Fall 2020 Department Head Column

frances homans

It seems like a different lifetime when we celebrated Kent Olson’s retirement and learned of the impending retirements of Ward Nefstead and Gerard McCullough.  As we prepare ourselves for a year that will feel very different from any we’ve experienced, we think about our sustaining missions of teaching, research, and outreach in the public interest.  These missions are personified in three faculty who have served the department and University over the past decades. We were able to gather in person to wish Kent well but, as with so many things, we were unable to mark Ward’s and Gerard’s milestones in person.

Kent Olson is an Iowa native whose professional focus was farm management.  He had an expansive, whole-farm, view of what it means to be successful in farming.  Two bookends of his scholarly career include work on environmental controls in agriculture (1979) and a textbook on the economics of farm management in a global setting (2011).  Kent became Associate Dean for the Extension Center for Community Vitality in 2015, but he remained a faculty member of the department and now proudly wears the maroon jacket.

Ward Nefstead has blazed his own path in his work, with a clear focus on practical experiences for undergraduate students.  Ward was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota at Waseca, a campus that was closed in 1992.  We were lucky enough to have Ward join us when Waseca closed. He brought his expertise in farm management to our department, and created a host of new courses that found an eager audience.  Courses in accounting, sales, entrepreneurship, management, and appraisal fit in with the business interests of many of our students.  One of his most notable contributions was his advising of the local chapter of the National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA).  Annually, NAMA hosts a competition in which students present a marketing plan for an agricultural product.  Ward has dedicated his time and expertise to preparing students for this competition.  This experience has proved exceptionally valuable and has put the University of Minnesota on the map, as we have perennially have had teams in contention.  We reflect on the many students whose undergraduate experiences were enriched by working together on a NAMA team, advised by Nefstead, on products as diverse as OatsCreme, milkweed-insulated jackets, and Heartbeet Vodka. 

Gerard McCullough came to the University in 1996 to direct the Center for Transportation Studies and became a full-time member of our faculty in 2002.  Gerard’s scholarship focused on the economics of transportation with a particular interest in rail.  According to Gerard, this interest began during the Carter administration when he was asked to help organize political and analytical support for the deregulation of freight railroads in the U.S.  Using data from a regulated environment to predict the effects of deregulation requires a careful and deliberative approach, and this type of approach has been a sustaining feature of Gerard’s research throughout his career.  Gerard was a mainstay of the graduate program, teaching graduate econometrics and supervising many MS theses and PhD dissertations.  It was always fun for me to talk with Gerard.  I remember the time that he talked my daughter into playing tennis, a sport that Gerard enjoyed for its physical challenge as well as its sociability.  I would run into and his wife Kate walking the cat in our neighborhood.  Gerard and Kate look forward to living full-time in New Hampshire, where they’ll have plenty of time for politics, skiing, tennis and cat-walking.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that presidential candidates in 2024 are fielding questions about freight rail regulation. 

We wish Kent, Ward and Gerard all the best in retirement.