03/13/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
JAMES ALFRED WIGHT FIRST SAW Thirsk, a sleepy little market town in Yorkshire, England, on a summer day in 1940, the year after he had graduated from veterinary college. "Thirsk is beautifully scented in summer," he recalled a half-century later. "I never wanted anything else." Other than for wartime service, Wight never left. He married a local woman, Joan Danbury, now 75, and ministered to the animals on nearby farms. On Feb. 23, at age 78, he died of prostate cancer.
His life was exemplary but unremarkable—except for one thing: Wight, using the pen name James Herriot, liked writing stories about rural life in Yorkshire. In 1972 a collection of his works, All Creatures Great and Small, became an instant classic; his books, 18 in all, sold 60 million copies worldwide and inspired two movies and a TV series. Yet, despite the success, Her-riot/Wight continued to practice until he retired at age 72. "I'm just a vet whose hobby happens to be writing," he said. "And I write in my spare time."
Raised in Glasgow, the only child of a movie-theater pianist and an amateur opera singer, Wight had expected to be a city vet, but the only job he could find was in Donald Sinclair's practice in Thirsk—which he called Darrowby in his stories.
In the late 1960s, when Wight was already past 50, Joan challenged him to submit his many stories to a publisher. Eventually autograph-seekers, most of them American, outnumbered patients in his waiting room.
Wight's response to his newfound wealth was to move his wife and two children, James, now 52 and a vet, and Rosemary, 46, who is an M.D. in general practice, from a small apartment over his veterinary office to a bungalow overlooking a duck pond. Otherwise, success seemed to have little effect on his daily routine. "If a farmer has a sick cow," he said, "they don't want Charles Dickens turning up; they want a good vet. And that's what I've tried to be."