Most of Mark Millsap’s best days have been spent on the UI’s Urbana campus.
But that’s primarily because he’s spent just about his entire life here.
An animal caretaker for the College of Veterinary Medicine for the past 26 years, Millsap was practically born on South Farms soil.
“My dad ran the dairy operation out here for 35 years,” he said. “I grew up right there in a house at the UI round barns. We moved there when I was 2, so there are a lot of memories here.”
The three round barns, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, were the centerpieces of the university’s 20-acre demonstration farm. Only about 60 of the Shaker-inspired structures exist today in the U.S.
The UI has fewer dairy cows than it used to and the footprint of Vet Med now dominates the open fields Millsap used to play in.
“When we lived here that was a working dairy and this (Vet Med buildings) was the pasture,” he said. “Even when I worked over there for the university (in the mid-1980s) it was full of cows most of the time.”
He estimates that he milked some 22,000 cows during his tenure at Vet Med.
Millsap said he remembers the first time, as a child, that he realized the area was changing.
“They wouldn’t even deliver pizza out here because we were out in the country,” he said. “And then one day they ran me off from one of the holes they were digging for Vet Med because I was riding my bike there.”
That was in the 1970s, but they didn’t chase Millsap very far.
He started working officially for the university in 1985, at age 22. But as the dairy operation diminished, managers moved him from the big, 100-year-old barns to the small animal clinic in 1999 – though not before Millsap met his future wife, Kelley, now a retired caretaker.
“We actually worked the same hours for a very long time and then we started dating,” he said. “We’ve both been animal lovers forever.”
The family, which includes two children adopted from China in the past 12 years and a menagerie of dogs and cats, lives on a rural property near Sadorus, Ill.
“We’ve got too many,” he said of the animals – not the children – noting Kelley used to keep horses and also is involved in the local rescue-transport organization for injured animals.
Millsap also worked alongside his father, Ray, for five years before he retired in 1980. Ray, whose father also raised dairy cows near Newton, Ill., is 80.
“I didn’t work side-by-side with my dad but our jobs did overlap,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to have worked with him at he U. of I. We’re still best buddies.”
The house the family used to live in now is home to university offices, and fields north of Vet Med’s round barns are used for intramural sports.
Millsap said he enjoys his job immensely, though he misses the up-close contact he used to share on the large-animal side. He said it took him a long time to figure out the maze-like layout of Vet Med’s facilities.
On the positive side, he said he hasn’t been kicked or injured by a frightened cow for some time.
He still handles and cares for all kinds of animals, though a good portion of his job is dedicated to keeping cages clean and food-supply cabinets stocked.
“We do a lot of cleaning – cleaning cages, cleaning floors, decontaminating examination rooms,” he said. “We take care of a lot of teaching animals as well. We feed the animals and deliver client food, we dispose of dead animals and we unload the semi-trucks of food when they come in. We take a regular census of what animals are in here.”
And while cleaning may sound simple, it’s not, when considering the ever-changing, multi-legged clientele that comes through Vet Med doors.
“Sometimes they have something that comes in that’s contagious and we have to decontaminate the whole examination room,” he said.
That involves heavy chemicals, a specialized suit and a large helping of “elbow grease” to ensure every nook and cranny is covered.
“We clean everything we can reach,” he said. “They have written procedures for us to follow so it’s not so dangerous.”
Millsap said he enjoys the contact with students and with pet-owners and that he tries to offer sympathy to each when a pet dies. When he goes home he spends some of his free time playing guitar in two area bands.
He said he’s weathered all the changes at Vet Med for so long for one reason:
“I just love being around animals. It really breaks your heart when someone has lost an animal or a student has lost that first patient,” he said. “I like to try to make everybody laugh and I get caught singing a lot. I love seeing the different animals that come in here – and seeing them leave healthy is even better.”