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SF Blog: Well Done, Dr. White

I was neck-deep in a southeastern North Dakota soil pit last June, soaking up all the great soil health information gleaned by Abbey Wick and Jodi DeJong-Hughes.

Then I thought of Everett White.

“He’d be really happy,” I thought about this soil health day led by Wick, North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist, and DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension soils educator. Both did an excellent job that day getting farmers excited about soils and soil health – something the late Dr. White, my former soils and geology teacher at South Dakota State University (SDSU), preached for decades.

“Oh, I’m just an old college prof who likes digging in the dirt,” he’d often deadpan.

Actually, he did a lot more than that.  

His research may have seemed stuffy. It’s hard to get excited about peer-reviewed science journal articles he’d write with titles like “Chemical relationships responsible for dispersion in natric horizons” or “Longevity and effect of tillage-formed soil surface cracks on water.”

In effect, though, his work was just one of many stepping-stones that agricultural scientists have used to help farmers make U.S. agriculture one of our country’s greatest assets.

What Did You Learn?

I first heard of Dr. White while working on a western South Dakota ranch during the summer of 1981. My boss, an SDSU alumnus, told me about a professor who stubbornly wouldn’t cut any slack for anyone who would miss White’s test due to a university activity. I didn’t catch the prof’s name.

The next school year, though, I saw one of my chums visiting about a recent test with a teacher who sported a bright shock of white hair and a craggy face seemingly weathered over centuries.

“Well, did you ace it or bomb it?” growled the teacher.

“I kind of think I bombed it,” said my friend.

“Well, did you like it?”

 “No, not really.”

“Well, what did you learn?”

“Huh?”

“What did you learn?”

“Well, I, um…uh…”

“What did you learn that you didn’t learn at home or on the streets?”

My friend was pretty well licked. When I visited the ranch the next summer, I told my boss the story.

“That was probably Dr. White, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“Oh, that was him.”

C Means Average

Anyway, with that in mind, I took PS 343 (Geology) my last semester at SDSU. On the surface, geology doesn’t sound hard.

It was.

Part of it had to do with Dr. White’s teaching philosophy. “I give mainly C’s, y’see, because C means average and most students are average,” he’d logically argue.

He was old school – probably Rome or Athens High. He especially eschewed the teaching style of one popular teacher who taught a class about marriage. All aspects of a marriage, if you catch my drift.

“Well, that guy, in class…he…he…he talks about sexandstufflikethat!” he exclaimed accompanied by a thunderous thigh slap.

Needless to say, studying about geological formations formed during the Jurassic period was a step down from the Hefneresque discussion in marriage class.

It was kind of cool, though, learning about geological landforms like eskers and floodplains. It was there I learned about Lake Agassiz, the ancient lake that used to blanket the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota.

Once you got to know him, Dr. White wanted you to succeed. Eventually, you could understand how geology formed the basis for soils and soil characteristics that agronomy majors like me studied in other classes.

He ruled his class with an iron fist. Well, at least with a bamboo pole that he used as a pointer. A football player found that out the hard way when he continually talked in the classroom’s back row. White stopped the day’s lecture, pointed out the chatty jock, and verbally flayed him akin to razor-thin prosciutto slabs for five minutes. He finally stopped when tears gushed out of the gridiron great’s eyes.

“Boy, I had to beat them off with a stick today,” he muttered as he walked out after class, bamboo pointer in hand.

Soil Profiles. They’re Soil Profiles.

After graduation, I stayed in Brookings, the home of SDSU, working for a farm magazine. I’d stop by Dr. White’s office every other month or so. We’d swap stories about soils, farming, his students, and just about everything else.

He laughed when I told him about my future wife asking about the dirt that lined the halls of the second floor of SDSU’s Ag Hall.

“Soil profiles,” I kept telling her. “They’re soil profiles, not dirt.”

Outside of my wife, he was one of the first people I visited with at length 20 years ago after spending a month immersed in a time-guzzling story. On that October day, I popped my head into an office the now-retired White shared with another retired SDSU soil scientist, Bob Kohl.

“Oh, he’d really like to see you,” said Dr. Kohl as he escorted me down the hall to a small room where Dr. White was. I don’t know all the specifics we talked about that day, but he was excited when I told him that we were expecting a son a few months later.

“I bet he’ll be a little toehead like his dad,” he chuckled. (Twenty years later at 6'1" with a blonde mop of hair, White was right.)

The last time I saw Dr. White was following an FFA convention where a politician speaking was lamenting the lack of press coverage at the convention. (I guess I didn’t count.)

“You know why there aren’t any newspapers or TV or radio stations here? It’s because you didn’t kill anybody, because you didn’t rob anyone,” he angrily shrieked.

I told Dr. White about this later that day as he impassively wrote in his office. Then he finally looked up and deadpanned, “Is that how he gets his name in the paper?

White was prophetic. A few years later, that angry old politician barreled through a stop sign at 70 mph and instantly killed a farmer I knew. When that politican died a few years later, he was heralded as a great leader by the masses of that state.

When Dr. White passed away a couple of years ago, little was said.

Few knew of his dedicated soil science research to the agricultural industry of South Dakota.

Few knew of the 140 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles he authored over a 40-plus-year career.

Few knew of the soil classification work he did on which South Dakota farmers can base cropping or livestock grazing strategies.

Few knew of the geological and soil science knowledge he instilled in his students.

Few knew of the impact he had on at least one of his students 33 years after he took his class.

Now you know. 

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