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Ag Alumni Association builds future on its proud past

By STEVE LEER

"They hired who?!?"

That sentiment rippled through the Purdue Agricultural Alumni Association in 1990, when the organization named its successor to retiring executive secretary Mauri Williamson, BS '50.

The marquee event of the Ag Alumni Association is the annual Fish Fry, held every February at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The 2014 guest speaker, McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, got a lift to the stage aboard the Purdue Xtra Special.

Photo by Tom Campbell

The marquee event of the Ag Alumni Association is the annual Fish Fry, held every February at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The 2014 guest speaker, McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, got a lift to the stage aboard the Purdue Xtra Special.

Donya Lester wasn't the conventional choice to replace Williamson. She wasn't a Purdue graduate and had never been employed by the university. She wasn't even a Midwesterner.

Lester, a southern ball of energy from Georgia, had known Williamson since 1986 through the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association. Williamson was impressed by Lester's alumni relations work at the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and thought she might make a good candidate for his job when he decided to hang it up. He broached the subject with Lester during the 1989 NAADA conference.

"You ought to apply for my job because I'm going to retire when I turn 65," Williamson told Lester.

Mauri Williamson (left) handed over the reins of the association to Donya Lester in 1990.

Photo by Tom Campbell

Mauri Williamson (left) handed over the reins of the association to Donya Lester in 1990.

Lester did apply, becoming the fourth executive secretary of Purdue's Ag Alumni Association.

Her appointment is one chapter in the 120–year history of the organization. There are also the unofficial beginnings of the organization in 1895, with the first meeting of Purdue agricultural alumni; the nine Purdue agriculture and Winter Short Course graduates, who, in 1901, planned an annual reunion; the association's role in educating graduates about the evolution from horse–powered to combustion–engine–powered farm machinery; the development of the Agricultural Alumni Seed Improvement Association; and the appointment of the first Ag Alumni fieldman, Brick Mills, in 1922. Mills served in that capacity until he became the organization's first executive secretary during the 1940s.

The proud history of the association marched on through World War II, raising funds and recruiting the students for the college, enrolling the first females in the college, and hosting the yearly event that has come to define the organization: the Ag Alumni Fish Fry.

A long and proud tradition

The Ag Alumni Association is one of the nation's oldest and largest agricultural alumni organizations, boasting approximately 35,300 participants. There are no dues. Memberships are awarded to those who have received a degree from Purdue's College of Agriculture.

Regardless of gender or where they call home, Purdue Agriculture alums display a deep devotion and affection for their association.

"People love us in ways I can't even begin to describe," said Lester, who was named executive director of the organization in 2011. "They come out of the woodwork to help us. Our graduates invest themselves in the association and the College of Agriculture."

Rob Swain, BS '85, is one of them. Swain, who is the president of BioEnergy Development Co. of Fishers, Indiana, said his affiliation with the association has helped him grow as a person and professional.

"The alumni association has done a lot for me," Swain said. "When I graduated, it provided a ready–made network of people I could reach out to and tap for a job."

Swain regularly participates in association functions and assists College of Agriculture students as part of a mentoring program started in 2012. He has attended the Fish Fry since he was a student and member of the Purdue Varsity Glee Club. The event remains his favorite association activity.

"I've always enjoyed the Fish Fry and reconnecting with fellow graduates every year," he said. "They've all been great, but the Fish Fry that stands out most to me was during my senior year. John Ryan was the president of Indiana University, and he had endowed a scholarship in the name of Purdue President Art Hansen to be given to a member of the Glee Club. I was the first recipient. Dr. Ryan got such a kick out of the fact that he was giving a scholarship to someone at Purdue whose family had a building named after them at IU. There's a Swain Hall at IU. He gave Dr. Hansen a hard time about that."


Ag Alumni Association continued

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