Moving stories: Legendary Iowa veterinarian’s life chronicled in book by local author

Renae Vander Schaaf and Dr. A.J. Neumann look over Dr. Neumann’s old practice ledger that details every client he had during his multi-decade vet career.

Driving around Orange City, Iowa means one of three things. You either live there, need to pass through, or are visiting Dr. A.J. Neumann. Neumann, or just “Doc.” as he is commonly referred to, has transcended local legend.

After more than 90 years experiencing the world through traumatic and peaceful times, Neumann and local author Renae B. Vander Schaaf came together to chronicle his life. The book, “Get Up, Get Going” details his life and the history of his surroundings through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and many other events.

Dr. Neumann may be the face of the book, and the motivation behind its pages, but the history he experienced over the years became the backbone of the novel and something that he himself was eager to preserve.

“There is a lot of history in there because those times will never come back,” Neumann said during a visit to his Orange City home.

The life of a vet and a vet

Neumann grew up in Preston, Iowa in a family of 11. As the second oldest child of a mason, he usually did household chores with his closest-in-age siblings.

Even with dairy cattle and various livestock all over the countryside, Neumann said he got to experience all the chores of a farm without ever living on one. He lived on the outskirts of Preston, and he and his closest brother, Daryl, often visited and helped Dr. Roach, the town’s veterinarian.

“We used to ride with him a lot in the country to open the farm gates for him,” he said. “For a day’s work, he’d give us a quarter.”

After seeing how Dr. Roach operated, Neumann said he got the itch for becoming a veterinarian. Roach urged him not to do it.

“Dr. Roach actually said he’d pay my way through college if I became a surgeon,” Neumann said. “But I was set on being a vet.”

After a year and a half in college, in the middle of his sophomore year, Neumann was drafted into the Army. Several years prior, even before going to college, he had tried to join at the height of World War II, but his parents wouldn’t sign the waiver. He was 16 at the time. They settled on him applying to join the Naval Air Force, but he was denied entry because he was too short for service.

Neumann was drafted in July 1946, a year after the Germans had surrendered. He was trained to be a medic stateside where he transferred between three hospitals in the country helping those affected by the war.

“If they would’ve known I was just taking veterinary medicine, they probably wouldn’t have made me a medic,” he joked.

After just a year working with the medics, Neumann was discharged from active service to go back to college to pursue veterinary medicine.

“I was set on being a vet, even with the delay,” he said.

After finishing school, Dr. Neumann was offered a position in Orange City to replace the recently deceased veterinarian, and he has lived in the town ever since. His practice thrived because of work ethic and fair practices, he said.

“You just do the best job you can do while treating your clients fairly and honestly,” he said.

Getting up and getting going on a book

Dr. Neumann had been working at his practice for several decades before making the switch to caring exclusively for draft horses in 1979. By then, Neumann made a name for himself as the most reliable veterinarian in the tri-state area. He and his team were on call 24/7.

“Like the title of the book, we just had to get up and get going,” he said.

What really built the practice, according to Neumann, was never turning down a job – even one challenging enough to stump him.

As time evolved, he realized his passion was in draft horses and his skillset was best used in something he loved doing. He shared his knowledge by writing weekly columns for the Draft Horse Journal – a job he did until 2013.

While Neumann has been retired from general vet practice for many years, he has never left. Every day, people come to him with new questions, concerns and even sometimes animals to take a look at. That was what made him the local legend he is today.

But even a local legend may go unseen for a time, as was the case for Vander Schaaf. Vander Schaaf moved to Orange City to live with her husband. After several years of living in town and working on the farm, she began writing for a local farm paper.

“I’d go out to cover stories and when people found out I was from Orange City, they would always ask me if I knew Dr. Neumann,” she said.

As a history lover herself, Vander Schaaf was interested in learning more about the history of Orange City when she walked through the local coffee shop’s door where she first met Dr. Neumann.

“She came in and sat down and I had no idea who she was,” Neumann said. “She turned to me after the tale I was telling and said ‘Dr. Neumann, I’m going to write a book about you.’”

As anyone would be, Neumann said he was skeptical at first about what a book meant for him. Several days a week, Vander Schaaf would go over to his house and sit with him at the kitchen table to chronicle his life and his stories.

“He’s just a man with an incredible life,” she said. “After editing, there probably is enough for even a second book about him.”

“Well, let’s not push our luck,” Neumann replied.

Over the last year since the book was published, Neumann and Vander Schaaf said they’ve been blown away by the response. He’s gotten requests from all over for copies of the book and compliments about the story. Every time someone tells him that they liked the book, he likes to stop and chat about what their favorite parts were.

“I’ve had more people tell me that she wrote in the book the way I talk,” he said.

Life and the book in perspective

After writing the book and getting it into the public’s hands, Vander Schaaf said she’s been approached by more than one person to do a similar novel for their lives. She’s just excited to explore more history in this part of the world, she said.

“I just want to read more true stories about people, because that’s the way we learn history and how people respond to events,” she said. “I also feel a bit wiser to see how someone else has lived.”

For Dr. Neumann, the book made him reflect on the veterinary industry and agriculture as a whole. He doesn’t like the reliance on laboratory testing to make a diagnosis.

“By the time you get those results back, the animal is dead,” he said.

In the book, Neumann said there are many stories of different jobs he’s had to do over the years, and he hopes people realize the history of rural veterinary practice and how it used to be done.

The greatest change he’s seen is in the size of the operations working today. Where large farms were a quarter section in his youth, farming thousands of acres today can be on the small side.

The book ends with a tale that his near and dear to both Vander Schaaf’s and Neumann’s hearts, and it’s something that he said every producer should read and understand. As a quick hint, Neumann joked that it “involves a cow.”

The Draft Horse Journal has the book for sale online at www.drafthorsejournal.com/product_detail.php?prid=6090 and you can meet Neumann and Vander Schaaf at the Rock Valley Public Library on Nov. 21 at 6:30 p.m. Vander Schaaf will be at the Belvidere Christmas Fair on Nov. 30 at the Belvidere, South Dakota Church Hall between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. mountain time.

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 800-888-1380, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.