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Obituary of Suzanne Saueressig Riegel: Humane Society chief of veterinary staff for decades

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2013 - Dr. Suzanne Saueressig Riegel, who died Friday, led the Humane Society of Missouri's veterinary services for 32 of her 55 years with the organization. In doing so, she transformed an understaffed, underequipped animal shelter with a two-room “hothouse” for offices, into one of the largest veterinarian medical centers in the Midwest.

After graduating from veterinary college in Germany, Dr. Saueressig (as she is known professionally) arrived in St. Louis with plans to spend a year learning American veterinarian methods.

When she died Feb. 8, 2013, at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights, she had been here for nearly six decades. She was 89.

Dr. Saueressig had become increasingly frail in recent months, said her great-niece, Maria Shank of St. Louis. She relinquished her role as chief of veterinary services, but not her title of simply “Chief” in 1997, and continued her practice at the Humane Society until she broke her tailbone about three years ago.

“Not working was a hard process for her to accept,” Shank said.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated Friday at Little Flower Catholic Church.

When she began at the Humane Society, she was believed to be the first and only female veterinarian in the state of Missouri.

“Chief was truly an amazing woman; one of those people who was just larger than life,” said Jan Chipperfield, a veterinarian, whom Dr. Saueressig mentored and who will be eulogizing her. “She never looked at the clock.”

‘All I ever wanted’

Kathy Warnick, president of the Humane Society of Missouri, credited Dr. Saueressig for helping more than a million animals during her career.

“The animal world has lost one of its most dedicated and tenacious advocates,” Warnick said. “Her heartfelt mentoring of veterinary students and staff won her legions of loyal supporters as well as new advocates for the cause of improving the lives of animals.”

Animals were her first friends.

“As a child, I never dressed dolls, only cats and dogs,” Dr. Saueressig told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1994. “I could never have been an M.D.”

She was for a time, however, a nurse.

Her high school nursing courses made her an attractive conscript for the German army nursing corps during World War II. Following the war, she spent a year as a prisoner nursing German soldiers during the American occupation.

The unfortunate beginning eventually led to her acceptance to the University of Munich Veterinary College. 

“It was hard to get in,” she recalled before her 50th anniversary celebration at the Humane Society in 2005. “They gave preference to the war veterans. Fortunately, I was one.”

In 1996, she told the Post-Dispatch that her very ‘proper’ German family, who spoke only French at the dinner table, was less than enamored about her choice to become a vet. She was undeterred.

"It's all I ever wanted to be, and it's what I am,” she said she told her family, noting they were relieved that at least she no longer harbored fantasies of running away to join the circus.

‘Chief’

Dr. Saueressig graduated from the University of Munich Veterinary College in 1953, the only woman in a class of 90. She completed her doctoral dissertation magna cum laude in 1954.

In 1955, she sought hands-on training in the U.S. and found her way to the Humane Society. It was fledgling organization then with an inadequate facility, just two veterinarians – only one full-time – and a staff made up primarily of rotating interns.

By 1965, she was chief of staff in charge of all veterinary medical services. For the next 32 years, she was the driving force behind the Humane Society’s rebuilding and expansion into a first-class veterinarian medical center with satellites in the Westport and Chesterfield Valley areas.

It became second only in size to the clinic at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“Chief spent her evenings drawing plans for expanding the hospital and adding modern surgery facilities,” Chipperfield said in a 2005 article. “With (her) dogged persistence, the hospital grew, talented veterinarians came to stay and the clients poured in.”

Under Dr. Saueressig’s leadership, the animal patient load grew to some 80,000 annually and surgical procedures topped 17,000. She was a strong proponent of spaying and neutering pets and mounted an aggressive public awareness campaign at the clinic and in her weekly St. Louis Globe-Democrat Ask the Pet Doctor column, which ran from 1979 to 1985.

"I sometimes think there isn't a dog in St. Louis I haven't seen,” she told the Post-Dispatch in 1996. “There were so many animals and not enough time."

Dr. Saueressig was named the 1971 national "Woman Veterinarian of the Year" by the Women's Veterinary Medical Association. In 1983, she was inducted into the YWCA Metro St. Louis Academy of Leaders.

A walk in the park

Suzanne Saueressing, who held her veterinary license until 2011, was born Feb. 4, 1925, in Nuremberg, Germany. A year after coming to the U.S., she carved out a little time from her busy schedule to marry Richard Thomas Riegel, also a veterinarian. He had been one of her interns in the early days.

Recalling her wedding day, she said: "On Tuesday, I took the afternoon off. My husband, the dog and I went to the park for a walk."

She is survived by her husband of 57 years; they had no children. Her parents, two brothers and a sister preceded her in death.

The family will receive friends from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, in the Great Hall of Ambruster Chapel, 6633 Clayton Road, Clayton, Mo. The funeral Mass will begin at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at Little Flower Catholic Church, 1264 Arch Terrace, Richmond Heights. Interment will be at Resurrection Cemetery.

Memorials would be appreciated to the Cinderella Fund, Humane Society of Missouri, 1201 Macklind Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

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