May 2008
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AU Ag Alumni Association to Hall of Honor

By Al Benn

  Martha Patterson, left, holds a plaque of Donald Sanders while Elaine Rollo has one of Ned Ellis—two of five inductees in the 2008 Alabama Agriculture Hall of Honor. Roy Stevenson was also a Hall of Honor inductee while the late Kenneth Autrey and the late James Thompson, Sr., were honored with Pioneer Awards.
The Auburn University (AU) Agricultural Alumni Association may be a long title, but its purpose is easy to understand for members who count on it to stay in touch with classmates, professors and special projects.

Created nearly 30 years ago, the group continues to grow because of dedicated leaders who find new ways to increase membership and solidify the link between former students and their alma mater.

Many of those who have made the association successful since its formation have been inducted into the group’s Hall of Honor or Pioneer Award. Five were recently inducted at the annual awards banquet.

Nominations for the 2009 class of inductees are being sought and association president Jimmy Tollison of Talladega is encouraging all members and others interested in agriculture to consider someone who may have made a lasting impression on them through the years.

"The honorees’ impact and influence on agriculture have been and continue to be of major importance to the industry," said Tollison, who added that one of the "most amazing characteristics" of the five recent inductees "was their humility and desire to help others."

Martha Patterson, an administrative support associate with the Alumni Association, said nomination information will be sent to members in mid-June. Downloadable forms are available at The deadline for nominations is July 11 and the inductees will be installed at the organization’s annual meeting next February.

Those inducted during the Hall of Honor banquet at Auburn this year were Ned Ellis, Donald Sanders and Gene Stevenson. The late Kenneth "Max" Autrey and the late James L. Thompson, Sr., were honored with Pioneer Awards.

The awards program dates back to 1985 when R.C. Bamberg, Jr., Emory Cunningham and R. Dennis Rouse were the first Hall of Honor inductees.

In 1996, the AU Agricultural Alumni Association also began honoring posthumously those who made significant contributions to their chosen fields. L. Sykes Martin and Edwin V. Smith were the two Pioneer Award inductees that year.

The Alumni Association was created in 1981 as a way to promote support for Auburn University, its agricultural programs and the ag industry.

It’s also a great way for AU agricultural alumni to stay in touch with friends they may not have seen in years.

Past presidents of the alumni association are known throughout Alabama. Billy Powell, who directs the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, served as the first president of the Ag Alumni Association in 1982.

In 1992, presidents began serving two-year terms, beginning with Doug Rigney, who was followed by Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Ray Hilburn, Lowndes County farmer Ronnie Holladay, Alabama Farmers Federation Executive Director Mike Kilgore, Central Alabama Farmers Co-op General Manager Tim Wood and Alabama Farmers Federation Communications Director Jeff Helms. Tollison, who works with Federal Land Bank, is in his second year.

"I have been a proud member of the Agriculture Alumni Association of Auburn University for many years," said Rigney, who is former Executive Director for the Alabama Farmer Federation (ALFA) and is now serving as Deputy Commis-sioner of Agriculture. "I have been able to witness the great works this association has been able to accomplish."

Rigney said the alumni organization enables members to "give back to the agriculture community not only in the form of scholarships, but in learning resources and, in some cases, even job opportunities."

The awards banquet is a way to highlight agriculture, said Tollison, who also pointed out the organization has many other events throughout the year. They all help promote agriculture and raise funds for scholarships and special projects at Auburn University.

"We would like to strongly encourage existing members and those thinking of joining to participate in the Ag Roundup in the fall before the homecoming football game," Tollison said.

During the past year, the Ag Alumni Association awarded nearly $33,000 in scholarships to students. Every penny of life membership funds goes directly into the scholarship endowment program.

Tollison said the most recent association project is replication of the Dairy Barn at Ag Heritage Park.

"This will be the capstone project to the park and allow agriculture to have a stronger presence on the Auburn campus," said Tollison. "It will also provide a permanent home to the Ag Alumni Association."

Ag Alumni projects have been on a fast track during the past decade when it was decided to extend the tenure of presidents from one to two years.

"By the time a president got something started his one-year term was up and he couldn’t see it through," said Wood, general manager of the Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative in Selma who served his two-year term in 2003-04. "We wanted more continuity and have been able to do that by extending a president’s term."

Wood pointed out some of those inducted into the Hall of Honor may not have grown up on a farm, but, nevertheless, have done much to promote the industry in Alabama.

One was the late Howell Heflin, a decorated Marine combat officer during World War II who returned home to become a lawyer, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and, later, a member of the U.S. Senate.

"There are many deserving people in Alabama who have helped agriculture," said Wood. "The Hall of Honor is a way to thank friends of agriculture because they understood just how important it is."

Patterson said 105 of the original charter members remain active. She also said picking five inductees each year can be a daunting task, given the number of highly deserving nominees.

"We usually have more than 100 recommendations to consider each year and those who aren’t picked remain on the list," she said. "It’s difficult to take a list with that many names on it and bring it down to five finalists.

"Members of the association’s board of directors make the final decision after a ‘short list’ is developed by the executive committee and presented to them."

Initial nominations by members of the association are permitted, but letters of support may be submitted by non-members.

"Our main goal is to try and recognize outstanding men and women in the field of agriculture in Alabama for their contributions," Patterson added.

Some inductees, like Edwin C. Allen, Sr., were ahead of their times, she said.

Allen, who was inducted into the Hall of Honor in 1996, spoke out nearly two decades ago about water problems involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

"He said 18 years ago that we’d have water rights issues and needed to address them at that time," she said. "He was a man who had the insight and foresight to see this problem long before it became the issue it is today."

Those inducted this year were:

NED T. ELLIS, SR.: Born in Fort Deposit, Ellis grew up in a farming family dating back to the 1850s in Alabama. He graduated from Auburn University in 1953 and, after a tour of duty with the Army as a gunnery instructor, returned home to become a success in the dairy and cattle industries.

Ellis was the first dairyman in Lowndes County to use free-stall housing for dairy cows. In 1967, he converted his farm to beef cattle production. In 1972, he became interested in the Chiangus breed. He is considered a pioneer in that production.

A decade after returning home from the Army, Ellis became a partner in Priester’s Pecans which quickly gained a national reputation.

Ellis and his wife, May, have four children and nine grandchildren.

DONALD W. SANDERS: During his years at Auburn University, Sanders worked with the National Tillage Machinery Lab and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering.

While working as a research engineer for the U.S. Forest Service, Sanders earned an MBA at Auburn. During the same time, he developed and received a U.S. patent for a mechanized bark hack.

Agriculture has been the basis of his working career which also involved a stint as a sales manager of a truck and tractor company. He eventually became president and the company serves a wide range of customers involved in everything from row crops to timber and soybeans.

He and his wife, Becky, have two sons and two grandchildren.

ROY EUGENE STEVENSON: Born and raised in Harvest, he grew up just south of the Tennessee line, Stevenson, along with his brother, Bob, loved farming at an early age.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Ag Science and Journalism at Auburn University, he began working for an ag-related publication in Nashville. He later returned to Alabama where he began a 36-year career with the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station.

An accomplished journalist, Stevenson’s "Research You Can Use" column was a popular feature in Progressive Farmer magazine. He also collaborated with Joe Yeager to write "Inside Ag Hill," a book detailing events shaping Auburn’s agricultural history.

He and his wife, Mavis, have three children and six grandchildren.


KENNETH "MAX" AUTREY: Born the son of an oil field worker in Louisiana, Autrey received a bachelor’s degree in Dairy Science from Louisiana State University. Later, he received a master’s degree and doctorate from Iowa State University.

Autrey came to Auburn University to direct the AU Department of Dairy Science, a position he held for 23 years. Not long after his arrival, he introduced the first Holstein bull into the AU Bull Test Study. Crossbreeding with the diary herd was an important step in increasing dairy production. Commercial operations began using the same practice.

During his tenure at Auburn, Autrey worked with other experts to address critical issues like the high mortality rate of calves to disease. As a result, the use of individual calf hutches was established. It is a practice that became a standard on the U.S. dairy farms.

Autrey is survived by his wife, Vera, two children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

JAMES L. THOMPSON, SR.: Born into a family of sharecroppers, Thompson became active in 4-H activities near Beulah and was motivated to achieve more in life.

His education at Auburn University was interrupted by the military, but he returned to school and got his bachelor’s degree in horticulture. After that, he worked as the Extension 4-H specialist at Enterprise High School.

Thompson learned more about the flower business while working at Rosemont Gardens in Montgomery and, later, partnered with a friend to open Capitol Floral Co.

The company he helped start expanded to include seven divisions with 350 employees in the Montgomery area and another 4,500 in Asian facilities. Thompson, who died in 2006, was preceded in death by his wife, Myra. They had two children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

For more information call Martha Patterson at 334-844-3595 or Elaine Rollo at 334-844-3204 or go to the alumni section online at

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.