Fred Poston: Former Dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University

Author: In the Field

“It was in Texas, I joined a country and western band. Which was a very different experience. It was sort of a garage band type of an arrangement,” said former Dean Fred Poston.

June 7, 2018

Former Dean Fred Poston

“It was in Texas, I joined a country and western band. Which was a very different experience. It was sort of a garage band type of an arrangement,” said former Dean Fred Poston.

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Fred Poston, Former Dean, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to In The Field, a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm Kraig Ehm. In this episode of In The Field, I'm at the Morrill Hall of Agriculture on the campus of Michigan State University, talking with Dean Fred Poston, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Dean Poston, tanks for joining me. Dean, you've been at MSU for quite some time. Please talk about the different positions you've held on campus.

Dean Poston: Well, it's about 24 years I guess. I came in 1991 as vice provost and dean of Agriculture Natural Resources. I was sort of on the administrative circuit, thought I'd probably move in five or six years just because that was the way things were done. I loved Michigan and Michigan State and the people, it just felt like a comfortable shoe that I've put on. So then I had told the faculty that I wouldn't serve any longer than eight years because I didn't really believe it was healthy to have one person as a dean for an extended period of time, if you change people you get a chance for other ideas to float to the top and other priorities, and so I thought that was healthy. I was coming up towards the end of that and I'd toyed with some presidencies. I had made the shortlist a couple of times in interviews, and I was sitting with my wife at one of them thinking, "God, I hope I don't get this job." My wife reminded me that she didn't apply for it. I had one of those epiphany's at that point thinking I don't want to be a president, this is terrible. About that time, Peter McPherson, we had lost Martin Murray, we'd hired him to replace Roger Wilkinson who'd been vice president for finance and operations for something like 20 plus years. Mark had been state budget director and a number of positions, so he was in that area, and [inaudible 00:02:26] hired him back. So he left after with two weeks notice, and I was home with the flu, and Peter McPherson called me up on the phone and said, "I'm in a, I'm in trouble. I got to have somebody to fill this position. If you'll do it for six months, I'll go ahead and hire someone that, you know, knows what they're doing in, in that area." That sounded interesting, I didn't really know very much about doing that, that'd be a hoot to go do that, so I agreed. After about four months I noticed he wasn't hiring anybody in. We had sort of a two-year running argument with me in the acting role, and he talked me into doing it permanently. I did that for 14 years, I had really thought about retiring as a vice president within a couple of years. I had told the president I was willing to come back, and she as a dean, if the faculty wanted me and she wasn't too excited about that at first, but she decided she really did need somebody to come back. I chatted with the agricultural leaders, and the faculty, and the chairs. Consensus of opinion was I should come back and try and lead for couple of years, and then she talked me into a third year before that was over with. Three years it was and it's coming up on at the end of December.

Ehm: This is your second go around as the CANR dean. What are the differences between your first stent and the second stent?

Poston: When I came in '91 I had been director of extension for Washington state. I had been involved nationally in a bunch of national planning, and think tanks, and a variety of things. I had a pretty good feel for, in general, what the priorities were in agriculture and in natural resources. I had some programmatic ideas and a lot of enthusiasm to try some of those programmatic ideas. Plus, I had done a lot of work with state legislatures and had an approach in my mind of how to be able to move large initiatives in the state, and this was a good place to do it. In that period, I was young, and full of energy, and new ideas, it was much different coming this time. Plus, the college was in good shape after Jim Anderson, he done a good job as dean. I mean, you always have your challenges but it was a fine college. I really felt like I'd been asked to play on the A-team when I came here, it was a very exciting. When I came back it was very different, and I was 14 years out of date on the priorities and the rest, so we had to change the directors and a number of things by way of working this out. I pushed the programmatic leadership into the director's hands and the responsibility for it, and relied on them to be able to push some of the larger initiatives, and they all did a great job with that. I basically went to work on relationships and straightening some of those things out, and some of the other things that, more process kinds of things in the college that would strengthen it, we did a number of things in those arenas. I did a lot of work with the legislature, getting things back on track there, and did all arounds with all the commodity groups, and the natural resources groups and so forth and the things you have to do. We also did the what now, what next series out across the state. I've done something like that when I was at Washington state, or the dean in there had done that and we did town hall meetings. They were very well received. In addition to working with all our various constituencies, we sort of put that on to appeal more generally to people across the state, and it was a huge success. People really seem to appreciate it. We didn't go with speeches or anything else, we just went and we just talked about whatever the folks that we met with wanted to talk about. It'd be a little hard right at first, but you get a question or two and then the dam would break and people would have all sorts of questions. I heard from people how positive they were about that. "Gosh, you know, we really appreciate you came to listen." I even heard that from some people that didn't go to the meetings. It was a big success. In fact, I've encouraged the next dean to do that just so people understand that, you know, what your position is and where you're leading. That was a big success I think. We are in a pretty good shape, again, and we had a very high quality faculty. We still have a very high quality faculty. It was just organizationally it's all mixed up. Once we got everybody moving in the right direction again, our numbers of students went up, our research productivity went up, extension improved dramatically as we went through all of this, faculty were positive again. The second time was really to get us back in shape again. I told the faculty as ... People are kind and we'd like for you to stay and do this, I said, "We need somebody who has a lot of energy and a lot of new ideas", and I'm part of the past I'm not part of the future in this, and I certainly don't have a lot of energy for that. We can do what we were doing with things moving a programmatically to the directors, but you can't do that for an extended period of time. This is about as long as I was comfortable doing that, we need that leadership again. That's really what the difference was before and after so to speak.

Ehm:  A younger Fred Poston, how did you end up picking your major?

Poston: Entomology. Well, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I had gone to college, I went to military school and graduated, and then I went off to college. As my father still says I majored in good time and graduated early, and it was out on my year. Vietnam was going on, so I went in the Air Force and I was an electronics technician, and I worked in a building that was three stories, covered a whole city block and there were no windows and two doors in it. When I finished that, I was positive that I needed to have something where I could look out the window and get outside periodically, I thought it'd be a veterinarian. But as I looked at that it dawned on me, I wanted to be a large animal vet and that really was not raised around large animals and I was at a real disadvantage as a consequence just in terms of behavior and the rest. As we were kind of going through I discovered entomology, and of course, and I loved it. [inaudible 00:10:03] was an entomologist. I just veered into that at that point. That took me down the road, and then I went to Iowa State for two degrees and a career in entomology, which my youngest daughter asked me frequently what this has to do with entomology. I said, "Well, you know", she's kind of a smart aleck anyway.

Ehm:  Who influenced you early on in your career?

Poston:  I used to spend a lot of time, I was sort of on the one of the stops on the leadership circuit for a whole variety of leadership programs. I would tell people, "You know, you don't end up in these positions without mentoring people, mentoring you into it." In fact, frequently, the impetus for me to move was some mentor said, "You know, you really should do this." I had a whole string of those. My grandfather was a person that instilled the love of agriculture. He was a farmer, well, when he retired he was a farmer. I worked on the farm with him and loved it. When I went back to school after the military, I worked for Dr. Darryl Brooks what was in west Texas State University. He was a very unusual fellow. He was never satisfied with what you achieved. I classically remember in those days you had to go and take your grades, and go see your advisor, and they would sign off on it before you can enroll for the next semesters of classes. I wanted to take a graduate level course in population biology and he wasn't sure about it, and so I talked him into it. I made an A in it, and when I went back to see him to sign off, he looked at it and he said, "Well, did you make the highest grade in the class?" I said, "Well, no." He says, "Well, better luck next time", which sort sums his style up. I don't know how in the world you could mentor somebody doing that, but he did a lot of students. I had great major professor who had a huge impact on me, Larry Pedigo at Iowa State, head of department chair. When I was at Kansas State that talked me into going off the USDA for a year on a sabbatical, and which prepared me for administration. That isn't why I went, but it was why he sent me. I had a great boss in my first administrative job, who was an old Ag economist who'd sit there. He hired me as associate director of extension with very little extension experience. For about an hour and a half every afternoon we'd sit in his office and he would argue with you. At first he used to hate doing that, but after a while I realized that, gosh, no matter what happened to me outside of that office, it can be as bad as arguing with Fred Sobering. Sure enough, it wasn't. Plus, he taught me budgeteering and instilled in me the fact that if you don't master the budget, you're not really going to lead to anything. Right on up the right on up the list, certainly, Lou Anna Simon as provost helped me a great deal. Peter McPherson had a huge impact on me. Lou Anna is president, had an impact on me. People outside the university like Elton Smith who was a pillar in farm bureau way in the past helped me when I first moved to Michigan. There are a lot of people that influence on me, probably the one who had the most influence on me is my wife. She's like my rock, and she has a very from compass and is more than willing to share with me.

Ehm: Let's take a sidestep here and talk a little bit about your family. Anything you want to talk about as far as what they're doing, what they're up to?

Poston: Well, my wife, we've been married since 1967 which probably speaks more to her character than mine. We have two daughters, one of them has her PHD and she's a faculty member at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and up to her neck in research. The other one is finishing her PHD at the University of Kansas, and both them are spacial modelers. My wife, she taught English as a second language for a number of years until she quit teaching a few years ago, and has been a retired from that, and playing tennis, and managing me and doing all sorts of things. She's sort of the foundation of the whole family. My old mother told me one time I wouldn't be worth much without her. That's a pretty good endorsement.

Ehm: The best either work-related advice or the best advice you've ever received?

Poston: The best work-related advice, one that stands out. My father was a general in the Air Force. When I went back to graduate school I was working at it. After the military, there were bunch of us after Vietnam, there's an older group. Everybody was really applying themselves. Some things came easy to me, some things didn't, just pretty much the way everybody was. There was something I was talking to my father about, he realized early on that no matter who you are, there's always somebody smarter than you are. He'd vowed, did not have anybody work harder than he did. I've used that quite a bit as I've worked through my career in, and it's true. I thought that was a pretty good piece of advice I've used quite a bit. Then another one I'd share with you is I worked for a dean when I was associate director after Fred Sobering who worked at Kansas State. He said, "You know, when you first start these jobs and nobody really knows what they're doing, but at least pretend like you do because it's disconcerting to people if you don't." That's true. If you pretend hard enough or long enough you do, you generally learn how to do it.

Ehm: How about the best work-related advice you've ever given? Can you think of an example?

Poston: I mean I don't have sort of like standard pieces of advice that I give to people. I've worked with a lot of people, but it's pretty much tailored to the individual, what they need. It's been a lot of fun mentoring people as I've done that. A sizable number of women because we're not overwhelmed with female professionals in agriculture and natural resources, many more now than there were 20 years ago, but still in a minority, certainly in the administrative positions. I don't really have a single piece of advice that stands out in my mind.

Ehm: I understand that you were the former lead guitarist in a band. Would you care to elaborate? For example, did you have a band name, location where you played, a genre [inaudible 00:17:54] Do you have any stories?

Poston: They were mostly sort of a garage, we'd call them garage band now. We played in dances and various things. It was rock and roll. I was self-taught, guitar was popular among a group of us that were teenagers when I was growing up when we taught each other. I found myself into a lead guitar position. We moved along with some of that, then folk music came along and started playing some of that and enjoyed that. Then I went into military when I was in Texas, and I joined a country and western band which was a very different experience. Again, but it was sort of a garage band type of an arrangement, and we played in all sorts of places, a lot of bars and various things. I remember playing in this bar a few times, southwest to San Antonio on the way to Bandera, Texas. It was just like in the movies with the chicken wire up in front of the band and people would throw beer bottles for whatever reason. There were drunks, and fights, and all the rest of it. I was getting pretty tired of all of that. I'd met my wife, she was from a staunch family. It was very clear to me that it was either that or my wife, but not both, and so I sold out all of my equipment and quit. I made the right decision. More recently I've picked it up again not to play in bands but just for my own enjoyment. I went from having one guitar to, as my wife says she is counting them now, five of them. I'm really doing a room in the house, so I got an office and a music room. I'm looking forward to that.

Ehm: But guitar isn't the only instrument you have at home though, right?

Poston: I mean there's a piano there but I don't play it. My daughters played it, and my wife plays it some, but she plays the Ukulele which is another story how she got into that. Nonetheless, I, I had arthritis so bad in my hands I couldn't get rid of it, and I couldn't mash the steel strings down so I bought another guitar with gut strings. It's a lot easier to mash. I started playing that, and when she started playing the Ukulele I said, "Well I'll, I'll get a baritone Ukulele" so I can play with her. I started doing that. I thought, "Well, you know, it really would be neat if I could find my old Gibson or one similar to my old Gibson that I sold way back in the '60s." This was a lead guitar. I think I paid $125 for that and the amplifier. They don't make it anymore, but on Ebay you can find anything. I was looking on Ebay, one of them looked like it had been through the war was like $3,000. I said, "Ugh, I'm not paying $3,000 for that. That's insane", then I found a kit. I used to be an electronics technician, I work with wood, I said, "Well, I can build so I'll make it and paint it", so I ordered the kit. I was standing in a music store buying some strings and turned around, and there was an Epiphone which is a cheap Gibson. It was a Les Paul Epiphone, it was black instead of the sunburst but it's basically the same guitar. I bought that. I've got my eye on a bass Ukulele which is an unusual instrument and my wife's going, "whoa." I'm going to have to wait a while on that one, but they multiplied pretty quick.

Ehm: Woodworking is another interest of yours. What kind of a setup do you have and what are some of the projects you've created?

Poston: Back when we were first married, and as the saying goes without a pot to pee in, I moonlighted in a cabinet shop, and I'd always enjoyed working with wood. When I was on the farm and a very little boy, my grandfather let me play with his tools, not the power tools but everything else, so I could entertain myself making all sorts of stuff. I worked in this cabinet shop and I learned the basics of woodworking. When my grandfather died I inherited his tools and I carried those along. My wife was worried at one point that I didn't have enough hobbies, this was many years ago. She bought me a Shopsmith MARK 5 it's called which is one of these combo kinds of things which fits in a comparatively small space, but you can reconfigure it to various types of things. I started making things with that, and now I've got that in a storage shed, and I bought individual pieces that are more precise. I've been making furniture. I found that with two daughters you never run out of projects, and if you make something for one of them, you may as well make two of them. It was in my garage which I still have to get a couple of cars in there as well so everything was movable. I'm in the process of tearing all that out and redoing it, and buying the nicer, more efficient metal furniture and things for it and heating and cooling it. It's in a sad state at the moment, but within a year it will all be back together and a first rate.

Ehm: You're also an angler.

Poston: Yes.

Ehm: How did you become interested in fishing?

Poston: With a cane pole on the side of a creek in Georgia with my grandfather. I enjoyed doing it. I'm not a super angular but I've enjoyed it for pleasure. I have small fishing boat up on Torch Lake and that's nice. It's on the chain of lakes and there's a tremendous amount of different fish habitat and fish for all sorts of species. When I get a chance, which I'm looking forward to doing a lot more of. Michigan's a wonderful place. I took up fly fishing a few years ago, I've been doing some of that. Howard Tanner tried to teach me how to do fly fishing, I think Bill Taylor and I both. Bill was the chair of the Fisheries and Wildlife Department at the time, and he finally got disgusted and left. We've stumbled along and picked up enough to fly fish. The charter boat captains out of Grand Haven, we did some work for them 20 years ago that really helped them. Every few years they invite me to go fish in the big lake with them. Of course, I know all of them now, close friends, but it's more of the fellowship than it is the fishing and the big lake. I like to cast myself personally. We used to have two little Norfolk terriers, I'd load them in the boat early in the morning about 5:30 and go out on the river. It was so beautiful. Some days it'd be irritating if you caught a fish.

Ehm: Rapid fire question Time. I'm going to ask you a question, please give me an answer and then the reason why. Here's the first question, favorite style of music and why?

Poston: It's evolved over the years, but I've really taken a shine to blues in the last few years probably because the leads in that are really improvised to a large degree, which is the way I used to play lead guitar. I have dreams of being able to get back into that.

Ehm: Second question. What is your favorite book that you've read? What's the favorite book you've read and why?

Poston: The ones that I've read several times would be Tolkien's books, the Hobbit. Of course, they've made the movie. Show constantly on television anymore, but I remember I was just fascinated by the fact that he could create just a totally different world down to the minutest detail. When you went on that journey with him through those books, you were in that world, you could just picture it even though it was fantasy. I was just astonished that anybody could write like that. I read a lot. I read pretty much anything on the best seller's list to be honest about it, and that looks appealing. In the last few years I've quit buying paperbacks and I just read it on the electronic stuff, buy it on Amazon usually and read there.

Ehm: What about your favorite fishing hole or a place to drop a line and why? It could be anywhere that you've been.

Poston: I've got one as I mentioned. On a beautiful day drifting down that Torch River. Fishing is just, it's so relaxing. I really enjoy doing that. You need to do it early in the morning though before all the pleasure boaters get out there.

Ehm: You have a long list of professional accomplishments. Which one stands out above the rest and why?

Poston: I've really been blessed. I've had a chance to have so many different careers within the university and I've done a lot of different things. The greatest realization that I've had of a contribution, when you start, a lot of us are really bound and determined to be high quality researchers. It dawned on me as I matured that the real contribution you make is in teaching. That's where you essentially take what you know and instill that desire to achieve in others, and you multiply and magnify. I think about the teaching, and the mentoring and the rest. I've done a lot of things and a lot of things that I've received a lot of notoriety and so forth. The teaching is something that a lot of us do. Probably the thing is I think about it as an old man now, that's what I'd pick out as having the most profound impact on me.

Ehm: What puts a smile on your face when you're playing guitar, woodworking or out in the water fishing?

Poston: Fishing is very relaxing if you're out fishing with somebody that you enjoy being with. The woodworking isn't exactly relaxing, it's satisfying when you get finished with it and you like what you get. As I told somebody, one of the things that it does do for you is it takes your mind off of whatever the trials and the tribulations of the day are. When you turn those big saws on, you're not really thinking about what happened during the day unless you'd rather lose some fingers. Guitar playing is satisfying as well for me. Really thinking more about when I was better at it, it's the satisfaction of mastering or at least achieving something that's personally difficult and being able to do it at some level of satisfaction on your part. It's relaxing in that sense. It reduces stress. Those two don't exactly put a smile on my face, fishing with the right people on the right day puts a smile on my face.

Ehm: I would like to thank dean Fred Poston, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University for joining me today. Be sure to listen next time for another episode of In The Field.