NEW LONDON — Whether he’s been leading tomorrow’s vet techs through their studies or helping a Boy Scout achieve his dream of reaching Eagle Scout, Dr. Allen Balay has never done anything for his own recognition. He does it because he is passionate about it and because he firmly believes that young people are the future.
“We really want to make a difference in the lives of young people,” Balay said of himself and his wife, Claudia, who are co-owners of the New London Equestrian Centre. Balay also served as director of the veterinary technology program at Ridgewater College from 1995 until 2020, when he retired.
Many of those whom Balay has mentored, taught and helped over the years wanted to make sure he was honored for all the hard work and time he had given in service to Scouts, Vet Techs and the community in together for almost three decades.
Earlier this winter, in about a week, Balay received the Silver Beaver from Northern Star Scouting, the council serving central Minnesota, and was named Vet of the Year by the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association.
“I’m proud of what I do and I’m blown away by the people who nominated me for these awards,” Balay said. “I was completely surprised by both.”
For the love of horses and veterinary technicians
Balay grew up surrounded by horses. From some of his early days he loved the animal. His family bred and showed Appaloosas, and Balay and his sister played a big role in their care.
“They’re just part of me,” Balay said.
This love also probably contributed greatly to what he became: a veterinarian. It also helped that he had someone to learn from.
“Our family vet at the time did everything,” said Balay, who started working for the man when he was 16. “He really became an important mentor to me.”
Balay, a Michigan native, attended Michigan State University and opened his own veterinary practice, while teaching on the side. By the early 1990s, Balay had married Claudia and welcomed a son, Scott. The couple decided a change was in order.
“We were already talking, we wanted to see him (their son) grow up,” and that’s hard to do when you’re a vet on call, Balay said.
In 1995, the Balay family, including a horse and a pony, moved to Kandiyohi County so Balay could take over Ridgewater’s veterinary technology program. He would hold this position for 25 years. Although he officially retired in June 2020, Balay worked limited part-time for the college, helping out when needed.
“When I got there, there were about 45 to 50 students there,” Balay said. “Now it averages about 100 to 120 students,” and it’s the second-largest veterinary technology program in the state.
Most recently, Balay served as chair of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Technician Certification Committee. The goal is to create a state license for veterinary technicians, which the state does not currently require. Balay and the committee are pushing the state legislature to pass the bill and met with state lawmakers this year.
“It could take us a few years,” said Balay, who is cautiously optimistic that the bill will pass. “I want to go all the way. It’s the right thing to do.”
A veterinary technician is trained in a variety of skill areas, such as surgical nursing, anesthesia, laboratory, x-rays, patient care, and pharmacology. The only things a vet tech can’t do are diagnose, prescribe medications, and perform surgery.
“They serve everything behind the scenes,” Balay said.
Balay thinks a state license should be required — not because state vet techs aren’t good, but because they are. He also hopes it could mean better pay, longer careers and better appreciation for technicians.
“I think they deserve recognition for all their hard work to go to school and pass the national exam, a very difficult exam,” Balay said. “Being able to do all this work and only have a voluntary degree feels disrespectful to me. They deserve recognition.”
It was this work, in addition to his decades as a veterinarian and instructor, that earned him his nomination as Vet of the Year.
Helping Scouts reach new heights
It was his son, Scott, who brought Balay into the Boy Scout family. When Scott joined the Cubs, it was mostly Claudia who helped out. But when Scott joined the Boy Scouts, it was Balay’s turn to step in.
He soon became a scout leader for a troop in New London, serving for 10 years. But even after his son left the program, Balay continued to serve as an assistant scout master with a specific task – Eagle Scout adviser.
“I work with the older boys who are trying to complete the requirements to become an Eagle Scout,” said Balay, who estimates he’s mentored more than 40 such scouts.
Balay supports Scouts because Scouting provides young people with opportunities to explore and get out.
“It allows kids to participate in activities that aren’t just sitting in front of their phone or on their computer,” Balay said. “There’s the word ‘out’ in scout. We want scouts to go out, camping, hiking, canoeing.”
The Silver Beaver is a Distinguished Service Award given to adult volunteers in Scouting who have had a significant impact on the lives of young people through service to Scouting and the community. This is the highest level of recognition the local council can bestow on a volunteer.
“I’m very humbled,” Balay said.
A second attempt at retirement
In addition to his work with Ridgewater, the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, and the limited veterinary work he still does, Balay also helps Claudia run the New London Equestrian Center. They own the facility with Dr. Rick and Nancy Wehseler and purchased it in 2018. In addition to the owners’ five horses, another 10 horses are boarded at the facility.
“We have more requests for boarders than space,” Balay said.
Claudia Balay also teaches private horseback riding lessons and the couple helps 4-H members. Balay also lectures on veterinary work and animal care.
“We focus on children,” Balay said. “We wanted to focus on young drivers.”
Although technically Balay has been retired for almost two years, he admits he hasn’t been very good at it. He hopes to slow down some of them, his work with Ridgewater having to end. It is also possible that the Balays will sell their share of the equine center within the next two years. The couple love to travel, but it’s hard if a barn full of horses is relying on you for care.
Despite his de facto retirement, Balay remains passionate about horses and youth. He was more than willing to give of his time and of himself to these activities and does not regret it.
“I’m failing to retire,” Balay said. “I’m not very good at sitting still anyway.”