Dr. Richard Guthrie is retiring as dean of Auburn University’s College of Agriculture.
Two-Time AU Ag School Dean Always Eager to Help the
Ag Community and the School He Loves
By Alvin Benn
Growing up on a dairy farm in Bullock County kept Richard Guthrie busy during the early morning hours of each day, but he still found time for academics and athletics.
Lettering in four sports at Union Springs High School and finishing second in his class academically proved to be a winning combination with Guthrie parlaying them into a full-ride scholarship to Auburn University.
Richard Guthrie (second from left) accepts the 1996 Walter Gilbert Award during halftime festivities at an AU football game from William Muse, then president of the university. The award is given annually to an individual who was a student athlete at Auburn and who has distinguished himself or herself through career and life achievements post-graduation. Joining Guthrie on the field for the presentation were his wife, Kay (left), and daughters, (from left) Kathy and Lucy. The Guthries have a third daughter, Ann.
He also became a Fulbright Scholar and eventually earned a doctorate in soil science from an Ivy League school.
Confident in his athletic prowess in football, baseball, basketball and track, he knew he had what it took to do well in a variety of endeavors outside the family farm, but the last thing he expected was to become a world renowned soil specialist.
When he wasn’t making trips to China and other foreign countries, Guthrie split domestic duties between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Auburn University where, on two occasions, he has taken on the responsibility of guiding AU’s College of Agriculture.
All in all, it’s been an amazing life for a remarkable two-career man who has finally decided to bid farewell to his favorite university for good and enjoy his retirement years with his wife, children and grandchildren.
Richard Guthrie, a native of Union Springs, entered Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1958 on a football scholarship. He played end for the Tigers from the ’58 through ’61 seasons. Guthrie received his bachelor’s degree in agronomy and soils in 1962.
As Guthrie waits for someone to succeed him at Auburn, honors continue to pour in from those aware of his many agricultural accomplishments. It’s an opportunity for him to smell the roses even though he’s never asked for or expected plaudits for a job well done.
"Richard is widely respected in the state as a very knowledgeable agriculturist," said W. Gaines Smith, director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. "Co-workers across the nation respect his accomplishments in the U.S. and internationally."
Smith’s opinion is mirrored throughout Alabama by farming experts who have marveled at Guthrie’s ability to juggle scientific and administrative responsibilities — often at the same time.
"It’s wonderful to hear people say such nice things about what I’ve done through the years," Guthrie, 68, said during an interview with the Cooperative Farming News."Auburn has always meant so much to me and I’ve been happy to help in any way I could."
Last December at the annual meeting of the Alabama Farmers Federation (Alfa), the state’s largest farm organization, Guthrie was presented with the Service to Agriculture Award. It’s the most important honor bestowed by Alfa.
During the meeting, Federation President Jerry Newby called Guthrie "a true friend of the farmer" and cited Guthrie for his many accomplishments in providing assistance in the field of food production.
Vegetables can’t grow without the proper soil and that’s one of many things Guthrie focused on throughout his academic and administrative careers.
Born on May 29, 1941, in the Bruceville community of Bullock County, Guthrie proudly points out the month and day birth connection with two other well-known Americans, former President John F. Kennedy and comedy legend Bob Hope.
John Wesley Guthrie, Jr., was a dairy farmer who relied on assistance from his two sons, Richard and Larry, to help with the herd and do whatever else was needed.
Richard Guthrie found school a lot easier than some of the farm chores he was expected to handle, especially on freezing mornings when he had to tend to the milking machines. He skipped second grade and didn’t miss a beat when he caught up with the class ahead of him.
"Richard was very smart," said classmate Earl Hinson, who would become mayor of Union Springs many years later. "We’ve always been very proud of him for the way he has succeeded in so many things he’s done during his life. He’s always been very dedicated to whatever he’s undertaken."
Up long before the sun, the boys pitched in and helped keep the family operation afloat. Lettering in so many sports was more than enough to bring young Mr. Guthrie to the attention of Auburn football coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan and his assistants.
Enrolling at Auburn University (AU) in 1958 when it was still known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Guthrie was converted from a high school fullback to end and he played during the 1961 and 1962 seasons. Freshmen couldn’t play varsity football back then and he was red-shirted his sophomore year. But, he still saw plenty of action before a knee injury ended his college gridiron career.
Guthrie has lots of happy memories about his time with the Tigers, but one that stands out the most was the moment George Mira, Miami’s great quarterback and future pro star, rolled out deep in Hurricane territory and directed a pass to one of his top receivers.
"I was in position to intercept it, but I guess I was looking at the end zone and a touchdown, not the ball and it went right through my hands," said Guthrie, who chuckled over what could have been his biggest football moment.
Auburn won that game during another successful season and Guthrie was more than a bench-warming spectator. He also was on the Tiger track team, lettering in 1959 and enhancing his reputation as a stellar athlete as well as a scholar.
His athletic abilities and, after graduation, his accomplishments in the business world would lead to another of his many important awards. It happened in 1996 when he received the Walter Gilbert Award given to AU athletes who excel on and off the playing field after graduation. Guthrie followed Lloyd Nix, who quarterbacked Auburn to the Associated Press National Football championship in 1957 and preceded Jim Voss, who became one of America’s most experienced astronauts.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and soil science in 1962 — the same year he and the former Kay Couvrette of Selma — were married, Guthrie began working with the Soil Conservation Service.
Three years later, he got his master’s degree at Auburn and then it was off to upstate New York where he got his Ph.D. at Cornell University in Ithaca. His dissertation involved land use studies in which he evaluated soil suitability for vegetable production.
His time at Cornell was busy on several fronts. In addition to working on his doctorate, he also made sure he didn’t shortchange Kay and their two children by not showing them enough attention. Money was tight and, as he recalls, "we ate a lot of bologna sandwiches."
"Our family would join friends on Friday nights at a Howard Johnson’s up there and took advantage of its ‘all-you-can-eat’ special," he said. "Believe me, we ate all we could."
Many Alabamians are familiar with Guthrie’s successes at Auburn’s College of Agriculture, but not everyone is aware, for 20 years, he was a federal employee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served in Alabama, Texas and Washington, D.C., before returning to his alma mater in 1983. That’s when he became a professor and also directed AU’s Department of Agronomy and Soils.
Two years after his return to Auburn, Guthrie became acting dean of the AU College of Agriculture for three years and then was named associate dean of the international agriculture program — a job he held until 2003 when he retired as a state employee for the first time.
He didn’t stay retired very long. Two years later, in 2005, he came out of the bullpen to become dean of the AU Department of Agriculture. It was another example of his eagerness to lend a helping hand at the school he loves.
Tim Wood, general manager of the Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative in Selma and a former Auburn University football player, said Guthrie’s decision to "unretire" for a spell didn’t surprise him a bit.
"His willingness to come back during a time when the College of Agriculture needed cohesion and come out of retirement is a testament to his devotion to the college," said Wood, who lauded Guthrie for having "brought back trust within the world of academia as well as the alumni who graduated from the College of Agriculture."
Five years later, however, Guthrie informed Auburn officials he would be moving into "permanent" retirement status very soon.
Wood said Guthrie will be "greatly missed" when he finally steps aside for good, "but I know his heart and continued support and presence will still remain. He is one who you can count on for as long as he is willing and able to serve."
Guthrie believes today’s agriculture students are as sharp, if not sharper, than their predecessors and points to test scores as a good barometer.
He has also seen a dramatic shift away from traditional farming as more and more students opt for majors enabling them to avoid a lot of the heavy, manual field work of the past — even with improved equipment.
"Many who enrolled with us are looking at futures as veterinarians or managing horse operations," he said. "There aren’t many left who want to plow the fields. And, they don’t usually come from poor families, either."
When Guthrie was a student at Auburn 50 years ago, he said tuition cost about $600 a year. Today, it’s more like $6,000 and that doesn’t even scratch the surface when living accommodations are factored in.
Guthrie and his two siblings, Larry and Jeanne, each earned doctorates which, needless to say, pleased their parents to no end. The family farm today no longer involves a dairy operation and much of it’s in pine trees.
Retirement for the former two-time dean of the AU Department of Agriculture and director of the Alabama Agriculture Experiment Station is just what the "doctor" ordered. He’s looking forward to "playing a little golf" and, of course, cheering the Tigers on to victory this coming football season.
He and Kay have three daughters, Ann, Kathy and Luci, a granddaughter, Anna Kathryn, and a grandson, William Richard.
"It’s taken awhile, but I’ve finally gotten a boy in the family," said Guthrie, whose big smile said it all.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.