Trading the high life for the good life
Weary but happy, former broker Steve Agoston '77 takes on life as a veterinarianan
Sometimes, a simple bet can have life-altering consequences. Steve Agoston '77 spent thirteen years on the Boston Stock Exchange, where money is king and many liberal values are meaningless. He was successful, as success is measured in that arena, but in over his head, he says. Years of deal making and the high life had left him rudderless, even crazy, he recalls. The day he sealed a $1-million dollar bet with a handshake and lost was the day he began his journey to a new life.
A New Yorker and son of Eastern European immigrants with considerable expectations of their children, Agoston understood early that becoming a doctor was one of the few ways he could fulfill his parents' dreams for him. So he majored in biology and, after a brief stint as a microbiologist in Tucson, Arizona, enrolled in the New England College of Optometry in Boston, Massachusetts.
But he quickly became disillusioned with the profession, especially by its retail and fashion thrust, and feared a career would mean joyless, repetitive work. At the same time, he had been working for a brokerage house at the city's stock exchange and was taken with its excitement and potential.
"The day after I received my doctor of optometry degree, I started work on the floor of the Boston Stock Exchange," he wrote to the College. "So I've joined the ranks of nonpracticing doctors."
Agoston bought his own seat on the exchange, with money borrowed from his father, and for the next decade worked at making Agoston Company a success. By most measures, he did. He had thirty-three people working for him and a slew of clients. But he was losing control of the process, he says. When he made the hand-shake bet and saw a cool million slip through his fingers, he realized he had lost his sense of balance. So, in 1991 he sold his company, bought a farm on Cape Cod, and for the next three years concentrated on wildlife rehabilitation and tuna fishing.
"Life is what you make of it, and I'm enjoying it immensely," reads a class note from those days. Orphaned rabbits, raccoons, skunks, songbirds, squirrels, and the occasional turkey found comfort on his farm, as did Agoston. The fulfillment he found working with animals propelled him to veterinary school.
"That was the best time of my life," he recalls of the three years he spent on St. Kitts in the Caribbean, where he was enrolled in the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his fellow students traveled through the archipelago caring for island animals as best they could. Primitive conditions forced the students to be creative in their approaches to healing, and Agoston enjoyed the challenge as well as the easy lifestyle.
For his internship, he headed to the University of Oklahoma's veterinary school and spent fourteen months caring for horses. Short of what he'd learned from the donkey he had owned on St. Kitts, he didn't know anything about horses except that "they were big and could kick me into another time zone," he deadpans. The experience underscored for him that his main interest is in small animals and wildlife, which is why he finds himself in Bethel, New York.
Agoston has set himself up in a country practice near the site of the infamous Woodstock festival. The only vet for a hundred miles, he maintains offices and surgery on the first three floors of a Victorian house that also serves as his residence. He sees a lot of the kinds of cases you'd expect in this part of the country: animals hit by cars, shot by hunters, or abused by their caretakers. But he also sees to the health of a few resident llamas, alpacas, and emus whose upscale owners--many of whom have fled Manhattan and urban northern New Jersey--harbor a taste for the offbeat.
Agoston offers a low-cost spaying and neutering clinic to a rural population not yet in tune with the importance of population control. He places animals with prisoners in the area's many correctional facilities and works with a group in Manhattan to place homeless city pets with caring owners in the country. And he works part time at the Monticello Raceway, keeping owners honest by checking to see that their horses haven't been doped as well as trying to bring the population of barn cats down to a manageable number.
"I work seven days a week," a weary Agoston says of the summer months. But he remains optimistic that his choices have been for the best. "I had seen enough hurt and done enough bad things that I wanted to atone," says Agoston of his past life. "I don't care if I have money or not, now. You don't live on money alone.
"I'm not saying it's the end-all or be-all," says the veterinarian of his practice. "But you go to sleep at night and you feel good about yourself."
Former vet Rachel Foreman `82 chooses another direction
Rachel Foreman '82 paints in an unheated studio overlooking a paper factory in the northwest corner of the world. She loves the solitude and privacy her artwork affords her. While the money is thin, the beauty she finds in an object's form and contours is enough to keep her going. For now.
Three years ago, Foreman was a veterinarian in Bellingham, Washington, working only with cats and becoming increasingly frustrated with the low pay and nerve-wracking schedule. While she says the profession had been something of a calling, screaming cats, invasive procedures she didn't believe in, and grueling emergency duty finally took their toll.
After a months-long bout with a stress-related illness she couldn't beat, Foreman resigned in 1997 and began to paint on a full-time basis. An art major at Kenyon, she had kept a studio during her days as a vet and looked forward to devoting all her energies to painting and printmaking.
"I just love forms," says Foreman one weekday in summer, between a meeting with a Seattle gallery owner and a music fair. She has been working with fruit, primarily, and she's completely engaged by the impermanence of even so still a life. "A seemingly simple arrangement of objects holds a complexity of contours and interactions," she notes in her artist's statement. "A still life changes even within one sitting. The final painted image is a mysterious amalgam of observation, memory, and knowledge."
She points to Pierre Bonnard and Giorgio Morandi as having influenced her work, as well as Robert Finnigan, a hermitic painter who became internationally recognized. "He reduced his subject matter and concentrated on it," she explains. "Most artwork today tends to scatter the eye all over the place. He really went his own way."
Recognition would be nice, but frankly, Foreman says, she is more focused on making ends meet. Like many artists, she dreads the marketing aspect of her work, and income is slow in coming. She sold a piece a few weeks ago, but it had been six months since the previous sale. She has shown in galleries and restaurants in Bellingham and Seattle, including the prestigious Lisa Harris gallery, but she says it's hard finding enough energy to paint and sell.
"It becomes a real struggle to preserve the peace of mind required to do the art work and the marketing, too," she says. Fortunately, her long-time partner, Dave Miller, an illustrator, is around to see she doesn't starve, and her parents have been supportive financially. "They trust me, that I'm motivated," she says. But it's tough at this late date to be relying on someone else for income; Foreman says she is "so happy" when she sells something.
These things take time, she says knowingly. But just in case, she's keeping her veterinary license current. Meantime, you can probably find her in the local green grocer, examining bananas and pears for their painterly potential. "I keep looking for that expressive bunch," she says.
Mieke Bomann, a former Kenyon news director, is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group. She is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Washington.
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