I can see one other house. It’s a nice place to be.”

Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.


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