Mauri Williamson

​Always a farmer at heart, Williamson grew up on a farm in Economy, Ind. After graduating from Purdue in 1950, he returned briefly to the farm before returning to campus to lead the Ag Alumni Association for 37 years. Photos by Tom Campbell

Agriculture's past, present and future equally important to Purdue's Mauri Williamson

By Tom Campbell | Published Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Mauri Williamson 

Donya Lester first met Mauri Williamson, BS ’50, in 1986 at the annual conference of the National Ag Alumni Development Association (NAADA) in Champaign, Ill.

While Lester was just getting started in the business as the director of the University of Georgia’s Ag Alumni program, Williamson was at the tail end of an illustrious career as executive secretary of Purdue’s Ag Alumni Association.

Williamson helped found NAADA and started the Ag Alumni Fish Fry.  He organized the Ag Ambassador student program and funded a scholarship that annually supports one of the ambassadors.  The College and the Ag Alumni Associationstarted the Mauri Williamson Scholarship of Excellence, a renewable gift that has supported dozens of scholars in the College of Agriculture since his retirement in 1990.

And in everything he did, in the countless number of people he touched on behalf of Purdue’s College of Agriculture, Williamson always managed to have fun.

“You’re that new kid from Georgia,” was Williamson’s no nonsense way of introducing himself to Lester.

“Why don’t you come and sit at my table and we’ll talk about what you should be doing.”

That initial meeting became the first chapter part of a four-year interview process that convinced Williamson that Lester was the right person to lead the Purdue Ag Alumni Association when he retired.

The 91-year old Williamson recently told Lester, “If I had known I was going to live this long, you never would have gotten my job.” But that’s another story for another time.

Oh, sure, there would be a search committee and interview process. But if he had anything to say about it, and he did, he wasn’t going to let just anyone run the organization he had shaped over the course of his 37-year career.

“I’m here at Purdue because of Mauri Williamson,” Lester said recently. “He took me under his big protective wing that day back in Champaign and made me his personal project.”

“I’m lucky,” Lester said. “For 25 years I have been able to use the wisdom that Mauri gave me. And 25 years later, I’m still getting that wisdom. He never passes up a chance to tell me what I should be doing.”

Like the time Williamson took Lester aside and told her, “You are at Purdue. You have to carry yourself differently now.”

Lester knew what he meant.

“The other schools with agriculture alumni associations looked up to us because of what Mauri built. When I followed him, I just had to show up and not mess up. I could have worked a lifetime at another institution and never had what I had from Day 1 at Purdue because of the foundation Mauri Williamson laid.”

But Williamson was interested in something greater than the future of Purdue’s Ag Alumni Association. He was interested in the future of agriculture itself. Williamson wanted to do his part to make sure his college would develop tomorrow’s agricultural leaders. That’s why he and June, his wife of 66 years, started the Mauri Williamson Scholarship program in 1996.

Gordon Graham (left) was hired to run Purdue's Ag Alumni Association in 1949. He handed over the reins to Mauri Williamson in 1953. When Williamson retired in 1990, Donya Lester was appointed executive secretary of the organization. That's a combined 67 years of leadership.

The scholarship supports and nurtures leadership skills in College of Agriculture students like Quinton Nannet, BS ’16, a first year student at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

“The Williamson Scholarship was the main reason I decided to go to Purdue,” said Nannet, who graduated last fall as the top male student in the entire university.

Nannet said earning the $5,000.00 renewable scholarship “meant that someone believed in me and that I could be successful. And that was Mauri Williamson.”

To date, the scholarship has helped 49 students pay expenses while earning undergraduate degrees from the College of Agriculture.

“I have known Mauri for as long as I can remember,” said Nannet. “Between growing up around Ag Alumni Association and being a regular at Pioneer Village at the state fair, Mauri played big role during my formative years. He would always joke that the lessons he taught me around the Pioneer Village gang were lessons that should not be shared with my mother.”

But to know Williamson is to understand that valuable lessons are often served with a generous side of humor.

“Mauri often expresses his humility through humor, and the fact remains that many of the qualities I have today were instilled originally by Mauri. To me, Mauri demonstrates that true leadership is welcoming to all its followers and that anything worth doing should be done right and completed with passion. That humility is the cornerstone to success, and that life is always better with a few more laughs. Being awarded the Williamson Scholarship was a constant reminder to follow those principles and it was a continuous source of encouragement. He has always been an inspiration, and he always will be.”

But there is a prankish side to Williamson as well. He could use his friends as punchlines to show them the importance of being able laugh at themselves.

When Tom Turpin joined the entomology department as a faculty member in 1971, one of the first people he met was Williamson, already a legend in the agriculture community as the driving force behind the Ag Alumni Fish Fry that skewered politicians, deans, and professors alike.

In Williamson, Turpin found a kindred spirit. Someone who took his job -- but not himself -- very seriously.

Turpin met Williamson in his cozy office in the basement of Purdue’s Agriculture Administration building. Williamson’s small office was stuffed full of agricultural memorabilia. And with the two oversized personalities of Turpin and Williamson on opposite sides of the desk, the office felt even tinier.

Williamson made the walk of honor at the 2013 Ag Alumni Fish Fry in Indianapolis. 

Clad in overalls and cowboy boots, Williamson leaned back in his chair with his feet propped across the edge of his desk.

Clearly, Turpin surmised, this was not your typical administrator.

A puff of pipe smoke circled his head and clouded the room.

“He taught me that you can have fun in your job,” said Turpin. “Back then, it was something not everyone believed.”

Williamson’s sometimes slapstick approach to the Fish Fry convinced Turpin to take a similar approach when he started his own outreach program, the “Bug Bowl,” which encouraged thousands of people to touch and taste insects through events like cricket spitting and cockroach racing.

Soon, Williamson was taking Turpin to Ag. Alumni meetings all over Indiana. About once a month, Turpin would accompany Williamson to a chapter meeting held here, there and everywhere around the state of Indiana.

“We knew every late night hillbilly program on the radio from driving all over the state,” Williamson said. “We went everywhere.”

By watching Mauri lead a meeting, using humor to make everyone feel good about themselves, their university and agriculture, Turpin learned that learning could be fun. Even funny.

Providing people stayed in the room long enough.

In November, over 400 of his closest friends showed up to honor Williamson's lifelong dedication to all things Purdue and agriculture in an event held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. 

“Mauri took me to a meeting in Blackford County. Must have been about 1972. He gave me this great build up as a guest speaker. Told everyone I was an expert in the field of entomology,” Turpin said.

“But I didn’t get two words out of my mouth before everyone got up, put on their coats and hats, and headed for the door. Little did I know, Mauri had planned the whole thing. Next thing you know, everyone was out in the parking lot waiting for Mauri to tell them they could go back inside.”

Williamson was recently honored by the Indiana State Fair’s Pioneer Village, a time-warp visit back to the early days of Indiana agriculture.

It’s something else he helped start some 50 years ago as a way of helping the current flock of fair goers connect with the history of Indiana agriculture.

Each summer, thousands of people come to the Pioneer Village to show their children and their children’s children what farming used to be like. They hoist the children into the seats of antique tractors and they come to say hello to Williamson.

He uses a cane and a golf cart to get around the fairgrounds and when people say hello to him, and they always do, Williamson may not remember names like he used to.

Even at the age of 91, Williamson has retained a remarkable ability to remember faces, if not always the names of the folks on the other side of the handshake or wave.

“Well how are things down in Davies County?” Williamson may say, or “Are you still farming up near Angola,” to another.

“He seems to know something about almost everyone,” Turpin said. “Even if he can’t remember their name, he remembers where they are from. He makes everyone feel special.”

But Williamson also has a unique way of telling you otherwise, too. Again, with humor.

Seated on a throne fit for a king, Williamson posed for a photo with longtime friends Chris and Tom Turpin (left) and Karen and Terry Streuh. 

“Mauri is the kind of guy who can tell you you are a being jerk and still make you feel good about it,” said Dick Reel, who has worked with Williamson for 20 years at the Pioneer Village.”

Williamson was recently diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. Much of his time is now split between chemotherapy and writing a to-do list of things he needs to get done. That list already fills several legal sheets and gets longer every day, which means Williamson isn’t planning on going anywhere soon.

Williamson doesn’t know how much time he has left, how many handshakes or waves he will encounter or how many Pioneer Villages he will attend. But he will continue the fight with equal doses of chemotherapy and humor.

And his spirit will carry on through the leadership skills Donya Lester learned at his elbow, through the dozens of students, like Quinton Nannet, he supported through his scholarship program.

It will survive in the Fish Fry and in NAADA. It will carry on in the simple gesture of a wave or a handshake and the thousands of folk Williamson called his friends every summer at the Pioneer Village, his pride and joy. His legacy.

And it will carry on in the idea Williamson held dear, that having fun is a good thing.