BEULAH — Geraldine Thornell used to be just one of the gang who meet for lunch every day at the local senior center. Now she’s practically a celebrity.
Thornell is the mother of veterinarian Dee Thornell, star of the new Animal Planet show “Dr. Dee: Alaska Vet.” The reality series follows the healer as she works with animals at her Animal House Veterinary Hospital in Fairbanks, Alaska, and in more remote areas of the state.
The show debuted Nov. 7 but trailers for it began appearing on the Animal Planet channel weeks before. Now word is beginning to spread around the small community where Thornell grew up about the local girl-made-good.
“People say, ‘Hey, I saw your daughter,’” said Geraldine Thornell, 89, of Beulah. “I hear this every day when I go out for lunch at the Gathering Place. Today they all asked me, ‘Are you gonna watch? Are you gonna watch?’ They’re all excited, too.”
Jim Sheets read about the show in a Record-Eagle wire story and switched channels mid-Saturday night football in order to watch the first episode. The Benzonia Township Supervisor taught Thornell in his Michigan and U.S. history classes at Benzie Central High School, where he also coached.
“She was a good student and a good athlete, a good hurdler,” said Sheets, of Benzonia, who cut out the story to pin on the bulletin board of the church he and Geraldine Thornell attend.
The Thornells moved to Beulah from Kalamazoo in 1968 to operate first one, then two motels. Eventually the family — Dee is the youngest of four siblings, including a brother who died in Vietnam — moved to the 40-acre farm where Geraldine Thornell still lives.
“The reason Dad bought the farm was so that he could give Dee her first horse,” said Dee’s sister, Pam Thornell, of Traverse City. “His name was Tuffy. He’s still buried there. That’s why Dee never wants to sell the farm.”
The future veterinarian made a name for herself in the small community as an A-student, high school student council president and originator of the first school store, which sold candy bars and school supplies to earn money for homecoming and library carpet.
She also barrel-raced, groomed animals, worked at the Graceland Fruit Cooperative processing plant and the Hungry Tummy restaurant and put in 20 hours a week with former Benzonia veterinarian Russell Wagner to help get into vet school.
“I wanted to be a racecourse vet when I got out of school but it turned out it wasn’t for me,” said Thornell, who graduated at the top of her class and got a four-year ride to Michigan State University, where she finished her studies at the College of Veterinary Medicine at just 22.
Instead she followed a boyfriend to Alaska in 1982 and ended up staying, even after he left.
She started a mobile veterinary practice and treated everything from farm and domestic animals to wildlife, including reindeer, moose and beaver. Eventually she moved her practice to a feed store complete with chickens.
Now she runs one of Alaska’s most advanced veterinary clinics — a 13,000-square-feet former large-equipment warehouse she remodeled herself — with a team of 15 employees. The business includes a Montessori dog training school, a laundry, groomer, retail store and the latest addition, a crematorium.
“Sometimes I’d call her and she’d have the phone on her shoulder while doing a spay,” said friend Andy Wagner, a Benzonia Realtor and son of Thornell’s earlier mentor. “She’s always working. Part of the thing she liked about being a vet was having a common sense about what’s going on with the animal. She’s more of the old school. She can look at an animal and figure out what’s going on.”
The premiere episode of “Dr. Dee: Alaska Vet” follows Thornell as she embarks on her first cross country flight as a new pilot to treat animals in the Arctic Circle and cares for an aging border collie and a disabled Siberian husky.
Upcoming episodes show her checking the health of a black bear who woke up out of hibernation, fighting to deliver a calf in trouble on one of the state’s largest cattle ranches and flying to a remote village for a marathon spay and neuter clinic at a laundromat.
“I’ve learned over 33 years in Alaska where the limits are,” said Thornell. “We do the best we can with what you’ve got.”
Thornell said the bulk of the show was taped last March through June, but crew came back twice this fall for more footage.
“I got notified in August after six episodes that they wanted two more,” she said. “If the public likes it, then hallelujah.”
Thornell isn’t a celebrity in her own community yet despite her growing notoriety.
“About 75 percent of the people I work with, my clients, don’t watch TV,” said the vet, who plans to record each episode for weekly community watching parties at a local restaurant. “The Alaskan spirit is most people would rather be out doing something so they don’t spend $75 or $80 a month for online stuff.”
Geraldine Thornell isn’t surprised to find her daughter at the center of a TV series. The woman who heals animals and flies her own plane also hunts, gardens, writes stories and screenplays, and helped build the log homestead she shares with husband Ken and several animals including two Holland-bred Friesian horses. She was also Ms. Alaska in 1996 and a 1995 body-building couples champion.
“Dee Dee’s been a very active young lady,” Geraldine Thornell said. “I was never interested in so many things and just dove into it. She always shocked the heck out of me.”
“Dr. Dee: Alaska Vet” airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. and repeats Sundays and Mondays.