April 1, 2009
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Last week I got the sad news that my High School ag teacher had passed away. His name was Larry Wesley, but everyone who knew him and loved him - and there were many - just called him Corn, or Corn-man.
Corn was one of Illinois' more gifted high school ag teachers, a genial instructor who blended textbook knowledge with down-home wisdom borne from his Southern Illinois roots. He taught us about agriculture and FFA, and a whole lot more about life in general.
He came to my high school in the early 70s. Leaf River was a small town school with little going for it other than the music program. Corn made the kids proud to be in FFA. He encouraged us to try out for soil judging and speech contests. We started winning proficiency awards on the section and state level. We started believing in ourselves. Suddenly the ag and shop programs weren't just for the unteachable, unreachable kids. It was for all of us. For kids who had felt like losers, this was giddy stuff.
He was one of those teachers you remember, even as age clouds the memories. He made me want to stick with agriculture as a career, and he inspired countless others to do the same.
After I graduated and my school disappeared in a wave of consolidation, Corn moved to nearby Stillman Valley, another small school with a much bigger budget, better athletic teams - just a nice step up for him. He went on to have an even bigger impact there.
There was a reason why folks turned out for his FFA banquets (and I was lucky to speak at two of them). Corn had his audiences roaring, telling stories with his 'aw shucks' delivery. He was a hard act to follow.
He never lost the human touch, as Emily Pell, a Stillman grad told me in 2002 when he retired from teaching. "The FFA at our high school is over one-fourth the size of our student body," she told me. "We have corn to thank for that. He encourages all of us to find our niche in agriculture, or life in general."
Former students remember how he talked about his family and his upbringing in Southern Illinois. "We learned to be proud of who we were and where we came from," Emily said. "No matter what the situation, he had a story or a joke to tell. Corn made us all strive to do our best for him. Going that extra mile for Corn was something we all did. All of his students wanted to make him proud."
Corn's visitation lasted six hours. Hundreds of former students and friends came in to pay their respects. That's the mark of a great teacher, and a great friend.
Teachers never really know the kind of impact they have on the students they teach. They do their job and hope that some of it sinks in. Rarely do they realize that some of what they do and say can have a profound impact on young people for years to come.
Kind of makes you want to say "Job well done" the next time you bump in to your local high school ag teacher.
Share a story about your high school ag teacher in the comment box below.
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