April 11, 2005

Keepper's vision helped college of agriculture grow

by K.C. Jaehnig

(PRONOUNCER: "Keepper" is KEP-per)

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Back in 1950 when Wendell E. Keepper came to town, what would eventually evolve into Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Agricultural Sciences was just a five-man department in the College of Vocations and Professions with an overall budget of a little more than $70,000 for everything from salaries to farm expenses.

"Our office facility at the time was a Sears Roebuck pre-fab house just south of the north end of the current Student Center," recalled the man who came to shake things up a bit.

"I remember my first official act was to move a Coca-Cola dispenser from the first floor room to the front porch to make room for a beat-up desk I had salvaged from the war-surplus depot."

The conditions he faced when he arrived were, in Keepper's words, "not entirely encouraging."

"Our classes were taught in old transported army barracks," he said. "There was one 70-acre ‘University Farm' in an area slated for campus expansion. In fact, the south end of the Student Center, Engineering and Neckers buildings, the arena and the practice and baseball fields now cover the footprint of that original farm.

"But perhaps most discouraging of all in 1950 was that no agricultural building was even shown on the illuminated ‘Future Campus Development Plan' exhibited outside of President

(Delyte) Morris' office. Rumor had it that ag was going to be sent off to the hinterlands of Southern Acres on the Vocational Tech Institute campus in Carterville."

Still, for Keepper, coming to what was then called Southern Illinois University was like coming home. While he had earned both his master's degree and doctorate at Cornell University and had then spent another 12 years teaching and doing research at Pennsylvania State University, he never forgot his Montgomery County roots. He loved the people and the landscape of Southern Illinois almost as much as he loved teaching, and knew that the region's hills and valleys and its unique soil structure made farming here a challenge. A school of agriculture could help farmers meet that challenge — and many more, he thought when he agreed to chair the agriculture department.

"We felt it was our job to train young people of Southern Illinois and others from different parts of the state interested in the profession of agriculture so that they could help solve the problems facing our agricultural society," Keepper said.

"Our intent was to train them well in an up-to-date fashion so that they could compete with graduates of other universities for jobs in teaching, research, production and other fields."

It would not be easy.

"We couldn't even offer a degree in agriculture because the General Assembly — with encouragement from the U. of I. — had forbidden our granting of degrees in agriculture, engineering, medicine or dentistry when they gave SIU university status in 1943," he recalled.

But his department had several things going for it in the drive to grow: 120 agriculture majors who liked Southern Illinois and wanted to see a school established here; a network of supportive farmers, local agriculture groups and politicians who pushed hard for state investment in Southern Illinois agriculture; and what Keepper called a "growth-minded" set of University administrators.

"The Chicago Tribune of the day insisted we at SIU were equipped with an over-developed thyroid," Keepper recalled.

Just three short years after Keepper arrived at SIU, the Illinois Agriculture Association during its annual meeting in Chicago passed a resolution asking the state to build and equip an agriculture building at the Carbondale campus. That same year, the ag department left the College of Vocations and Professions and became the Division of Rural Studies.

In 1955, the legislature appropriated $2.6 million to house the newly named School of Rural Studies, which underwent a second name change that July, becoming the School of Agriculture when the legislative ban on agricultural degree programs at SIU was lifted.

Gov. William G. Stratton laid the cornerstone for the agriculture building later that same year, and the new school opened for business there in 1957.

With the hurdles of housing and degree programs behind him, Keepper turned his attention to building a high-caliber faculty.

"There were two conditions an applicant had to meet before the school would hire him," Keepper said.

"First, he should have a doctorate degree. And second, he had to be a pioneer because we were a pioneering school. We had to hire people for what was going to be, not for what we had at the time. With vision, we eventually developed a program that was ‘land-grant' in philosophy, but without the federal land-grant support."

During the Keepper era, the school grew both in scope and size. By the time he retired in 1974, it had contacts in Brazil, where faculty and United Nations workers helped that country set up its own ag school, and it served as a Peace Corps training site. Some 59 faculty and staff members were teaching 800 undergraduates and 64 graduate students the year he stepped down, and the school's budget had swelled to $1,539,023.

In the years since, the college has continued to extend its reach far beyond Southern Illinois to places like Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan and Zambia. It has expanded its research focus to include health, diet, and obesity; food safety and security; animal nutrition and reproduction; alternative fuels; crop production, protection, and improvement; forest resource management; outdoor recreation research management; agricultural economics; environmental policy; and rural economic development.

Enrollments and faculty numbers have gone up and down, too, and budgets swell and shrink with changing economic tides. But one thing from Keepper's time has remained constant: the desire to make things better for those who call this region home.

"The southern half of Illinois has great potential, and our college is best suited to be a major contributor," said Gary L. Minish, who became the college's eighth dean last September.

"With the breadth of expertise we have in the college, we have an inside track to become a major player in enhancing not only the economy but the quality of life for people in this area."

Promoting excellence in undergraduate academics, providing assertive and deliberative leadership and serving others are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.