Rick Tolman has eight grandchildren. He was able to corral five of them long enough to get this photo about 18 months ago. From left to right (and with current ages), they include Kailey, 5; Ethan, 7; Cade, 3; Landon, 3; and Teagan, 5.
This article is the ninth in a series highlighting the 2014 recipients of the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award. The award honors mid-career alumni who have a record of outstanding accomplishments, have made significant contributions to their profession or society, and have exhibited high potential for professional growth.
The 11 honorees are John Becherer, Lynda M. Ciuffetti, Johann (Joe) R. Garwood, Anetra L. Harbor, Carl C. Kincaid, Donald J. Leopold, Maurício Antônio Lopes, Nicholas L. Rozzi, S. Richard Tolman, Geoffrey C. Waldbieser and Carla N. Yerkes. They will receive their awards Friday, March 7, during a public reception and convocation in the Purdue Memorial Union North Ballroom.
Rick Tolman, MS ’78, joined the National Corn Growers Association in 2000 and currently serves as the chief executive officer of the St. Louis–based group that represents 40,000 dues-paying corn growers and the interests of more than 300,000 farmers who contribute through corn checkoff programs.
His work with and for farmers actually goes back to 1982, when Tolman joined the U.S. Grains Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and related products worldwide.
“Under his leadership, the National Corn Growers Association has grown in membership, checkoff funds, and in market opportunities for corn farmers,” said his nominator, Kenneth A. Foster, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue.
In 2008, Tolman was recognized as the Agribusiness Leader of the Year by the National Agri-Marketing Association.
Which Purdue faculty member had the most profound impact on your professional career? I had the privilege to be taught by many outstanding faculty members, so it’s difficult to select just one. Dr. Mahlon Lang had the most profound impact on my professional career. He had a way of stimulating critical thinking, and he is one, among several, that I think back to most often.
What part of your visit back to campus in March are you most looking forward to? Interacting with the students. When I was a student, I looked forward to meeting and hearing from people in the industry. It was fascinating to hear their perspectives. It was also interesting to see how they were using what they learned and had been taught at Purdue and to see some of the options and alternatives for using my Purdue degree. I hope I can share some of the same with the students and fan the flames of anticipation for getting out and starting their careers.
Why did you select Purdue as the place to continue your education? I did my undergraduate work at Brigham Young University. I had never been east of Wyoming. Coming to Purdue was a big decision for me. It was a long way from home. I had applied to several universities and had been accepted at several and offered several assistantships. When I looked at the options that I had and narrowed it down, the choice for me was between Purdue and Texas A&M. Both made me similar offers, and both had outstanding programs. I chose Purdue because of the quality of the ag econ faculty and program and its outstanding reputation. I have never regretted that decision.
Where was your favorite place on campus to study? I am not sure the words “favorite” and “study” necessarily go well together. I studied long and hard at Purdue, more than I had ever done in my life. It was challenging and rewarding and necessary, but I’m not sure that I would call it fun. About the only place that I studied was the sixth and seventh floors of the Krannert Building. During my first year, I was assigned to what we affectionately called the “bullpen” on the sixth floor. It was where six or so first-year grad students were given desks and a place to study and work together in a large open room. We did a lot of group discussion and got to know each other very well. Later, I was given my own little office on the seventh floor. I spent many long hours and late nights there studying, so it became my “favorite.”
What do you miss most about your college days at Purdue? I enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm and optimism of the environment at Purdue. As a grad student, I was fully optimistic that a bright future awaited me. I was stimulated by what I learned and challenged by the quality of the people I was able to interact with. I loved the pageantry of football weekends, the fun in seeing how the fraternity and sorority houses would decorate, and the eternal optimism that the football team would pull an upset. In retrospect, despite being poor and busy, I was remarkably free from stress and full of highs because of the environment and energy and enthusiasm that was on the Purdue campus.
Were you a good student when you were at Purdue? Yes. I was on a full-ride assistantship and was married and had one child. I was scared to death that if I did not keep my grades very high, I might lose my assistantship. The competitive environment was tough, and the expectations were high. I got very good grades, but I put in a lot of time and effort.
What was the most difficult course you took at Purdue? What made it so difficult for you? There was one large challenge that was initially quite difficult for me. I did not have a strong quantitative or mathematics background coming into Purdue. I never liked math, so I took the minimum requirement. That was a huge mistake coming into a school with such a strong engineering heritage and strong econometrics emphasis. The first semester, I had to learn to love the quantitative approach and really beef up my math background. It took a lot of effort.
What is the best advice you got while you were at Purdue? Who gave you the advice? After I interviewed for a trading position with General Mills in Minneapolis, Dr. Ray Wilson asked me how the interview went. I said I was really interested in the job but was not sure how well that I had done in the interview. I had the contact information for the interviewer in my hand. He asked to see it and said, “There are times to be bold.” He picked up his phone, and much to my dismay and embarrassment, he dialed the person and got him on the line. He proceeded to sing my praises and tell the person that if he was smart that he had better offer me the job. I did get the job offer, but ended up turning it down. The advice to be bold has stayed with me. That singular incident has come back to me and motivated me to be bold where I otherwise may not have been.
What is the best advice you have ever given? To whom did you give the advice? I like to share the analogy of pitch and catch with every new person I hire. If you are given an assignment, it is as if you are playing baseball catch with the person that gave you the assignment. When the ball is in your glove, it is yours to take care of and complete the task. But the final part of completing the task is to throw the ball back — pitch and catch, pitch and catch. Reporting back on a completed assignment is crucial and will make you look good. Don’t make the person who gave you the assignment ask if the task is complete. “Throw the ball back.”
Coming next: Geoffrey Waldbieser, BS '83, MS '85, PhD '89
Read about other 2014 Distinguished Agriculture Alumni Award winners.