A Love for Dogs Inspires Endowed Chair in Canine Health

When associate professor Gillian McLellan goes to work each day, she is on the hunt for ways to eliminate or reduce the incidence of disabling and blinding eye diseases in companion animals.

A comparative ophthalmologist, McLellan studies glaucoma and other diseases affecting the retina and optic nerve. She combines compassionate veterinary medical care for individual animals with pioneering research to better understand the underlying pathology of eye diseases and advance new clinical applications that benefit both veterinary and human patients. Now she carries out this work in the name of Tim and Nancy Speaker.

Associate professor Gillian McLellan completes an eye exam of a golden retriever at Badgerland Kennel Club
Associate professor Gillian McLellan completes an eye exam of a golden retriever at Badgerland Kennel Club, where she and other SVM faculty checked dogs for signs of inherited diseases.

This spring, the Speakers established the Tim and Nancy Speaker Chair in Canine Health at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. This five-year award distributes grant funds annually to a faculty member whose research includes a specific focus on improving canine health and wellbeing.

Lifelong animal lovers, Tim and Nancy have supported the school for 10 years through the Speaker Family Foundation. But when they visited the SVM and its teaching hospital two winters ago, they were “blown away” and began looking for opportunities to contribute further.

“Once I got a tour of the veterinary school and saw what they did for animals and the community, I was impressed,” says Nancy. “I wanted to do more,” adds Tim. “I feel very strongly about animal health and welfare.”

In particular, the couple was inspired — and in some ways surprised — by the school’s breadth. While aware of the SVM’s role in training future veterinarians and treating animal patients, they weren’t as familiar with other aspects of the school’s programming, including an outreach initiative to provide veterinary medical care for homeless and low-income pet owners in Dane County (WisCARES), and researchers’ efforts to advance vaccines and treatments against infectious diseases like influenza and COVID-19. “Those are things that I didn’t know when I started giving,” says Tim. “It’s been really interesting to learn about the veterinary school, what they do, and how they do it.”

In February, the Speakers saw a perfect chance to enhance their giving when UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge announced a one-for-one gift matching opportunity aimed at helping UW–Madison recruit and retain world-class faculty. The Morgridge Match is available to donors wishing to establish or enhance endowed faculty awards.

Speaker family dogs
The Speaker family dogs, Auggie (left) and Willie, enjoy an excursion.

“That was the real catalyst,” said Tim and Nancy, noting that because their gift was doubled the chair was fully funded sooner than would have otherwise been possible.

In July, McLellan was named the inaugural recipient, an appointment that will extend through June 2025. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank the Speakers for their tremendous generosity in support of our research program,” she says.

At their home in Mequon, Wisconsin, Tim and Nancy’s two dogs remind them daily of the special bond shared with pets and what drives their support of canine health research. Willie, a 9-year-old Goldendoodle, “is the smartest dog I think I’ve ever had,” says Tim. Auggie, a 1-year-old Comfort Retriever, is more mischievous — “he’s like a naughty little brother,” says Nancy.

The couple’s four children, now grown, share a love for dogs. Throughout the children’s youth, two golden retrievers, Maggie and Ruby, provided constant companionship. Maggie, in particular, “was the gentlest golden retriever,” notes Tim. “Our oldest son would climb on her and she wouldn’t do anything. When he cried, she cried, or howled I should say.”

This kinship motivates the Speakers’ contributions to the School of Veterinary Medicine and efforts to help animals live longer, healthier lives.

“It’s my passion,” says Tim. “That’s how we got started and why we will continue.”

Meghan Lepisto

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