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Tribute to a legend in Indiana agriculture

Mauri Williamson
IN HIS ELEMENT: Mauri Williamson enjoyed telling people about Indiana agriculture at the state fair. Here he talks to a crowd on opening day last summer.
Commentary: Mauri Williamson passed away this January, but his passion for agriculture lives on!

Mauri Williamson may have left this earth on Jan. 30, but his impact on Indiana agriculture is still alive and well. The man from Economy created more goodwill for Indiana agriculture while he was here than perhaps any other person in history.

Williamson’s name is synonymous with many of Indiana’s treasured agricultural institutions. Among them are the Purdue Ag Alumni Association, the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry, the Indiana State Fair and Pioneer Village. Through his passion for agriculture, he transcended generations and helped tie together 200 years of Indiana agriculture.

By now you know the details. Williamson, 91, graduated from Purdue University in 1950. He returned to the family farm, and in 1953 accepted a part-time position as executive secretary of the Purdue Ag Alumni Association from Ag Dean Dave Pfendler. He was the executive secretary for 37 years, but he was never part time. He’s considered the father of the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry, which helped transform the alumni association into one of the largest, most loyal organizations of its kind anywhere.

Williamson started Pioneer Village in 1961, putting relics kept at the Purdue Ag Administration Building on display. That was the start of what is today an essential part of the Indiana State Fair.

Williamson and his wife, June, were married for 68 years. His son, David, and his wife, Tammy, farm in Wayne County. Williamson is also survived by his daughter, Marsha, and her husband, Larry Mohr.

Williamson was one of the first people named an Honorary Master Farmer. His son, David, was named a Master Farmer in 2003.

Memories of Mauri
Now, here are a few things you don’t know. These are snapshots of my personal memories of Mauri.

• Watch out for the eagle! One of my best memories of college at Purdue was attending the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry as a student. I attended because I was a candidate for a scholarship. I didn’t win, but I came away shocked and amazed at what I saw. Maybe befuddled is a better word — who was this guy dressed up in overalls and a red bandana, anyway?

People dressed in similar garb were carrying signs, some of which would have made my mom blush back then. And once the program started, there was an "eagle" hovering over the stage. No one wanted to get close to it. OK, it wasn’t a real eagle, and it didn’t poop, but it sure looked real!

I’ve attended many Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry events since. The togetherness of so many people cheering for Purdue and celebrating agriculture is contagious.

• "I’ve seen this guy before." A decade later I attended a Johnson County Extension event. Some 100 people were there, and the speaker was a guy named Mauri Williamson. I recognized him right away. He told funny stories. But what I remember most is how many people he knew by name in the crowd. What I didn’t know at the time was that he knew people by name every night in every corner of Indiana!

• See my tractor! Years later, when his son was up for the Master Farmer award, my colleague Mike Wilson and I visited with Mauri and David at the log cabin Mauri built so he could "retire." Folks, Mauri never retired!

Before we left, he showed off his favorite Farmall tractor. It turns out he had several of those early machines tucked away.

• Can you get us some photos? I answered the phone one day, and it was Mauri, all excited. The crew at Pioneer Village was going to Crawfordsville to pick up rare antique tractors. He felt it was a historic moment, and he wanted me to take pictures.

I arrived 45 minutes late, just as they were pulling out, foiled by modern technology. GPS had taken me 5 miles south of town instead of 5 miles north. I knew what Mauri was thinking: Never trust modern technology alone. They pulled over along the road and I took their picture with all the tractors on trailers.

• Come walk with me! Perhaps my favorite memory of Mauri happened just a few years ago. I was at the fairgrounds before the state fair to check out the new Glass Barn. I wandered over to Pioneer Village, where Mauri and crew were hard at work. He wiped his brow and said, “Let’s walk and talk!” For the next hour he showed me one recovery project after another, from an antique John Deere manure spreader to an old corn binder. He shared stories, and we had a few laughs. For an hour time stood still, and I felt connected to all the farmers who have ever farmed in the Hoosier state!

That was Mauri doing what he did best — not just preserving ag history, but also relishing it, promoting it and connecting it to the future. Long live Mauri’s memory!     


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