OSU claims to have the greatest homecoming celebration (and the orangest) in the country. After experiencing it last week, I can say I’ve never seen anything like it. From the moment I walked into my office on Monday morning, I could see signs of what was to come: banners hung, office doors decorated, windows (some I didn’t even know we had!) gleaming with freshly painted images, and a flotilla of chrysanthemums holding station in the lobby. As the activity built throughout the week, I was reminded to “just wait until Walkaround,” so by Friday evening, my wife and I were ready for something special. It was even grander than we expected, from the aromas of grilled and roasted food to the visual spectacle of finely pixilated tissue paper images created by fraternities and sororities. We also developed an appreciation for how much OSU Homecoming means to so many people beyond campus and Stillwater. Parents, friends, alumni and others were drawn to Walkaround like moths to light, and the stroll down University Avenue was more like a careful negotiation among a sea of shoulders.
As remarkable as the various homecoming activities were, the highlight for me was the opportunity to meet with and celebrate with alumni. We honored returning alumni who were celebrating their 10th, 25th or 50th graduation anniversary. What an impressive group!
We also recognized three alumni, Dr. Barry Pollard, Ross McKnight and Larry Shell with the CASNR Distinguished Alumni Award. I was overwhelmed by everything these individuals have accomplished since they graduated from our college. Though you can read about their achievements http://www.dasnr.okstate.edu/, I’d also like to share a few reflections from my time with these three remarkable individuals.
It was my pleasure to personally inform each of the awardees they were being honored. In those separate conversations, all three asked about the other honorees and each one said, “This is a great honor, but it’s even greater to be honored with those two individuals.” The time I shared with each honoree and with the group reinforced how special they are and emphasized their generous leadership.
Dr. Pollard graduated from CASNR with a major in biochemistry, went on to medical school and is now a very successful neurosurgeon in Enid, Oklahoma. In addition to that remarkable career achievement, Dr. Pollard and his wife Roxanne raise purebred Angus cattle and they’re partners in a business that owns and manages 19 John Deere brand farm equipment dealerships. Most people would consider the career of neurosurgery to be enough to keep busy and have a great impact on society. Dr. Pollard’s not like most people. As I’ve come to know him, I particularly appreciate and respect his curiosity and desire to learn more. He attributes his interest in genetics to his decision to raise and breed cattle. He remains a diligent and engaged student, and having come from rural Oklahoma, he sees vibrant businesses like farm equipment dealerships as key ingredients to keeping rural economies strong, ensuring a variety of well-paid jobs in those communities.
Mr. McKnight’s story is unique. Alone at 15, he worked his way through high school in Throckmorton, Texas, guided by ag teachers and coaches, and earned admission to OSU. After graduating with a degree in animal science, he has built a very successful career as a rancher, oilman and banker. He and his wife Billie are co-chairs of OSU’s Branding Success capital campaign.
Success in business comes with plenty of failures. What I found most inspiring about Mr. McKnight’s reflections was that he sees a willingness to take risks as being key to his successes, a mindset that dates back to those trying times when he was an adolescent finding his way and risking a move to Oklahoma for his education. In fact, his failures have taught him more than his successes. When asked if he worried about losing money when he takes risks, he was adamant that he doesn’t worry so much about losing money (though he doesn’t LIKE to do that), but he does worry about losing his nerve. The risks and challenges he’s faced remain important drivers of his efforts to achieve success. That need to take risks marks him as a true entrepreneur, and it’s that experience he’s most concerned remains a part of our academic programs. It’s no surprise that he and Billie have created an endowment to support undergraduates at OSU as part of their forays into leadership through the McKnight Scholars Program, which targets students from outside Oklahoma, a clear sign of their willingness to take risks.
A former agriscience teacher who eventually became CEO of the OSU Foundation and the executive director of the OSU Alumni Association, Larry Shell is a consummate leader. He also has engaged in a lot of work with youth, helping them develop leadership while learning how to show sheep. Mr. Shell was responsible for involving Dr. Pollard and Mr. McKnight in OSU’s fundraising efforts. What really struck me about Mr. Shell was his quiet, but steady manner in engaging others. I only knew of his significant role in working with Mr. McKnight and Dr. Pollard because THEY felt it was important to acknowledge. He is not one to boast about his work, but others are quick to highlight his signature leadership, and all along his career path are sure signs of his strong and steady leadership.
It was fun for me to see three alumni return to a place they have visited often and to which they have dedicated a great deal of time, energy and financial resources. I also was grateful to see very clearly this was a special homecoming to them. This is a special place, made so by special people. What an honor to be a witness to their return home to OSU.
Our three honorees, along with the other thousands of OSU alumni and friends who made it back last weekend, easily validate OSU’s claim on hosting the greatest homecoming celebration in the country.