Horses, and other animals on the East End, lost their best friend.
Not only that, but the two-legged kind held Dr. John Andresen in high esteem.
A real-life horse whisperer, Dr. Andresen, one of eastern Suffolk County’s longest-practicing veterinarians, succumbed to esophageal cancer Oct. 9. The Aquebogue man had spent the last 55 of his 80 years caring for animals in a manner that put both them and humans at ease.
“He had the magic touch,” said Wayne Boyd, a veterinary assistant.
News of Dr. Andresen’s death broke hearts and elicited tears. Those who knew him couldn’t say enough good things about him.
“He was just a special, special man,” Kate Nickles, owner of The Little Red Barn in Jamesport, said. “Everybody I knew loved him.
“There’s never a perfect person, but everybody just adored him, from his genuine character to his selflessness to his compassion to his craft. He was brilliant. He was kind.”
Dr. Andresen’s passing was especially felt at Mattituck-Laurel Veterinary Hospital, which he and Dr. Charles Timpone moved into on Oct. 4, 1994. Dr. Timpone met Dr. Andresen in 1969 when Dr. Andresen began dating Maribeth, his wife of 51 years.
“John and I have been partners for many, many years, but in all the years that we’ve been together, there was not one ill word or one argument between us, never one disagreement, no fighting,” Dr. Timpone, struggling to control his emotions in a phone interview, said of his longtime friend and partner. “He was like an older brother to me and a damn good friend, and I’ll miss him terribly.”
Dr. Andresen, a first-generation American, was born to Norwegian parents July 7, 1941, in Goshen, N.Y. For a couple of years he attended a one-room schoolhouse in Mombasha Lake before moving to Wappingers Falls. While working at a dairy farm, he developed a love for being around animals. After receiving his undergraduate degree and doctorate of veterinary medicine from Cornell University in 1966, he was drawn to eastern Suffolk’s bucolic beauty and began his practice at Riverhead Animal Hospital. That was where he met his wife to be.
“We sort of hit it off, you know, because he was very quiet and I wasn’t, and that’s what he told me the day before he died,” Ms. Andresen said. “He said I was the yin to his yang. He was quiet and reserved and he said, ‘You’re not.’ It worked well.”
In 1999 Dr. Andresen came across a number of unusual neurological cases in horses on the East End. “The signs and symptoms varied a lot from neurological to personality changes in horses where they suddenly became frightened,” said Ms. Andresen, a retired nurse with a degree in public health. “It was very bizarre.”
Dr. Andresen thought opossums may have been responsible for the epidemic, but that wasn’t the case. Rabies was ruled out.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became involved. Ms. Andresen said a veterinarian from Plum Island and herself, dressed in white protective gear, conducted a postmortem on a horse. From the spinal cord, they elicited what they assumed to be St. Louis encephalitis. Instead, it turned out to be the first diagnosis of equine West Nile virus in North America, she said.
Dr. Andresen may be best known for his work with horses, but they were hardly the only species he tended to. Cows, pigs, goats and alpaca are among others. He even handled exotic animals, assisting the Long Island Game Farm in Manorville. “You don’t realize how big a tiger is until you’re next to it,” he told the Riverhead News-Review in 2016.
Mr. Boyd, who owned a saddle shop and had a barn in Riverhead for many years, remembered a trip he took with Dr. Andresen to the Long Island Game Farm. “We had to work with snakes one day, and I said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” recalled Mr. Boyd, who begged off that assignment.
Dr. Andresen carried on, though.
“John would do anything,” Ms. Andresen said. “Nothing was too frightening or too potentially dangerous. One time at the Game Farm, one of the chimps — and chimps can be very vicious — she reached through the bars and grabbed his belt and threw him — against the bars.”
The Andresens kept a virtual menagerie at their home with horses, goats, sheep, dogs and more. They even raised baby lions and bears.
“It was a life,” Ms. Andresen said. “Lions in the kitchen, screech owl on the porch.”
Another slice of Dr. Andresen’s life had absolutely nothing to do with animals — pole vaulting.
He pole vaulted in high school and for one year at Cornell before stopping to focus on his studies. Later, he became a volunteer pole vaulting coach for Riverhead High School’s boys and girls track and field teams for at least 35 years, according to Sal Loverde, who had coached in the program for some 30 years.
How did that start?
The story, as told by Ms. Andresen, goes like this: After not pole vaulting for years, Dr. Andresen was speaking to Riverhead athletes at a track practice when he was asked if he could pole vault. With that, Dr. Andresen, wearing boots, jeans and a jacket, grabbed a pole, ran down the runway and launched himself over the bar, the contents of his pockets falling to the ground as the stunned athletes watched. “They said, ‘Oh my God, he really can vault!’ And that was it,” said Ms. Andresen.
Dr. Andresen, himself an accomplished pole vaulter at the master’s level for his age group who pole vaulted as recently as last summer, was a major asset for the Blue Waves. Mr. Loverde said Dr. Andresen had pole vault covers and mats repaired at his own expense. “His generosity in time and talent and in monetary means was just unmatched by anybody I’ve ever seen in a voluntary measure regarding high school sports,” Mr. Loverde said. “I mean, he would go as far as buying specific poles for specific kids, and those poles are not cheap. He would pick kids up and take them to The Armory [in Manhattan] and back to make sure they were able to compete.
“His generosity is only second to his expertise in how he was able to build Riverhead pole vaulting into not only a county powerhouse, but a state powerhouse.”
Dr. Andresen, before his death, was in the process of constructing a fieldhouse on his farm so pole vaulters could practice there in inclement weather.
A celebration of Dr. Andresen’s life will be held at Foxglove Farm in Aquebogue Saturday at noon.
“He was a man of few words, but a lot of wisdom,” said Ms. Nickles.
Helmi Nagar, a longtime horse care worker, said Dr. Andresen “respected everybody in the business, never bad-mouthed anyone. He never knocked anybody down or bashed anybody. That’s the best man I’ve ever really known around the horse business.”
Ms. Nickles said: “To all of those who crossed paths with him at some point in our lifetime, we were the lucky ones — He was one in a million.”
Mr. Boyd called Dr. Andresen “my mentor, my sensei.” He said, “If you want to put somebody on a certain scale, he was on top of the Empire State Building.”
Perhaps a measure of Dr. Andresen’s impact can be seen in the amount of tears that have been shed over his loss.
“Yeah, it’s been rough, you know,” Ms. Nickles said. “I was crying this morning. It’s been a crazy three days. I can’t get him off my mind.”
She isn’t the only one.