Football fans headed to or from Auburn University (AU) on Interstate 85 can’t help but notice big billboards promoting the E.V. Smith Research Center.
They’ve been posted along the busy superhighway for years, but motorists who drive by and see them rarely give much thought to the facility or the man for whom it’s named.
That’s a shame because Smith was just as important to Auburn University’s College of Agriculture as Bo Jackson was to Auburn football.
"You could say he was a bit of a legend," said Richard Guthrie, dean of the AU College of Agriculture. "He did many good things for Auburn, especially when it came to ushering in an era of faculty members with Ph.D.s"
When Joe Yeager and Gene Stevenson began working on "Inside Ag Hill," the definitive account of Auburn’s agricultural history, they knew from the start Smith would be a major figure in their 655-page book.
Yeager, who joined AU’s Agricultural Economics Department in 1951 and became department head 13 years later, is an unabashed Smith fan and isn’t ashamed to admit it.
"Dean Smith was an excellent leader and motivator," said Yeager, 87. "You knew where you stood with him. He was a good man and I was happy to be on hand when the Research Center was named for him."
The E.V. Smith facility, which encompasses more than 3,800 acres, was dedicated in 1978 and, for the past 30 years, it has been one of America’s leading agricultural centers.
Smith, born in Ozark in 1905 and died in 1984, had an opportunity to smell the roses and enjoy the accolades that came his way for his years of dedicated serve to his university and state.
Those who carry on his mission at the Research Center appreciate what Smith did during a career that extended for nearly half a century—from 1924 when he enrolled at Auburn until 1972 when he retired.
"He’s the one who gets the credit for development of what we do here and throughout Alabama at other research centers," said Greg Pate, who currently supervises the Smith facility in Macon County.
Smith would be proud of Pate because, at the age of 40, he’s carrying on a tradition dating back many decades and continues to grow in importance.
Pate is well aware of Smith’s contributions throughout his formative and academic years. He was a man who knew Auburn was an indispensable link to farmers from Madison to Mobile counties.
"We make those who work here understand they just don’t work for Auburn University," he said. "We all work for the farmers in the state of Alabama. What we do here through research can help make their jobs easier."
It can also help with the bottom line which is the same in agriculture as it is on Wall Street.
More than a dozen smaller research centers are scattered throughout the state, but the Smith facility is so large, it could just about gobble up all the others combined.
Studies at the E.V. Smith Research Center might involve weed control, tillage systems, soybean production, dairy developments or cotton treatment.
With 35 employees to supervise and dozens of research projects underway in one form or another, Pate’s days are varied and very busy.
One of his major projects involves grass-fed systems for cattle. For years, calves would be weaned and then sent to the Midwest where they were fattened up on grain and returned to Alabama.
"The future could mean keeping them in Alabama to live off of grass instead of being sent to the Midwest for grain fattening," Pate said.
In addition to studies at the Research Center, Pate said an advisory committee comprised of farmers, industrialists and researchers is looking into the needs of grass-fed systems.
After years of decline in Alabama, due in part to 22 percent interest rates in the early 1980s, soybean production is making a comeback. It has been spurred on by a chemical that’s not needed to produce them, Pate said.
"Nitrogen costs are so high when it comes to corn and cotton," he said. "Well, we don’t need nitrogen for soybeans and that can make a big difference in producing them."
He said AU agriculture students help with studies at the Research Center and get credit for their efforts.
The research going on today at this wide spot in the road between Montgomery and Auburn is a far cry from how Smith found it so many years ago.
Research was just one of many areas of concern for Smith who became the first native Alabamian and first Auburn graduate to serve as Dean of the College of Agriculture.
His complete name was Edwin Virginius Smith, but he preferred "E.V." over Edwin or Ed. He also had a reputation as a penny-pinching administrator and that must have delighted his superiors at the University.
Yeager and Stevenson write that Smith became Dean of the College of Agriculture at a time when student enrollment had dropped sharply during the early 1950s. The problem was mirrored across the country at that time as agricultural studies became unpopular. Smith set to work immediately to reverse that trend at Auburn and, while it took several years, he was successful.
The authors said Smith "successfully resisted" a nationwide trend toward downgrading agriculture "by changing names to School of Biological Sciences or other nonagricultural designations." He just wouldn’t do it.
"As a result," they wrote, "when demand for agricultural curriculums finally brought Auburn’s enrollment back to its 1949 level, the School of Agriculture was ready to take advantage of opportunities as they arose."
Smith’s students quickly learned a penny saved, indeed, was a penny earned and their dean proved to be quite an inspiration for them.
A good example was the time he wrote to a hotel requesting an economy rate for a conference in North Carolina. Smith was informed the room would cost more and he was anything but pleased.
In a letter to hotel officials, he wrote: "I asked you to reserve a minimum priced single room for the nights of Dec. 2 and 3. You confirmed a $13.50 room, whereas the North Carolina Policy Institute had indicated the minimum rate of $12."
He finished his letter by asking that a room be set aside for Auburn University "at the lower rate per night."
Yeager and Stevenson said Smith was as tight with his personal assets as he was with the University’s.
"He usually had no change in his pockets, so he would often say: ‘If you’ve got a dime, we’ll go get a cup of coffee.’"
If Smith was short on cash at times, he tended to be long-winded, especially during departmental meetings and his colleagues quickly learned to be ready for his extended commentary.
"He was slow and deliberate and tended to drag things out," said Yeager. "One time when he went on and on, one of his fishing buddies got up and left the room, saying: ‘I’ve had all I can take of this.’"
Guthrie said Smith was a major player at Auburn during the "glory period of strong leaders" and the University is better off today because of him.
"He was a fine administrator and a hard-working conservative leader," said Guthrie. "He came along at just the right time for Auburn."
Pate, who grew up in the Sand Mountain region of Alabama, couldn’t agree more. He may not have been around when Smith was helping to build the AU Agriculture program into one of the best in the country, but he appreciates what he accomplished.
"Dean Smith laid the groundwork for what we have here today," said Pate. "I know I’m proud to work at a place that is named for him."
So, if you’re headed to or returning from Auburn’s game against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Oct. 11, take a gander at those billboards on I-85.
You may never have heard of E.V. Smith, but his contributions to Auburn University are on display every day at the research facility named for him.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.