How One Man Touched Many Lives

Hoosier Perspectives

Humor, humility themes at Bob Taylor’s retirement

Published on: May 2, 2011

If you farm in Indiana and haven’t heard Bob Taylor speak, haven’t taken a class from him or know someone who did, you may ask yourself if you get out and around enough. Taylor, of the Purdue University Ag Economics Department, has become an icon in his field. Best known for teaching 40,000 students over 50 years, he’s also given countless Extension meeting programs, counseled hundreds of farm families, and continues to anchor the Indiana Prairie Farmer Young Farmer column. That won’t change.

Some 200 people showed up for his formal retirement send-off at Purdue University just a few days ago. Several speakers from the University sang his praises, but most impressive were some key leaders who had him in class, and who were asked to say a few words.

John Hardin, Jr., Danville, a Purdue University trustee, remembers his days in Taylor’s class. He also understands what he has done for the Purdue Ag Economics department and Purdue in general from his role as a trustee. He offered his best wishes as Bob heads off to real retirement. Technically, he retired before, but continued to teach.

Things got more lively when Joe Kelsay was at the microphone. Kelsay, part of a family diary operation near Whiteland, is also director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. He had Bob Taylor in class, and while praising how Taylor helped him decide which way he was going in life, broke up the crowd with this story.

“It was a sunny Friday afternoon in late April, about 3 pm, and me and a buddy were heading out of Krannert, the Ag econ building, to go have a good time. We spotted Dr. Taylor at the back of the elevator, with some people in between us. We thought we’d put in for some brownie points, and started talking about how we sure would like to take in this beautiful weather, but we had to get back to study for our farm management test next week. We even went on about what we had to study.

“The elevator stopped on the main floor, but before we could move, there was this hand on our shoulder from somewhere in the back. And thin in this easily –recognized voice, came these words “The road to Hell is paved with lies like those!” We hadn’t fooled anybody!”

Don Villwock, Edwardsport, a grain farmer and president of Indiana Farm Bureau, came closest to bringing out the handkerchiefs. I was sitting in the third row, behind his wife, Joyce. Next to me was Bruce Erickson, a current professor in the Ag Econ Department.

After saying several nice things, Don got down to business. “If it wasn’t for Bob Taylor, I wouldn’t be here; there wouldn’t be a Villwock Farms, a Joyce Villwock, or any Villwock daughter.” Then he related how he really wanted to go home to farm, but his dad, the late Carl Villwock, insisted there wasn’t any place for him on the farm. Don was the first one from his family to go to college, from a rural high school, where the only other boy from there who came to Purdue with him quit after two weeks. Don’s girlfriend deserted him, and by November, he was intense on quitting. He was going home.

Enter Bob Taylor, some heart-to-heart talks, and a chance to think things through. Don decided to stay. “He even helped me decide who to marry,” Villwock quipped, regaining his composure. “He told me to marry a teacher or a nurse so we would have solid income while the farm was getting going. So I married a teacher.”

After the program, I turned to Joyce and asked her if it was true. “Every bit,” she said. “He was headed home until Bob Taylor made him think about the future.

“Man,” I said, “He almost had me in tears. I wanted to quit Purdue so bad my freshman year I couldn’t stand it. I was the first from my family at college, from a rural school, with few friends, and the few I had headed for the hills soon after getting to Purdue. I’ll never forget one night I called home about Thanksgiving time and said I was coming home to stay.

“My mom said I wasn’t. There was nothing at home for me- definitely not big enough of a farm operation. This time the credit goes to my mom, although Larry Boll, another fine ag econ teacher, in attendance that day and now retried, helped encourage me to keep going. I didn’t have the pleasure of having Dr. Taylor.”

About this time I noticed Bruce Erickson had been dabbing his eyes. “You aren’t going to believe this, but that hit home with me so hard,” he said. “I was at Iowa State my freshman year and I hated it. I wanted to quit so bad I couldn’t stand it. I don’t know what I would have done if I had really quit.”

And they say teachers, parents and mentors don’t influence lives. Don’t believe it for a second. If it hadn’t been for Bob Taylor, they would have needed fewer chairs on the stage and perhaps in the audience at his retirement, and Indiana agriculture would have been the big loser.