Fargo woman spent 26 days in Antarctica, was first female in N.D. accepted into veterinary school

Joann Colville, of Fargo, North Dakota, always wanted to be a farmer. Not a farmer’s wife, but an actual farmer. Instead, she became the first woman in North Dakota to be accepted into veterinary school and to become a veterinarian. That path would lead her to meet her husband, Tom Colville, and together, they would develop the Veterinary Technology Program at North Dakota State University. Then, Joann would take her greatest adventure and visit not only once but twice the coldest, windiest, driest continent on the planet, Antarctica.

Joann and Tom Colville, of Fargo, during her return trip of Antarctica in 2017. Contributed photo

This tale began in LaMoure, a small southeastern town in North Dakota (about 1,000 population). Back in the ’60s, LaMoure housed one movie theater, one bank and three bars, and was the county seat.  George Kaftan (Joann’s father) had settled his family there. His plan was to farm, raise Angus beef cattle and pigs, while also producing grain for feed and to sell. But Gayle, George’s  wife, refused to live on a farm, so they bought a house in town, and George traveled back and forth to the farm to work. This farm business was a  corporation with four other North Dakotans, where George was the manager who hired people to live and work on the farm. There were three girls in the Kaftan family; Joann, the middle child,was the tomboy.

George was not your ordinary North Dakota farmer back in the ’50s and  ’60s as he was a progressive thinker and went to college for farm management.  He was the first one in his family to take this business seriously. He was always reading about something new and trying out new ways of animal husbandry. Everything he did was based upon something he had read or learned, which made him a very successful farmer.

Joann adored her father and the farm. Any chance she could she would try and get out there to be the with animals, bale hay, haul grain, or whatever chores needed to be done. She remembered a time when the hired man and his family went on vacation, and she got to live on the farm for two weeks. She would get up early and take care of the pigs, hauling water in two five-gallon buckets. She got to help bale hay and said she can remember lifting a 40-pound bale, no problem. Her dream was to be a farmer, but back then, she couldn’t even show her favorite cow in 4-H. Instead, she had to join the girls 4-H and learn how to sew, cook and garden. She said she doesn’t regret learning these home improvement skills but would have preferred working with the animals.

Penguins entering water. Photo by Joann Colville

She found her first love at age 16… an albino quarter horse named Silver (named after Roy Rogers’ horse). He was a tall, beautiful horse, from excellent stock, bred to be a race horse. Her dad found him at the sale barn, and because of his albino condition,  they were selling him for dog food. He bought him for $100. Between Joann and her dad they worked with Silver and broke him to ride. Silver was a very intelligent horse and could sense who was on his back, acting gentler for young children than for Joann or her dad. Joann recalled  “I remember riding him fast. It felt like I was flying, when on his back.” She also remembered other antics, like standing up on his saddle and pretending she was in a circus. Silver was moved to a pasture closer to their house in town and lived to be in his ’30s.  Later, the family got more horses and a horse trailer that held four horses. They would join up with others and take family vacations to the North Dakota Badlands. Another family adventure later in life took them on the wagon train across the North Dakota prairie.

Joann graduated from high school in LaMoure excelling in the math and science track. Her father insisted that she would go to college as he had with her sisters. He would pay for it, but they must finish. Since she couldn’t be a farmer but loved science and math she decided to go to veterinary school and was accepted into the preveterinary program at NDSU. She was the first women in North Dakota to be accepted into veterinary school.  She attended the University of Minnesota in St. Paul where they were over 60 men and five women in her class (class of 1971).

Leopard seal and pup in Antarctica. Photo by Joann Colville

Being outnumbered, Joann and the other girls in the class had their pick of eligible bachelors. There was a young man Joann had her eye on, so during the dissection lab she decided to flirt with him and threw a hunk of dog muscle at him. Unfortunately, or fortunately as Joann said, it hit the wrong guy, the guy who later became her husband, Tom Colville. They started out studying together and later became lab partners. It didn’t hurt either that Tom had a 1967 Barracuda hatchback. The couple later married one quarter before they both graduated from veterinary school.

They moved to New Orleans for 18 months for their first jobs out of college.  Then, Tom accepted a position in Virginia (near his family), and they lived there from 1972-1976. During this time, Joann became a stay-at-home Mom after giving birth to their one son, Jeff. After two years as a homemaker, Joann became restless and started looking for veterinary jobs. She found an ad from North Dakota State University where they were looking for two veterinarians to develop a Veterinary Technology Program for the university from the bottom up. Though neither she nor Tom had taught before they decided to apply and were accepted to take on this new challenge. They started the program at NDSU from nothing, beginning by researching programs from California and other places. They wrote textbooks, editing and writing eight between the two of them. They worked together at NDSU from 1976 to 1993 getting paid the same wages and getting tenure at the same time, which Joann appreciated.

In 1993, Joann decided she needed a change of pace and decided to go back to college and get a degree in graphic design and art. She did her internship at Great Plains software and later did some work for them as part of her own business. She retired at age 62 to pursue her interests of traveling, sculpting, painting and writing. That was where her greatest adventure began.

In 2015, when Joann was 68 years old, she was leafing through some travel flyers and noticed one for a trip to Antarctica. Some invisible force drew her, and she felt she had to go. Tom said “Why do you want to go someplace cold? We live in North Dakota?” But nothing could distract her. She was going. This trip was an all inclusive 26 day cruise sponsored by National Geographic which started and ended in Ushuaia, Argentina, and included the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Her roommate was from Oregon and they got along perfectly, even though they had never before met.

Some of the sights from Antarctica included elephant seals and penguins. Photo by Joann Colville

Now, because of their smaller size and ecological consciousness, National Geographic ships can go places other ships can’t.  These were educational trips where you not only saw but learned about the animals and places you visited with lectures from experts. They explored the shore and animals during the day and went back to the boat to learn, eat and sleep.  She remembered they saw fin whales, who actually played with their boat. They swam in and out and watched them for an entire hour. She saw elephant seals as big as horses fighting for dominance in a harem. She saw penguins, penguins and more penguins including  an emperor penguins, along with many adelie, gentoo, macaroni, rockhopper, and king penguins. She said the  penguins and other animals have no fear of humans, and most of the time you can go right up to them.

On this particular tour in 2015 the boat followed the path of Ernest Shackleton as a 100- year anniversary of his final voyage. According to BBC History: “In 1914, Shackleton made his third trip to the Antarctic with the ship Endurance, planning to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. Early in 1915, Endurance became trapped in the ice, and ten months later sank. Shackleton’s crew had already abandoned the ship to live on the floating ice. In April 1916, they set off in three small boats, eventually reaching Elephant Island. Taking five crew members, Shackleton went to find help. In a small boat, the six men spent 16 days crossing 1,300 km of ocean to reach South Georgia and then trekked across the island to a whaling station. The remaining men from the ‘Endurance’ were rescued in August 1916. Not one member of the expedition died. South, Shackleton’s account of the Endurance expedition, was published in 1919.”

After returning home from her first trip, Joann was hooked. She took tons of pictures and convinced Tom that this was a great adventure. She explained that in November the temperature ranges between 40 degrees and zero depending on how far south you are. So Joann made a return trip with Tom in  2017. Joann said “people go to Antarctica the first time to see the animals, but go back for the scenery.”

Taking photo of a penguin. Photo by Joann Colville

The first time Joann saw a dead penguin she said she was a bit devastated, but eventually, you get used to it and understand that it is just the way life. On one special outing she explained:  “We got up at 4:30 am in South Georgia and climbed aboard a Zodiac (inflatable raft) to go to shore to see the sun come over the mountain. It was called the golden hour. We could hear the noisy penguins and seals before we arrived. There were fur seals, elephant seals and penguins. It was only a half hour, but as the sun rose, everything was golden.”  Everyone on the cruise was given an orange parka to make it easier to keep track of each other. The group named themselves the orange-breasted penguin peepers.

As many daring adventure types, Joann is not done with her trips to Antarctica. She and Tom have plans to return in 2020 on another trip with National Geographic. In the meantime, this couple stays busy. Tom has adventures of his own being the veterinarian at the Red River Zoo in Fargo, where he has learned how to care for all the different species of animals that live there, which is not something they taught in veterinary school. Joann keeps busy with her art classes and writing group. She has found that writing is another one of her passions.