CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the thousands of students and staff, 2017 marks the 150th year of the University of Illinois.
For Gary Letterly, an alumnus and Extension educator, it also marks his retirement year. For former university president Robert Easter it is another reason to celebrate the institution he loves so much.
As part of the kickoff to 15 months of sesquicentennial celebration, chancellor Robert Jones said the university was among the original 37 public land-grant universities established by the Morrill Act of 1862.
“To me, that legislation ranks among the most optimistic expressions and realizations of the potential of higher education in our history,” Jones said.
The act was passed in the midst of the Civil War.
“It came at a point when there was good reason to doubt the very survival of the union. From one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, we get the beginning of a new kind of university. Five years later, exactly 150 years ago, we officially claimed our place in that history,” he said.
The birthday gives the university a chance to celebrate its pioneers in agricultural research, plastic innovations, computer and internet development and medical and social advancements over a century and a half.
“We have changed to meet the needs of each generation,” Jones said.
Faces of Illinois ag
Letterly has seen some of those changes as an Extension educator in environmental stewardship based in Taylorville. Letterly, who plans to retire in May, graduated with a degree in crop sciences in 1978 and has been an Extension educator for 25 years.
He says he remembers having a lot of fun as a student during an interesting time. He also recalls a number of professors who had a big impact on his life and on agriculture overall.
Professor Ted Peck, a leader of the Field and Furrow Agronomy Club, inspired him.
“He was insightful and inspirational and a pioneer in nitrogen recommendations in crop production,” Letterly said.
Some of his nitrogen recommendations are used today in the era of the Illinois Nutrient Reduction Loss Strategy that promotes N efficiency for both profit and the environment, he said.
“He was ahead of his time with soil fertility,” Letterly said.
Darrell Miller, a forages professor, had an impact on the re-discovered art of cover cropping today.
Marshal McGlamery, a weed specialist with Extension for 35 years, provided farmers with information as herbicides became part of modern farming.
“He was one of the go-to-people about performance and what to use, or not, to use in a certain way,” Letterly said. He also had an understanding of pesticide use and brought about safety training for restricted use products.
McGlamery was creative in getting students’ attention. He even stood on his head once after losing a bet, “and had a good laugh about it,” Letterly recalled.
Letterly calls another agronomy professor, A.W. (Ambrose) Burger, a “frustrated comedian.” He was a knowledgeable icon of crop sciences in the 1960s through to the ’80s who would tell a “slightly off-color” joke to get his point across.
Construction and renovations were abundant during Letterly’s time on campus. He recalls the “smells and sounds” of tar being used to fix the flat roofs. The smell permeated his memories.
He also speaks highly of the Dudley Smith initiatives. He said the fieldwork done with intensive grazing of livestock and water research has had significant impact.
Changing industry, changing school
Easter, who was university president from 2012 to 2015, is helping keep memories alive by going through his and others’ photos and files for the school’s archives. As part of his job as president emeritus, Easter is currently filtering through swine research from the 1940s to the 1980s.
The Texas native arrived at the university in 1973 as a doctoral student.
“I’ve been here almost one-third of the university’s history. That’s scary,” he said with a chuckle.
After finishing his doctorate in animal science, he joined the faculty in 1976 and eventually worked his way to the top job by way of department head, dean, interim provost, interim chancellor and interim vice chancellor for research.
So, naturally, he has seen a lot of changes. In the late 1970s, he taught swine nutrition and pork production to 100 students every semester. In the 1980s, a crash in the pork industry led to fewer students, and today he only has nine in the pork production class he lectures.
The changes in the school are reflective of those in the industry. At one point the 1970s, Illinois had 35,000 pork producers, a number that has dwindled to about 2,000. Today, the vast majority are large operations.
During his tenure, the student population also changed. When he started most of the students came from farms and were male. Now the large majority hail from urban backgrounds, and in many of the programs at least half the students are women.
Easter points out the beautiful library on campus, which opened in the early 2000s, was built with the help of $20 million in private donations. Other construction projects, including the agricultural engineering building and the veterinary department, stand out in his mind in the university’s growth and evolution.
The development of the South Farm and the Research Park and the Tech Incubator all have all provided opportunities for thousands of students over the years and have international impact.
The university is not only a place for agriculture. Easter and his wife Cheryl are big fans of the school’s sports programs, having season tickets for football, basketball and volleyball. Letterly jokes that he remembers as a student not paying for football tickets, but knowing where to stand outside to see the end zone.
Letterly has sons, brothers and nephews who also attended the university and have stories to share. Many of his friends and relatives will be on the campus during the sesquicentennial celebrations this year.
He jokes that he is an official recruiter — often bragging about his school to others.
“We’re an orange and blue family,” he said.