The line of physicians in the Kenagy-Vance family stretches across states, continents and generations. For centuries, these medical men have guided the health of communities from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to Idaho and beyond.
And most of their skills were acquired in the same place – the University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM). Four generations of the family received their MDs here. Dr. John Brough (JB) Kenagy started it all when he graduated from the SOM – located in Boulder then – in 1906.
The family’s next two physicians – Drs. Fayre H. Kenagy (class of 1920) and J. Corwin (Corky) Vance (class of 1971) – attended the medical school in Boulder and then the CU Health Sciences Center in Denver. Corky’s father, Edward Pershing Vance, who married Barbara Eloise Kenagy, took a different path: He enjoyed a successful career in natural resource stewardship in the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Karl Kenagy Vance, son of Corky and Karen Vance, extended the family’s black-and-gold legacy into the 21st century by attending medical school at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus from 2005 to 2009.
Karl applied to about 10 medical schools, but chose CU. “The combination of the high-quality education at the medical school and the lifestyle of being in Colorado factored in,” says the avid cyclist and skier. “Also, it was something I thought would be cool – that I would be the fourth generation of my family to go to the CU School of Medicine.”
The family history of physicians goes back to Bern, Switzerland, where Corky’s sixth great grandfather, Hans Gnage, practiced medicine before fleeing the country over religious persecution of Mennonites. “Family legend has him seeing a patient when the police came to arrest him for draft evasion,” Corky says. “His wife had the policeman sit down to wait for him and offered food and drink, but then sent their son to tell his father to leave the country instead of coming home. His family joined him later.”
Hans arrived in Pennsylvania in 1742 and joined the Amish community, where he resumed work as a physician. It would be several generations later when JB Kenagy, born and raised in a Mennonite community in Ohio, would leave his career as an educator and move from Gunnison to Boulder. After graduating from CU medical school in 1906 he moved to Rupert, Idaho, to practice internal medicine.
His son, Fayre Kenagy, aspired to become a doctor just like his father. He was drafted into World War I but received a deferment to finish his medical degree.
Keeping the CU tradition going
It was Fayre who delivered J. Corwin Vance in August 1945, starting a lifelong bond with the boy who went by the nickname Corky. “I was in awe of my grandfather and wanted to follow in his footsteps. I therefore also attended the CU medical school,” Corky says. “When Karl was born, we named him Karl Kenagy Vance, after his grandfather. He later decided to attend the CU medical school as well, having heard how great it was.”
The elder Dr. Vance is now retired, but Karl worked with his father during the final year of his practice in Minneapolis. Karl now works with several of Corky’s longtime staff members, though in a different dermatology practice. The Twin Cities are a fitting home for the Vances as twin interests abound in father and son, including a shared love of fine food and wine. When they aren’t pursuing culinary interests, you can find Corky and Karl on their bicycles or in planes traveling the world. Sometimes they’re globetrotting and cycling – as they did on a recent family trip to Italy.
Incidentally, they both met their wives while attending the CU medical school. Corky met Karen while she was a lab technician, and Karl hit it off with Pamela while out on the town with classmates.
Just as Corky was inspired to pursue medicine by his grandfather, Karl looked up to his father, who became the first dermatologist in the Twin Cities to perform Mohs surgery – a micrographic procedure that removes skin cancers. “He found it rewarding. Growing up around medicine, you get an understanding of the process, the responsibilities and the ups and downs of it,” Karl says. “Mostly, it’s a fulfilling career because it’s a daily opportunity to help people.”
Camaraderie with CU classmates
Excellence in clinical care
“If you want to get clinically grounded, the CU School of Medicine is as good as any,” says Dr. Corky Vance, who attended the SOM from 1967 to 1971. “I got to see acute and emergency care at Denver General, and at University Hospital I got to see the rare cases you heard about from your professors. We also went out to the Fitzsimons Army Hospital (as it was known then) and saw cases and procedures that you were going to see in your own practice. There was a real advantage to having that much exposure to clinical practice.”
The retired physician says the SOM is even better since moving to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. “Having everything together – with the hospitals on campus, as well as the VA – it really makes it even easier to get clinical exposure.”
Unlike the camaraderie he enjoyed at CU Anschutz, Karl struggled to connect with his pre-med classmates as an undergraduate at Stanford University. But he excelled in chemical engineering, and it wasn’t long before he connected that discipline to his burgeoning interest in wine. After graduating from Stanford, he became an assistant wine maker in Northern California and Australia. A few years later, however, he realized that winemaking couldn’t quite match the fulfillment of medicine.
At CU Anschutz, Karl loved his classmates – “It was hard to find people who weren’t into skiing and biking,” he says. And he was influenced by Dr. J. Ramsey Mellette, the faculty member who trained him on Mohs surgery. Back in the 1970s when Corky first performed Mohs, it was a new and innovative procedure. “Now, this procedure is pretty widespread,” Karl says. “I like it because of the precision in which we take the cancer out, and I enjoy the creativity involved in the reconstruction (of the tissue).”
Mohs is usually performed on a patient’s face, so the reconstruction of the skin requires utmost precision to minimize scarring.
Finding a mentor in the SOM
Corky was inspired to pursue dermatology by Dr. Robert Goltz, who in the late 1960s served as head of the Dermatology Department in the medical school. Corky so enjoyed Goltz’s teaching that he took the professor’s early-morning class on public health. “Dr. Goltz noticed that I was a hard worker, that I liked dermatology and was good at it,” Corky says. “I was good at visual learning, and that’s why dermatology appealed to me. You have to be able to memorize what rashes and other conditions on the skin look like.”
Goltz proved to be the catalyst for Corky’s career in Minnesota. Goltz, who had just accepted a job as chair of dermatology at the University of Minnesota, suggested Corky pursue his residency in the Land of Lakes.
Now, as Corky and Karen settle into retirement, they watch their progeny carry on the Kenagy-Vance caregiver tradition. Karl has established his own thriving practice in Minneapolis, while his sister Chardonnay, who attended medical school at Wake Forest University, is a family practice doctor. The life in medicine has made for a full, satisfying ride for the elder Vances – and a lasting family legacy that’s anchored in CU’s SOM.
“The most important thing is your job,” Corky says. “If you have a miserable job, you’ll be miserable wherever you are. If you have a rewarding job – as we are lucky enough to have – you’ll be happy.”