University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Remembering John Vennes

vennes_johnw_phdcopyJohn Vennes’ commitment to the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences didn’t end with his 1992 retirement after 40 years of service to the institution he helped grow and transition into a four-year medical school.

Jessica Sobolik, director of alumni and community relations, said the former interim dean and longtime chairman of the microbiology department still kept an office in the school and stopped by regularly to visit with friends and former colleagues.

“He would go down to Arizona for the winters, but he essentially would be in this building walking around and visiting with people three times a week up until November each year,” she said.

Dean Joshua Wynne said Vennes, who joined the school in 1952, continued to offer “sage insights and advice” to the medical school staff, even into his later years.

Vennes died Tuesday of natural causes in Sun City, Ariz., at the age of 86.

Memorial service plans for Vennes are still being finalized. Wynne included a remembrance of the former dean during the 2:30 p.m. medical school commencement ceremony Sunday, May 15, in the Chester Fritz Auditorium.

A UND ‘mainstay’

Vennes, a native of the small town of Zahl in northwest North Dakota, got his start at UND as a student, going on to serve as a professor emeritus and chairman of the microbiology and immunology department.

He also led the school as interim dean from 1973-75, playing a “critical” role in the institution’s switch from a two-year to a four-year medical school that many people have credited with helping boost the number of students who practice medicine in North Dakota.

But it wasn’t so easy to get state legislators to agree to the change, Vennes told the Herald in 2005 shortly after co-authoring “North Dakota Heal Thyself” to chronicle the first 100 years of the medical school.

“That was the pivotal moment for this school,” Vennes told the Herald. “It was either go to four years or close.”

The Legislature gave its approval to establish a four-year program in 1973, and the school awarded degrees to its first class of medical doctor graduates in 1976.

Vennes continued leadership roles in the school, including stints as associate dean from 1975 to 1977 and 1989 to 1992, up until his retirement.

Sobolik said Vennes was proud of his North Dakota roots and went out of his way to make new medical school employees feel like they had found their “new home.” And despite stepping down from his position nearly two decades before, he continued to be a “mainstay” in the school up until last fall.

“Everyone still reveres him to this day,” she said. “He still had a presence here and you always saw him visiting with someone in the office. Everyone here’s going to miss him.”

Vennes also was an avid silversmith, often making rings, earrings and other jewelry to give as gifts to colleagues and friends.

-- Courtesy of the Grand Forks Herald.

Earlier this week, we lost an esteemed member of the UND and SMHS family. John W. Vennes, Ph.D., a microbiologist, joined the SMHS in 1952. He then served the School for almost 60 years as chair of the microbiology department, interim dean of the School, later as associate dean, and then as advisor to a succession of deans. He knew or served 11 of the 13 deans of the school, including me. A Sioux Award winner and recipient of the President’s Medal, he was a trusted and loyal supporter of the School and its programs. His wonderful book, North Dakota, Heal Thyself, written with journalist Patrick McGuire, is a fascinating chronicle of the first 100 years of the School and a blueprint for North Dakota to “grow its own doctors.” Even in his later years, he was a frequent visitor to the School, and often provided me with sage insights and advice. Never intrusive, he was always available to visit, and to share his viewpoint on any number of issues. The John W. Vennes Atrium at the School is a constant reminder of his stewardship in developing North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He made daily visits to the School he so loved and dedicated his life to. All of us at the School will miss the smile and wit that accompanied his visits. Our days were incomplete until Dr. Vennes stopped by.

-- Joshua Wynne, vice president for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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