The Story Behind a Unique Leadership Program for Texas
First came the message in a fortune cookie picked up at the restaurant! “All will go well with your new project.”
To Dr. L.S. Pope and others in charge, this bold prediction was encouraging. It was January 1986. The time for change was at hand. The cookie fortune teller had pointed rightly to things to come.
During the early 1980’s, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service had pondered the need for a new kind of adult leadership program, similar to those underway in a number of states. Already, the groundwork had been laid in the experiences of nearly two dozen states with leadership programs in progress.
Actually, it all started in 1965 when several faculties from Michigan State University approached the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, with a novel idea. Kellogg had a reputation for sponsoring farsighted educational programs. Along with numerous other leaders, they could sense the vast seismic changes underway in global agriculture. A new kind of decision-maker was needed for tomorrow, one that could see the broad panorama, be aware of social and economic factors beyond the fence line. Shifting world trade policies, environmental problems and federal impacts, to name a few, were making themselves felt. It was time to arm the next generation of leaders for battles yet to be won.
Kellogg came through with funding for a Farmers Study Group at Michigan State. More than 30 enterprising young agriculturalists were chosen. Interestingly, the figure of 30 participants per group came about, according to Dr. David Boyne, now director of the Ohio State program, because 30 was the capacity of the available bus!
It is also interesting to review again what the Kellogg/Michigan State group saw as the outcome of their efforts: “To alter the self-image of prospective leaders in agriculture; to increase self confidence; to increase communication skills; to sharpen critical thinking; to strengthen the motivation to serve; to enhance commitment to agriculture; to create a pool of skilled and dedicated agricultural leaders for farm organizations, local-state-federal positions as well as service groups, churches, government agencies and rural communities, and to enhance their global perspective.” All one can add: “Mission accomplished.”
Further grants to Land Grant Universities were made by Kellogg and more than 20 states received start-up assistance of substantial proportions. Unfortunately, by the time the Texas program was underway, Kellogg had moved to other areas of concern. Thus, Texas missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on early financial support.
But talking about a new program and actually setting it in motion is another matter. Although the need was there, the financial picture in the mid-80’s for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service was anything but favorable. Outside support would be vital before such a program could be launched.
DESIGNING A NEW PROGRAM
Starting in 1984, Dr. James Mallett of Agricultural Economics and Dr. David Ruesink, Extension Sociologist, caught wind of the opportunity. They attended a national planning session in Little Rock, Arkansas, and developed for the Extension Director, Zerle Carpenter, a proposal modeled after several successful programs in other states. But the price tag was high: more than $330,000 for a two year, 14-session program!
While their proposal was lying on the desk for want of funds, it was fortunate that Dr. L.S. “Bill” Pope, a longtime friend of Dr. Carpenter, approached him at the Denver meeting of the National Land Grant University Association in 1985. Ready to leave his position as Dean of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico State University, Pope offered Dr. Carpenter a simple proposal. “Let me see what I can do, without cost to Extension, and seek outside funding for a new leadership development program.”
Pope had extensive experience in three states, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Further, he had served as chairman of the National Council of Deans within the Land Grant Association and had experience on numerous national and international boards. He had gathered a broad array of contacts and experiences in the southwest. This background would stand him in a good stead in designing the program. Director Carpenter wisely appointed an able assistant, Dr. Ken Denmark, Staff Program Specialist in the Extension Service. The two would work hand in hand to build a successful program for Classes I and II.
In addition, Pope was well acquainted with both Oklahoma and Texas agriculture, having served as department head of Animal Science at OSU, and as Associate Dean of Agriculture at Texas A&M University. Fully as important, he was a close friend of Dr. Bill Taggart, the former Associate Director of Agricultural Extension at OSU, and a person with actual experience in directing a successful program. Pope could draw on his rich experience, his solid advice and counsel, so vital in getting a program underway. To better acquaint himself with the details of the new project, Pope attended session of the Oklahoma Agricultural Leadership Program in Enid, Oklahoma, in September of 1985.
Further meeting with Texas Extension administration followed in the fall of 1985. Texas looked ripe for a leadership educational thrust. The support of Dr. Carpenter was essential. Taking a bold step, during a time when dozens of Extension positions were yet to be filled, Carpenter gave the green light. It was now a matter of selling a new and unique program to loyal, but somewhat skeptical, leaders of the agricultural industry.
There followed, in 1986 and early 1987, a vigorous sales effort. Hardly a large foundation or association, an eminent agricultural leader, a farsighted philanthropist existed that was not contacted for financial support. The results were modest, to say the least. But in an address to the South Texas Farm and Ranch Club of San Antonio in midsummer, 1986, there was a glimmer of hope. LeRoy Smith, a longtime member of the club, wrote out a $100 check to support the program. Pope’s letter of gratitude wisely pointed out that this first modest contribution would stand as a landmark gift, someday to be regarded as the icebreaker.
An early estimate of cost by Pope – $180,000 for a 30-member, 12 session offering – was optimistic indeed, given the bleak financial outlook at the time. It was apparent that while nearly every Texas leader or organization thought it was a great idea, money simply wasn’t there for a major contribution. It was nickel-and-dime all the way for Class I.
STRONG SUPPORT FROM AN OLD FRIEND
Finally, lady luck and a fortunate conversation with one of Texas’ agricultural greats entered in. Eugene Butler, Editor Emeritus and a major stockholder of Progressive Farmer magazine, a person always interested in advancing young people, came to our aid. During a motor trip to Austin, Del Deterling, Associate Editor in the Dallas office, saw the opportunity for a breakthrough.
“Mr. Butler,” Del said at just the right time, “we all know that you are deeply interested in good causes, and especially those that will benefit Texas and southern agriculture. There’s a new program being planned in the Texas Agricultural Extension Service that should be of real interest. Why not take a look at it?”
Imagine our surprise when a note for Mr. Butler appeared in the mail, with a $25,000 check. Several other gifts and bequests had been logged, but a really strong contribution was needed to gain the confidence to move ahead. Mr. Butler’s contributions have continued every year until his passing, and he was far and away the major donor to the program. And all made while more than 90 years of age – with the latest contribution made at the age of 100 years!
One of Dr. Taggart’s first pieces of advice to our fledgling program: “From a statewide support group, a council of eminent agriculturalists from a wide array of disciplines. Let them front for you in raising funds and moving the program into the action phrase.” Thus, began the search for a leader from industry. In a state like Texas where there were many to chose from, one individual stood out.
It was Charlie Scruggs, then editor of Progressive Farmer, a noted Texan in agricultural circles and widely recognized for leadership in the effort to eradicate the screw worm, that offered the suggestion: “Get Dolph Briscoe to help out. He has the stature to give overall visibility and gain support for the program.”
Former Governor Briscoe was an ideal choice. A man of impeccable integrity, state and national leader in the beef industry, prominent rancher and banker, public figure and twice governor of the state, he could give an immediate boost to program recognition. But would he be interested in taking some new responsibilities, in the midst of a busy personal schedule?
A visit to his office in San Antonio by Scruggs and Pope in August 1986, yielded a swift and positive response. Yes, he would be proud to serve as the first chairman! This was the break needed, the major step forward at a rather difficult time. With Dolph’s stature, and the positive image he displayed, we now had the visibility and confidence so necessary for the start-up phase. It was characteristic of Governor Briscoe to rise to the occasion, to lend support and encouragement to yet another worthy cause.
RALLYING STATE SUPPORT
Next on the list was the formation of a statewide advisory council. A meeting was scheduled for Austin in September 1986, at the Farm Credit Bank to formally garner the support needed. More than 25 outstanding agriculture leaders from across the state showed up. When Governor Briscoe asked, after considerable discussion: “Should we go ahead?” the answer was a unanimous “YES.” TALL had the firm backing of state leaders.
Director Carpenter sent out the official word to Extension Area Directors, County Agents and Specialists signifying that all systems were go and that TALL was a high priority. Drawing heavily on the Oklahoma program, a broad outline of the Texas effort was prepared. At a National Directors meeting in Washington, D.C., Pope had gathered further details from the best source available – other directors with long, hands-on experience. Their cooperative response has been the hallmark of U.S. and Canadian directors.
But selling the idea to influential leaders or organizations in the state was another matter. In retrospect, it might have been predicted that they would have little “feel” for this new approach to leadership development. There was no “track record” in Texas of a similar project to use as a sales pitch. Besides, the economic environment for agriculture was not the best. Banks were in difficulty and traditional sources of funding such as foundations and agricultural organizations were having a hard time. Although they were sympathetic and longtime friends of the University and Agricultural Extension, they felt financially strapped. What was needed was an on-site example, a successful first effort with measurable results.
It is to the credit of a long list of friends of Texas agriculture that funds began to appear on the books. Among the early believers, in addition to Mr. Butler, Charlie Scruggs and Dolph Briscoe were: Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with Dan Gattis as general manager; Jerry Lucy, prominent rancher and BET leader in east Texas; Billy Connor of Texas Ag Cooperative Council; Dennis Engelke of Texas Rural Electric Cooperatives and Dr. Jim Grumbles of DowEnlanco.
Also there was strong support from Marcus Hill, president of Ag Workers Auto Insurance Mutual; Norman Vestal, County Extension Agent in Bexar county, San Antonio; Bob Murdock, president of the East Texas State Fair; Bill Powers of the Texas Poultry Federation; Clemon Montgomery of Texas Cottonseed Crushers Association; Norman Moser, rancher and banker in DeKalb; Huey Whitehurst, research director at the Dallas Texas A&M Center, and Roddy Peeples, always a loyal friend from VSA radio, San Angelo.
Added to this list were: James Powell, prominent rancher and leader from Fort McKavitt; Bill Nelson of the Texas Wheat Producers Board; John Armstrong of the King Ranch; Anne Anderson of the Texas Beef Industry Council; Charlie Ball of Texas Cattle Feeders Association and Bob Whitson, Frost Bank in San Antonio – all enthusiastic and farsighted backers of the new endeavor.
It was a gamble! The initial budget presented to Director Carpenter in January 1987, outlined an ambitious goal of 12 meetings, but with an on-hand budget of only $41,000. Hanging in there, he cast the deciding vote: Move ahead, do the best job possible! It was an act of faith, built on the belief that once underway, other donations would follow.
SEARCHING FOR THE BEST
With a major assist from Extension area directors and county agricultural agents, and friends in the farm press and radio, the word went out. Applications were received from a wide array of promising young leaders, both men and women. Basically, the qualifications were the same as those of other states with successful programs. The age range of 25-40 years was set to encourage relatively young and potential leaders, and they must be associated with agriculture in some manner. Unlike several other states, no quota was set for farm and ranch operators. Rather, the net was cast broadly to encourage a wider mix of participants, each contributing in a special way from his/her own experience.
Following an early screening to ensure that they had met the minimum requirements, a series of interviews were scheduled in September 1987, at College Station, the Dallas Research and Extension Center, and the Center at Lubbock. A three-man committee held a face-to-face interview with each candidate. Unlike other states, an early effort was made to encourage spouses to get to know the program. For each married candidate at the interview, the spouse was interviewed privately to ascertain the necessary support and interest.
The fate of the program hinged on the quality of the first class. Had they failed to live up to expectations, the entire program would have been in jeopardy. Twenty-four applicants were carefully selected, with two ladies in the group. Many in Class I were not quite sure of the nature of the program and what was expected of them. This was understandable since there was no previous experience of its kind to draw on. It is to their credit that they had the nerve to give it a try.
For several reasons, it was decided to charge for the privilege of membership. An enrollment fee of $500 each was established for Class I. This has been increased to $1,500 in subsequent classes. In addition to this contribution to offset program costs, the investment is vital to the member’s feeling of ownership, of commitment to the cause.
For the most part, the original selection criteria used for Class I still holds:
1. Applicants must be associated with Texas agriculture. Employees of Texas A&M or other state universities, the USDA or vocational agriculture teachers are not considered. Other opportunities are available.
● Payment of the enrollment fee is due at the first class meeting (later changed to two equal payments, the second due six months after the program begins).
● Class members agree to attend all seminars and educational events, with few exceptions.
● Preference is given to candidates with demonstrated leadership ability, between 25 and 40 years of age; men and women encouraged to apply.
● University or college degree not required. No college credit given.
● All selections are final after approval by an interview committee. Final selection is based on merit and evidence of leadership potential.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
But what to call the program? A number of states have fetching acronyms that fit their particular circumstances. In working with a member of the Agricultural Communications staff, the words Texas Agricultural Leadership was obvious. But that, and Texas Agricultural Leadership Program (TALK), certainly were not fetching titles. Texans have a national image as being “Tall” and this seemed an obvious fit. But what words to use?
As often happens, serendipity played a role. While driving to a restaurant in San Antonio with Mrs. Pope one evening, and mulling over the possible word combinations, the phrase Texas Agricultural Leaders for a Lifetime came to mind. From this brief encounter with a title, it was but a quick shift to “Texas Agricultural Lifetime Leadership” – hence a perfect fit for “TALL.”
To many, it might seem that a title or acronym is hardly essential to the success of the program. However, in the maze of programs offered by Extension, and given the image and simplicity of a simple phrase, “TALL” was a plus. It clearly identified the program and its goals. It was in sync with Texas and easily recognizable. Not a great feat of mental gymnastics, but a necessary opening shot in the build-up campaign.
As the word went out, applications began coming in. There were days of anxious waiting to see what the quality might be, so much depended on the first class. When the interviews were over, 24 young men and two women were selected. They were to be the forerunners, the “first team” in the new venture. Fortunately, within the group was a wide array of talented individuals coming from backgrounds that insured good interaction. While the early evaluations showed that they were somewhat uncertain as to the nature and expectations of the program, they were ready and eager.
Starting from a thin base of financial support, funds began to grow as state leaders saw the quality and potential of Class I. Among the most faithful supporters in the critical start-up period: Texas Agricultural Cooperative Council, Texas Rural Electric Cooperatives, Farm Credit Banks of Texas, Texas Ag Workers Insurance Mutual, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, South Texas Farm and Ranch Club, Dow Chemical Inc., Pilgrim Pride, Coleman Enterprises, Briscoe Ranches, Welder Wildlife Foundation, Texas Citrus Mutual and Texas Rural Communities. Their vote of confidence through cash donations was a clear signal to “go ahead, full steam.”