At the School of Veterinary Medicine for more than two decades, John Donges started as an administrative assistant answering the telephone. Over the years, and under five communications directors, his responsibilities have changed and increased as opportunities arose: working on the first website, managing the social media channels, helping with various aspects of the alumni and donor magazine Bellwether. All of those efforts required an on-demand need for quality images, so he took that on as well, becoming Penn Vet’s official photographer. He shoots headshots, events, facilities, as well as medical procedures on patients, including small animals at the Ryan Veterinary Hospital on the Philadelphia campus and large animals at New Bolton Center campus in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. “I have my own scrubs,” he says.
Donges, now associate director of marketing, grew up on a plant nursery in New Jersey; he played in woods, streams, and fields and developed an appreciation for animals, nature, and the environment. A 1994 graduate of York College of Pennsylvania, he studied biology and fine arts and says working at Penn Vet has been like coming full circle. “I have an appreciation and understanding for the work that the researchers, the clinicians, and the students are doing,” he says.
A year ago Donges took on the role of guest editor of the 100th issue of Bellwether, which will hit mailboxes this month. He has had a hand in nearly half of those 100 issues, his first No. 52 in the spring of 2002. He started with formatting copy, then taking on the photography and captions, as well as writing short articles, and in 2018 became the magazine’s production manager. Donges is also the librarian, managing back issues of the magazine, which was founded in 1981. “Just by the fact that I had been there through it all, I have the institutional memory,” he says. “Especially now having read every magazine preparing for the 100th issue.”
Once Martin Hackett, Penn Vet chief communications officer, gave him the project, Donges started collecting ideas from anniversary and milestone magazine issues on campus and at other universities. Then he went through each of the previous Bellwether issues, cataloging content. In the 58 pages are clinical and research stories, a “patient gallery” for each hospital, and “where are they now” stories about alumni.
“I wanted to do a hundred issues, a hundred things, pulling out one notable, oddball, or quirky factoid from each issue,” Donges says, so there is a four-page foldout with the 100 facts. “That was a lot of fun.” The inside of the magazine’s cover has a mosaic of all 100 covers. The 100th cover features an illustration of a sheep, with veterinary iconography drawn in the whorls and folds of the wool, which ties into the magazine’s name: the lead sheep of a flock was called the bellwether, with a bell tied around its neck, to help shepherds keep track of the flock. “The word has come to take on the meaning of being a pioneer, leading the way in a profession,” Donges says.
About 11,000 copies of the magazine, which is published twice a year, are being mailed to alumni, donors, and select hospital clients.
Bellwether is a record of Penn Vet’s history, which Donges says is valuable to preserve. In looking through all the back issues, Donges says he was struck that the magazine has chronicled entire veterinary careers. “All the groundbreaking research, all the wonderful clinical cases, just documenting the professional careers of our faculty, our alumni, the students, it’s all there in the pages,” he says.
For example, orthopedic surgeon Dean Richardson, who was a resident at New Bolton Center when the magazine was launched, retired last year after 43 years at Penn. Richardson treated Penn Vet’s most famous patient, the thoroughbred Barbaro, who broke his leg at the 2006 Preakness Stakes in the race for the Triple Crown, making headlines around the world.
The issue is one more milestone for Penn Vet, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2034. And for Donges, serving as editor was a “wonderful opportunity,” he says, a growing and learning experience. “The very first editorial meeting I had piles of information from all the magazines, and Marty looked at me and said, ‘All right, John, take it away.’ And I was terrified,” Donges says. “Just feeling my way into being comfortable in that role as editor, gaining confidence in making certain decisions, like adding four pages to the book, it was really good,” he says. “And now I’ve edited a whole magazine. It was a lot of work, but I had wonderful support, and everything came together beautifully. It’s a fine issue.”