I got an email last week from Jeff D’Alessio, the editor of The News-Gazette, Champaign, Ill. He’s undertaking a very cool feature in the paper to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the University of Illinois. Starting Jan. 1, he began featuring alumni telling their stories of their favorite spots on campus — what he calls the “unofficial, unauthorized tour of campus and vicinity.” I like that. And having celebrating Prairie Farmers’s 175th anniversary last year, I have a soft spot for anyone collecting and publishing historical information. Been there, done that, got the paper cuts.
At any rate, his question sparked some fine memories of my favorite spots on campus. I debated between 4-H House, where I grew into myself, or the steps of Foellinger Auditorium, where we got engaged. But Mumford Hall. It’s the center of the ag world on campus.
Frankly, Mumford Hall is a lot like Illinois agriculture. It’s sturdy. It’s reliable. It’s not glamorous. It’s friendly. It’s work-worn. Its marble steps sink in the middle from the feet of thousands of faculty and farm kids making their way through, many in boots.
I went to class in Mumford, worked in Mumford, used the darkroom in the basement far too late at night, met with revered professors, and read Prairie Farmers in its old library. By the time I graduated, I knew nearly everyone in the building, and the Dean called me by name because that’s the way it was there. Family. Those were good days.
I was a farm kid from southern Illinois who came to the university to be a doctor. Two months in and Chemistry 101 helped me realize I was not going to do eight years of that. Eventually, I landed in the office of Dr. Jim Evans, the revered grandfather of agricultural communications. He questioned me about my interests and background, never trying to talk me into anything but sincerely trying to help me find my way. I looked up on the wall at his painting of a mailbox on a dirt road with a farmhouse in the background. A farm magazine was sticking out of the mailbox. It looked like home. As I sat in that office in Mumford Hall talking careers and possibilities, I had a singular thought: This is it. These are my people.
(Side note: The farm magazine in that painting was a Farm Journal. It would make a better story if it had been a Prairie Farmer, but what can you do?)
Back on campus a couple of weeks ago for the Salute to Ag game, I watched my children walk into the stadium, and it occurred to me that before I came to college, I’d never been to a college football game. I didn’t really know what the Big 10 was. I’d never heard of ag communications, and I didn’t know what AP stood for.
Still, I made it. So if you are a young person who’s not sure what you’re supposed to do in this life, or whether your rural school will prepare you for it, let me assure you: It’ll be fine. Just find your people.