“Every disease depends on nutrition in its treatment.”
John L. Mara, D.V.M.
At the age of 55, when many people would start to think about retirement, Dr. Jack Mara was about to embark on a second career. A career that would make him one of the most recognized and trusted names in veterinary medicine.
The story of how Mara chose to devote his life to veterinary medicine and nutrition began in upstate New York. Growing up on a farm gave Jack the opportunity to see first-hand the important work done by veterinarians. “When I was about 9, I decided I would be either a lawyer or a vet,”Mara recalled. What tipped the scales toward veterinary medicine was his observation that “when the vet came to the farm, there was trouble,”he said. “And, when the vet left things were usually right again. On a farm, veterinarians were looked upon as semi-gods and they are,”Mara said. “So, I decided to become a vet and I’m very glad I did.”
Mara’s road to his goal of practicing veterinary medicine would come upon some detours. First, his education was interrupted when his father became ill and he was forced to leave school to run the family farm. Then, World War II intruded and Mara signed on with the Army Air Corps, now the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a nose gunner on a B24 bomber. Stationed in Cerignola, Italy, he flew on 26 combat missions. Returning home, Mara went to night school to obtain his high school diploma while working in a tool factory during the day.
His efforts paid off and he was selected to receive one of only 50 places at Cornell University’s veterinary medicine program-50 places for which there were 1,600 applicants. As a senior veterinary student at Cornell, Mara won the award for the best work in medicine and surgery. The prize was $25. “You can’t believe what $25 could do for a fellow in those days,”he recalled. It was a lot of money for a man who worked as a student janitor for 70 cents an hour. That salary and the GI Bill paid his way through school. It was in veterinary school that Mara was first introduced to the product that would play a major role in his later life. “”It was in 1948, while a student at Cornell that I opened my first can of Hill’s® k/d® Prescription Diet® dog food,”he noted.
“When I was in school, veterinary medicine predominantly focused on large animals,”he said. Dogs and cats were not given the level of care and attention they receive today. Mara thought he would follow in the footsteps of the veterinarians he had looked up to as a child. But, when he graduated in 1951, he was asked to stay on at Cornell to intern in surgery and to teach introductory surgery to third year veterinary students. After spending one year at the small animal clinic at the university, Mara was offered a position in a veterinary practice on Long Island, New York. Once again, Mara would come in contact with the company that would be his destiny. The owner of that practice, Dr. Goodman, was a classmate and good friend of Dr. Mark L. Morris, Sr., the man who created Hill’s® Prescription Diets®. It was during his time working in Dr. Goodman’s practice that Mara came to appreciate the satisfaction of working with companion animals.
In 1955, Mara was ready to open his own veterinary hospital and small animal practice and he selected the city of Huntington, New York. Most veterinary hospitals at the time were set up in converted houses, but Mara built an entirely new structure designed specifically for his practice. He became active in Huntington community activities, serving as vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, a trustee for the YMCA and a leader with the local United Way campaign. The location of Mara’s hospital led to his most visible public involvement. When a highway was proposed that would cause the demolition of his hospital and he received no help from government officials, Mara formed the Jericho/Route 110 Taxpayers Survival Association. A three year battle ensued and in the end, Mara and his organization were victorious.
By hiring an engineering firm to develop an alternate plan that was subsequently accepted by the state transportation department, Mara’s property and that of his neighbors was saved. He knew that he had made an impact, Mara recalled with satisfaction, when the local newspaper referred to him as the “powerful Jack Mara.”He even tried his hand at running for public office when considered for the County Executive candidacy in 1974. The nomination was not to be his, however, after the convention The New York Times wrote that the better man had lost. In retrospect, that statement was even better than winning the election for Mara.
The animal hospital itself would also play a major role in Mara’s transition from local practitioner to nationally recognized veterinary nutrition expert. “Dr. Alan Carb stopped by the hospital through the years,”” Mara said. “His main focus was on surgery and he often said that someday he wanted to buy my building because it was designed and set up as a hospital.”” In late 1978, Carb told Mara that he was ready to buy and, to many people’s surprise, Mara agreed to sell. “”The news spread like wildfire,”” he recalled. Mara received three job offers right away, two from businesses outside the veterinary field and a third from Hill’s Pet Nutrition. Mara chose to join Hill’s as a Professional Services Representative for the New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania region.
His responsibilities included calling on veterinarians to inform them about the benefits of Hill’s Science Diets® and Prescription Diets® and he quickly realized that he could get the message out faster if he held seminars and brought the veterinarians to him as well as going to each of them individually. “”There were no slides, no handouts,” he said, “I held three the first year and then Hill’s wanted me to do them all over the country.” He agreed to travel on a limited basis until Hill’s new president, John Tietjan, found a way have Mara deliver the Hill’s message to a much larger audience. “”Jack, I want you to become a television star,”Mara recalled Tietjan telling him, and Mara was sent to New York for training with the company’s public relations firm.
During the ensuing years, Jack Mara served as the voice of Hill’s, teaching companion animal nutrition to the public and the veterinary community. He traveled across the country conducting media interviews and speaking before countless veterinary organizations. His relationship with controversial Denver talk show host, Alan Berg, (on their first interview, Mara inadvertently called the interviewer by the name of the host’s Airdale terrier, Fred) provided a noteworthy event in his career as a spokesperson. This faux pas aside, the media personality and the veterinarian became fast friends. In fact, Mara was scheduled to appear with Berg on what turned out to be the morning after the broadcaster’s murder. Because of their friendship and Mara’s popularity with Berg’s audience, the radio station invited Mara to fill in as host of the show on the day he was scheduled to appear. “”In spite of his on air persona,”” Mara said, “”I knew that Alan Berg was a good man and he was devoted to his dog.””
As a final gesture of friendship, Mara arranged for Hill’s to provide Berg’s dog, Fred, with Science Diet® Senior for the rest of his days. Plus, he recruited local veterinarians who would provide Fred’s health care as well.
Mara remembered the phone calls he took that day and many of the calls from audience members from those hundreds of radio and television show on which he appeared. He counseled pet owners on the nutritional needs of their pets and sometimes commiserated with them on the death of a beloved dog or cat. “”Pets are part of the family,”he said. “I remember a woman from London, Ontario who called the radio show I was on to talk about her recently deceased German Shepherd. She said that people did not understand her grief.” But, Mara did understand and in the process he gained yet another fan.
He was justifiably proud of his work in educating the public about the importance of proper nutrition for the health and well being of their pets, but it was Mara’s work with the veterinary community with which he was most pleased. “”I am grateful to Hill’s for giving me the freedom to develop programs to serve the veterinary profession and to aid veterinarians in providing the best medical care for their patients,”” Mara said. “There is no disease that does not depend on nutrition in its treatment.”
In 1982, Mara settled at Hill’s home office in Topeka, Kansas and into the position of director of veterinary affairs. During his tenure in this role, he created and instituted a program to establish a nutrition curriculum in veterinary colleges across the country, eventually seeing 17 programs put into place. Mara also was instrumental in advancing the awareness of the importance of nutrition in the practice of veterinary medicine through the creation of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. And, one of his happiest moments came in 1994 when he and Dr. Mark Morris, Sr. received honorary diplomate status to that college. “This honor was especially significant to me,”Mara said, “because it meant that the profession had recognized the importance of nutrition to the health and well being of animals. “Mara points to his work in establishing the recognition of board-certified clinical nutritionists as another of Hill’s finest accomplishments.
Mara’s own appreciation of the importance of nutrition in veterinary medicine went all the way back to his undergraduate days at Cornell’s Agricultural College and a course called, “”Feeds and Feeding.” “The focus was on farm animals, of course,”he said. But, the implications to small animal practice were clear. Later when he joined Hill’s and began giving seminars to other veterinarians, Mara worked hard to enhance his own knowledge in the field. “I spent three weeks in Dr. Mark Morris’ library just studying,” he noted.
His dedication to the veterinary profession and veterinary nutrition won for Mara many national and regional awards. He was honored for meritorious service by the Ohio State Veterinary Medical Association, presented with the distinguished service award from the Western Veterinary Conference, recognized for outstanding leadership by the American Animal Hospital Association, presented with a lifetime membership in the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society and the Auxiliary to the AVMA. He continued to serve as a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation and as vice president of its veterinary division, just to name a few. But, he may have been most surprised by an award that originated closer to home.
“”I was at a veterinary meeting in Reno when I received a call to come to Dallas and make a report at the company’s annual sales meeting,”” he remembered.
When Mara arrived in Dallas he was ushered into a banquet hall where a formal dinner was about to begin. When it came time for the program, a number of Hill’s sales people were recognized and then a video was played. After a few moments, Mara realized “”they were talking about me.”” The video was used to introduce the first annual Dr. John L. Mara Award and it’s first recipient, Mara himself. Each year since, the Mara award is presented to a member of the Hill’s field sales force who demonstrates the innovation, commitment and leadership for which Mara himself was legendary.
“”I never did anything at Hill’s by myself,”” Mara pointed out. “”There have been many people through the years who believed in me and championed my ideas to company leadership. Bob Wheeler and I share a profound respect and I am very grateful to Rod Turner at Colgate for supporting the budget for the residencies and college programs.””
Of all the people who played a role in his remarkable career, Mara was quick to credit his “”friend, mentor and inspiration”” Mark Morris, Jr. “”If it wasn’t for Mark Morris, there wouldn’t be a Jack Mara,”” he said. “”Mark, Sr. developed the first products and Mark, Jr. created the rest.””