Childhood is funny. There are a lot of things I don't remember clearly. Yet there are other moments that remain crystalized in my mind as if they happened yesterday.
Showing cattle, for one. Particular moments in particular barns. The Illinois State Fair. 1993.
My family showed Shorthorns at the state fair for decades, and we liked to watch the draft horse shows on Sunday evening before we showed on Monday. I so clearly remember standing in the old coliseum with my mother during the draft horse show in '93. An 8-horse hitch came rolling into the coliseum carrying Becky Doyle. As we stood there – me a 16-year-old and my mother, the farm wife – my mother made sure I knew and understood this much: that's Becky Doyle, the first woman to be the Illinois Director of Agriculture.
I can't lie; I'm not sure if I even knew there was an Illinois Director of Ag at that point, much less that she was a woman. But in that moment, I knew it and I knew in my soul it was a big deal.
I was 16 and impressionable and it made a mark. If she could do it, what did that mean for me? For any of us?
T.F. Hodge once wrote, "The sky is not my limit..I am."
Fast forward 10 years: I was on staff with Prairie Farmer and I interviewed Becky Doyle for a story about her work with the UN World Food Programme.
Fast forward another 10 years after that: I wrote a column about my mother's death from cancer, and Becky emailed me some of the most beautiful and encouraging thoughts. I replied and shared with her what her work meant to my mother, and her 16-year-old daughter.
Life is funny that way. Becky's name has been at the forefront of my agricultural mind for more than 20 years, because of that singular moment in the coliseum. Because of her work and who've I've come to know her to be.
That story, of course, does little service to who she is. Becky Carlisle Doyle was helping her husband run their farm in 1986, when she decided to run for state office as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district. She lost but made friends with then-Secretary of State, Jim Edgar. When Edgar was elected governor in 1990, he called on Becky to be Illinois Director of Agriculture. She spent eight years in the position, a time referred to by then-editor of Prairie Farmer, Mike Wilson, as, "the glory days."
Mike adds, "The thing about Becky was that she was highly qualified. She had the farm background. She knew about agriculture, where today you pick your favorite politician.
"She wasn't flashy. She was so thoughtful. So level headed. When she spoke, you knew it was going to be well thought out. She stepped into this huge department – 700 people or so – and she handled it like a champ."
It was a tough time to head the Department, as the early '90s saw the start of major livestock regulations in Illinois. Becky's family raised hogs and she had to engage with regulators and farmers to come up with solutions that consumers could trust. It was a delicate balance and because she was a collaborator and not a politician, she brought people together and built sensible policies.
I know what you're thinking: don't you wish we could vote for someone like that tomorrow?
After IDOA, she did something no one ever thought a farm girl from Illinois would do: she went to Rome (Italy!) as a division director for the UN World Food Programme.
I mean, wow.
"She was confident and didn't put any barriers on herself," Mike says. (paging T.F. Hodge…) "She was a good Director of Agriculture. She was never intimidated by the fact that she was a woman stepping into a man's job – or if she was, she hid it well.
"She was a steady leader. She was a steady hand. Well-respected and highly regarded."
A leader, an agriculturalist, a consensus builder. Brave. Uncommonly thoughtful. It's what makes Becky Doyle an agriculturalist who influences.
Note: Did you catch our introduction Saturday or the first profile Sunday? Check the links below to catch up!
Agriculturalists Who Influence: The Series