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How Mauri Williamson inspired generations

Donya Lester
GREATEST GIFT: Mauri Williamson was missing from the parade at the 2017 Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry, but Donya Lester soon reminded everyone about his special gift.
Donya Lester reflects on the legend she followed as executive secretary of Purdue Ag Alumni.

The year was 1986. Donya Lester was the new executive secretary of the University of Georgia Ag Alumni. She attended a national conference, and it didn’t take her long to figure out which person was Mauri Williamson.

“I was the new kid from Georgia,” Lester says. “He motioned for me to sit by him. He said he was going to tell me what I needed to be doing, and he did.”

Williamson retired as Purdue Ag Alumni executive secretary a few years later. Lester was his hand-picked successor. When Lester gave her annual report at the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry recently, it boiled down to a personal tribute to Williamson, who passed away in January. She revealed what she believes is the greatest gift Mauri gave to Indiana agriculture and Purdue ag alumni.

Greatest gift
“He loved Purdue Agriculture,” Lester said. “And he showed all the rest of us how to love Purdue and Purdue Agriculture just as much as he did. That was his gift to us.”

Mauri didn’t just tell people what to do, he showed them, Lester said. He rolled up his sleeves and did the things he felt others should also do. He walked the talk, sometimes to extremes, but always with the best interest of Purdue and agriculture in mind.

When the class of 1950 wanted to do something special for Purdue, Mauri stepped forward, Lester said. He helped organize efforts to raise funds for the Class of ’50 Purdue Hall.

To rally support for Purdue Agriculture among alumni, he was the brainchild behind the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry. It quickly became the largest and most unique ag alumni event held anywhere.

“Professors dressed up in old-time garb and served fish to the crowd,” Lester reflected. “Some of the signs they carried weren’t even politically correct then, let alone today. Through it all, he rallied Purdue ag alumni together and developed support for the university in a way no one else had ever done.”

Lester eventually helped change the decorum of the fish fry by 180 degrees, yet maintained it as a “must-attend” event. No one was a bigger fan of Lester and those changes than Mauri Williamson.

Behind the scenes
Mauri showed people how to love Purdue and agriculture by his actions, even if they weren’t always obvious to everyone, Lester said. The Williamson Endowment Scholarship Fund today supports four ag students each year. Each Williamson scholar receives $5,000 each year for four years. That’s showing and demonstrating that supporting the next generation is important, not just talking about it, Lester implied.

Mauri had his own way of doing things — it usually involved backwoods humor of some kind. Tom Turpin, a Purdue entomologist who is a gifted after-dinner speaker and humorist in his own right, recalls how Mauri set him up early in his career. He recently wrote that Mauri introduced him at an ag alumni meeting in Blackford County as a great speaker. Two words into Turpin’s talk, everyone put on their coats and left. Mauri was behind the whole thing, Turpin quipped. When Mauri went outside and gave the signal, they all came back for Turpin’s talk.

That’s the Mauri Williamson that Lester remembers — showing his love and passion for Purdue and people, and sharing a little humor along the way.

 

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