A Legacy of Leaders Built MJC Agriculture

By: Anna Genasci, Farm News Editor, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau

On the eve of its centennial, to be celebrated in 2022, the Modesto Junior College (MJC) Agriculture & Environmental Sciences Program was looking for a story that outlined the transformation of their teaching facilities to demonstrate the growth of the program over the last 100 years. However, after combing through old articles, pictures and speaking to retired instructors, what I found was this: the MJC faculty and its leaders created a program that has not only impacted the terrain of its school farm, affectionally referred to as just, “West Campus,” but also the lives of its students.

Let’s take a look back.

Fredrick Knorr 1923 – 1935, The First Instructor

The first agricultural instructor, a man known to all who have spent many years in the Modesto area, was Frederick “Pop” Knorr.  To him we owe a considerable debt not only for his long teaching career, which began at MJC in 1923, but for a variety of unusual trees with which he landscaped the campus.  With some occasional help from Willet Murray and Paul Kurtz, “Pop” Knorr carried the program until 1934 when he transferred to full-time teaching in the Science Department. 

Ruben Sylva 1936 – 1944

From 1934 to 1935 Reuben Sylva and Warren Hilliard of Modesto High School conducted project courses on a part-time basis for the college, and in 1936, Reuben Sylva was given responsibility for developing a full-time agriculture program.  An energetic and enthusiastic man, he organized a combination terminal and transfer program and an Aggie Club for agriculture majors, which was one of the most active on campus.  Agriculture classes were held in the basement of North Hall.   In 1939, Ken Frost, a long-time instructor at University of California, Davis, took over the agriculture engineering and farm shop program and during the years 1940-1943 two instructors, Timothy Alcorn and Arthur Eggers, assisted in the Horticulture areas.

Enrollment in agriculture in 1936 began with 19 majors and by 1941; this had increased to a peak of 78.  With the advent of World War II enrollment dropped to a low of 22 and Reuben Sylva was again the sole staff member. 

Luverne Donker 1946 – 1976

In 1946, Luverne Donker, a former student, returned from military service and joined the staff to instruct in the Plant Science area.  Returning veterans swelled the enrollment and the two instructors advised a total of 125 majors in the Fall Semester of 1946.  Ken Frost returned in the fall of 1947 and continued with the department until 1950 when he left to take a research assignment with the University of Arizona. 

Misfortune struck the department during the Fall semester of 1947.  Reuben Sylva suffered a severe stroke which limited his subsequent activity and a recurrence of which took his life in June of 1950.

In 1949, an Agriculture Advisory Committee began a study of committee needs from which to establish policy and direction for the department in the years ahead.  This committee continued its work into 1951, and the strongly vocational program, which it recommended, formed the essential basis from which the program has operated to the present day.

Ernie Tarone 1950 – 1968, The “Father” of the Program we Know Today

In 1950, Ernest Tarone, then chairman of the Modesto High School Agriculture Department, accepted an assignment to head the department. 

CATA Hall of Fame: Ernie was one of the most dynamic, creative teachers in ag education. His high energy and enthusiasm was unmatched. He built programs in high school and community college that excelled in the quality of instructors and curriculum. He promoted and directed the development of the agriculture department at MJC. He selected and hired highly competent staff and ended up with one of the top community college agriculture programs in the nation. While building and promoting agriculture education, Ernie found time to co-author “Teaching Tricks”, which is a compellation of many of his creative ideas that he used in teaching his own classes.

According to Lee Bucknell, who was hired by Tarone in 1966, “Ernie never missed an opportunity for the department. We had good leadership over the years, Ernie was a strong force in Ag Education and he was really responsible for our tremendous growth.”

Roy Lippert 1950 -1970, “He could build anything!”

Tarone was accompanied by Roy Lippert, also of Modesto High School, who assumed duties in the Agricultural Engineering and Mechanics area. 

An aggressive and imaginative leader, Tarone proved to be an excellent choice to carry out the mandate of the Board and Advisory Committee.  The trio of Tarone, Lippert and Donker became the nucleus of a staff which was to grow to nineteen men in a brief span of twenty years. The quality and effectiveness of the program has achieved national and even international recognition. 

In the Fall of 1947, the Agriculture Department moved out of the basement of North Hall and into a set of military surplus buildings facing Coldwell Avenue.  Two lecture rooms and two laboratories were a great improvement over the cramped basement quarters of North Hall.  These buildings served until 1954 when the present complex of shops, laboratories and lecture rooms was built on the present north campus site. 

Dr. David Reisling 1950 – 1970, Built the Dairy Program from Scratch

George Biddle 1952 -1959, “Father,” of the Poultry Program

Dean McNeilly 1954 -1962, Plant and Crop Science

CATA Hall of Fame: Dean will always be remembered as a dynamic, enthusiastic, and motivational teacher. His wit and humor were highly prized by his students. Dean was an innovator and was instrumental in the development and implementation of the parliamentary procedure contest in California. Dean’s service to vocational agriculture and the FFA is extensive. He has served as judge, host, and sponsor of numerous activities at local, regional, and state levels. Dean’s community activities include serving on the boards of many service and charitable organizations.

Jerry Halterman 1954 -1963, Shop and Forestry

Weldon “Tex” Longbotham 1954 – 1979, Beef Cattle

Dwight Doc Wait 1957 – 1979, Developed the Environmental and Floriculture Program  

Frank Espinola 1960 – 1976, “Hands-on approach,” Poultry Science

Ray Rogers 1961 – 1986, Dairy and Economics

Millie Curly – Department Secretary, Department Mom, “Took care of everything.”

Ugo Lea 1963 -1976, Department Chair, Dean of Students

Harold Whaley 1964 – 1993, Forestry

Dick Havens 1964 – 1980, Crop Science and Ag Mechanics

CATA Hall of Fame: The agriculture program at Brentwood concentrated on production agriculture and work experience along with many FFA activities. The school served as a training site for student teachers in agriculture from UC Davis. During that time, Dick was active in the CATA, serving on many committees and various offices. In 1961-1962 he was half of the only father/son combination of CATA presidents. At Modesto Junior College he taught crops-related and agriculture mechanics classes as well, as being advisor to various student groups.

Dr. Ken Baker 1965 – 1969, Animal Science

John Scheuber 1965 – 1974, Ag Business and Accounting

Dr. Stan Hodges 1965 – 1984, Power Mechanics, later became Department Chairman, Dean of Students, and College President

“I was up and Yuba City and Ernie came and asked me to come to MJC,” said Hodges. According to Hodges there were several changes in that first year. “We hired six new teachers, there were new ideas, the program really matured.” All while instructors like Hodges were working 40-60 hours a week, teaching, instructing in labs and growing their programs.

CATA Hall of Fame: Stan was an excellent vocational agriculture teacher in both his high school and community college teaching careers. Because of his leadership abilities, he was elected chair of MJC Agriculture Department in 1976. In 1977 Stan became chairperson of the Agriculture Biological Sciences Division, a position he held with distinction until being chosen to serve as chief instructional officer for the college in 1984. In 1987, he was chosen as president of MJC. Throughout his career, Stan was an advocate for agriculture education and served on many legislative committees and testified on behalf of agriculture education on numerous occasions.

Darwin Hamblin 1965 – 1985, Agriculture Business and Workforce Development

Bill Reeves 1965 – 1997, Food Processing

In 1965, when the Yosemite Junior College District was formed, change in the organizational structure occurred.  In 1968, Ernest Tarone assumed duties as Dean of Occupational Education Division of which the Agriculture Department Chairman in his place. 

“The education I received at MJC, was practical real-world training that I use every day in my career. A majority of our Sales Staff at Stanislaus Farm Supply also went to MJC – we know firsthand the quality of people they educate.” – Joey Gonsalves, Stanislaus Farm Supply Vice President of Marketing

Homer Bowen 1966 -1993, Natural Resources and Wildlife Management, later Department Chairman

Following the move of Dr. Hodges to higher administration, Homer Bowen, a staff member since 1966, was appointed Division Chairman in June 1984. 

Lee Bucknell 1966 – 1999, Plant Science, 33 Years at MJC

“I came to MJC after teaching high school for 5 years, I was only 28 years old. I wore a necktie to work so people knew I was the teacher,” share Bucknell. Like Hodges, Bucknell was specifically asked to join the MJC faculty by Tarone. According to Bucknell the program had a spike in students, “we had so many returning to school on the GI Bill.” 

Rick Richina 1968 -1972

Pius Scheuber 1968 -1993, Fruit and Nut Science

The acquisition of substantial acreage and buildings on the old Modesto State Hospital site, later known as West Campus.  These facilities serve as an enlarged laboratory area where various agriculture skills can be demonstrated and practiced. 

“In 1970 we purchased West Campus from the State for $1.00,” said Hodges. “We immediately brought in a D8 and began dozing down old buildings and planting pastures.” According to Hodges, the leadership during this time was amazing. “We had a team that was willing to work, we were like a family, we even celebrated together with a Christmas party.”

“Before we had West Campus, we used Larry Banks’ property,” said Bucknell. At that time students had a chance to get hands-on experience, “we had cattle, sheep, a few sows, and grew milo, corn, barley and wheat.” Bucknell shared they had limited farm equipment, but it they needed to borrow equipment, a neighboring grower always came through. Like Hodges, Bucknell remembers this time fondly. “We had great teamwork, 18 faculty who worked like a machine, unit by unit we developed West Campus.”

Another change in department leadership occurred in 1976 when Ugo Lea was appointed Dean of Students and Stan Hodges was appointed Division Chairman.  Stan served for eight years until he was appointed Chief Instructional Officer of the College in 1984.

During the 16 years of leadership by Lea and Hodges, the national picture in agriculture and society went through major changes.  The number of farmers in the U.S. was shrinking and societal changes including political use of agriculture in foreign policy caused great concern among ag educators across the Nation. The MJC Ag personnel were in tune with the times and through retirements of staff, reduced staff numbers to the level of 14 instructors who accommodated 525 students in 1984. 

Ed Leal 1970 – 1990, “Master of Livestock”

CATA Hall of Fame: Ed was one of the most skilled classroom teachers in agriculture education. As many student teachers can testify, organization and preparation were his keys to successful teaching, and Ed practiced what he preached. His outstanding abilities as a teacher carried over into his FFA chapter and his professional activities. His students earned a vast array of awards and recognition, and Ed held every office in the CATA. His skills and knowledge in swine were nationally recognized, and he was considered to be one of the top swine judges in the state.

Hal Carlton 1970 – 1997, “Brought the Dairy Program to new heights. Started the Heifer Sale and Artificial Insemination Program.”

CATA Hall of Fame: Hal Carlton was a dairy science instructor at Modesto Junior College where he developed a nationally recognized dairy judging team that competed throughout the United States. His teams were awarded top honors at the national level on at least seven different occasions, all the while competing with four-year universities at some of the contests. Hal was recognized as one of the premier experts in dairy science. Hal’s first agricultural teaching assignment was at Grace Davis HS, then he accepted an overseas assignment as an animal science specialist and advisor to the University of Bangpra.

Ron Alves 1974 – 2004, Soils and Environmental Science

CATA Hall of Fame: Ron Alves’ exposure to ag education started early – while enrolled as a student at Downey HS, his team won the state title in Agronomy Judging.  Ron attended UC Davis and began his teaching career at Yuba City High.  He eventually moved to Modesto Junior College, where he compiled a distinguished record of accomplishments over the next 30 years.  Ron mentored many young ag teachers, and helped develop curriculum at the statewide level.  He assisted in the development of the Tech-Prep program in California and helped develop 2+2 articulation agreements for a number of ag programs.  His expertise in computer technology enabled him to assist many in the ag education profession become more familiar with the practical application of computers in their program.  Even in retirement he continues to assist local ag programs with judging teams and project competition events.

“Back in the 70’s we had instructors that compared with the finest Universities just like today. Back then we had Lee Bucknell, John and Pius Scheuber, Alan Cover, Ed Leal and you can’t forget the greatest soils teacher, Mr. Donker. These Ag Instructors had such an impact on so many students to prepare them for the next level of education. I will never forget my 2 years at MJC AG Dept.” – Wayne Zipser, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Manager

Dr. Mark Bender 1976 – 2002

CATA Hall of Fame: Dr. Mark Bender graduated from Lodi HS before transferring to Delta College and then Fresno State. His Masters Degree is from Cal Poly, SLO and his Doctorate from Oregon State University. He taught high school one year at Tranquility and two years at Ceres before moving to Modesto Junior College.

He spent twenty-seven years at Modesto Junior College as an Instructor, Grant Director, Tech Prep Consultant and Dean. During his tenure he worked tirelessly to create state wide articulation programs allowing students to prepare for their future in post secondary education.

Mark left Modesto Junior College to create and open the Ag Studies Program at CSU Stanislaus. Dr. Bender guided the program for the next twelve years. He served on numerous state committees for agricultural education including the development of the articulation agreements, the electronic portfolio, and several program guides through the Tech Prep Consortium.

His passion for horticulture, rabbits and meat goats was evident through the assistance he offered to countless chapters with donations, advice, and experience. His service to the Stanislaus County Fair as small animal superintendent and avid booster for the auction are a small portion of his selfless service to our profession.

Alan Cover 1976 – 2004, Division Dean

Yancey Juergenson 1977 -2004, CAT Program

John Nicewonger 1979 – 2006, Livestock and Livestock Judging Team

Richard Nimphius 1980 -2006, Agriculture Economics and Computers, Forestry, Poultry and then became Division Dean

CATA Hall of Fame: Richard Nimphius had a tremendous impact on agricultural education in California, especially in the Central Valley. As a high school instructor for twelve years he coached several successful teams including three state champion Poultry Judging Teams, one of which all three members would become successful ag teachers. Richards’s philosophy of strong classroom instruction being the foundation for all other successes allowed him to truly operate programs at both the high school and community college levels that excelled. He was a true believer in the integration of technology in the classroom and the field, and used that technology to aid in the instruction of over twenty different courses taught in his tenure at Modesto Junior College. Richard worked diligently as Dean of Agriculture at MJC to promote the program being the first California Community College to display an Agriculture Booth at the National FFA Convention, thus drawing students from across the nation to Modesto Junior College.

George Cardoza 1981 – 2004, “The Shop Guy.”

Although many factors are responsible for the success of the agriculture program, three factors emerge as chief contributors to that success.  The first is great diversity of agriculture in this Central California area which is used extensively as a resource for the program.  Second is the widespread cooperation of this agricultural community – farmers, business, industry –, which has given each student an opportunity for a practical and memorable experience in a chosen agricultural field. 

Through the retirement of Roy Lippert, Ray Rodgers, Dick Havens and Darwin Hamblin, the moving up of Dr. Hodges and Bowen’s moving into the Division Deans slot, the Ag staff had dwindled to 12 teachers in 1986.  Enrollments in the Ag Department bottomed out at about 450 students in 1984.

In December of 1991, the unexpected death of Ed Leal shocked the department.  The Department had been in a 5-year fundraising and building program for the new swine unit and just as it was being completed, we lost Ed.  To replace Ed, the selection committee chose John Mendes out of Livingston High School.  John was the first new full-time Ag teacher hired in 13 years.

Support Staff:

Jim Sadler, East Campus Tool Room Attendant

Berl Skinner, Farm Manager

Romy Robles – Farm Manager

Dan Layne – East & West all around the campus

Gloria Wilson, Division Administrative Assistant

During the era from 1984 to 1992, Millie Curly, Mary Jo Rivera, Wilma Silva, Berl Skinner, Don Brown and Jim Sadler moved on to retirement or other jobs.  In their places we hired Gloria Wilson, Division Secretary in 1985; Romy Robles, Farm Manager in June 1988; Lee Ridge, OH Lab Tech in 1988; and Dan Layne, Lab Tech in 1990.

The “84-“92 era was a time when some classrooms got new tables and window covers; the conference room got new chairs; the division office got renovated and eventually new furniture; the computer lab was developed; every instructor who wanted one got a computer in their office;  West Campus farming units got all new fences; the dairy farm was expanded; a hay barn was added; the beef barn was remodeled; the sheep unit was improved; irrigation systems were acquired; the Leal memorial grove was planted; new greenhouses were built and the others were remodeled; the new swine unit was completed and two 25 passenger buses were purchased.  In curriculum, all courses were updated three times and numerous new courses were offered. 

Young Farmers membership exceeded 100 members every year and the YF treasury grew from about $3500 to $19,000.  Judging teams in dairy and livestock under the direction of Hal Carlton and John Nicewonger won national honors and were consistently in the top five nationally.  State and national conference attendances by staff were encouraged and all staff have had opportunities to participate.  A recruitment booth at the National FFA convention is staffed every year by MJC Ag Staff; an MJC information booth at Stanislaus County Fair continues to be a function of the department.  The transfer rate annually surpasses the college average and our students entering the work force directly are sought after. 

Effective July 1, 1992, Richard Nimphius, an Ag staff member since 1980 assumed the leadership of the department. 

In 1992, Marlies Harris Boyd was hired to fill the position vacated when Nimphius assumed the role of Dean of Agriculture and Biology.  Marlies, the first full time permanent female Ag Teacher was hired to teach Poultry, Agriculture Economics and Natural Resources. 

Dr. David Baggett 1994 – 2013, “The Wine Maker.”

In the Spring of 1993, Harold Whaley, a long time Forestry instructor, and Pius Scheuber, a long time Plant Science instructor retired.  Both were brought back to teach part time until full time replacement could be hired.  In the spring of 1994, Dr. David Baggett was hired to teach Landscape and Plant Science.  The Agriculture Department in cooperation with the MJC Contract Education Department and Georgetown University had their groups of CASS Students.  Each group was here for 2 years and received degrees in food science and production.

The district purchased 60 acres of trees on Beckwith Road to be used as a future farm site.  This parcel consisted of walnut and almond trees and a 40,000 bird poultry facility.  Today this location serves as an opportunity for students to learn plant science, crop science and agronomy.

 “It was truly one of my best experiences of college. Modesto Junior College has everything you could want in an Agriculture program. I think one of the best attributes of MJC is its diversity.” – Scott Layne, Modesto High School Agriculture Instructor

Mark Anglin 1997 – 2015, Dairy Science then became the Division Dean for 11 years.

CATA Hall of Fame: Mark Anglin was raised on his family’s dairy farm first in Bryan, Texas, then moving to Hilmar, California.  Mark’s agriculture teacher and lifelong mentor Ed Fischer greatly impacted his life and thus his teaching career, following in his footsteps to teach at Hilmar High School, then on to Atwater where he garnered recognition with four state champion career development teams and scores of State and American Degrees.  Mark pioneered the use of computers in agricultural education and later worked to develop the first electronic record book.

Mark made the move to Modesto Junior College where he developed a nationally recognized dairy program, again garnering recognition with four National Champion Dairy Judging teams.  His leadership in the state was valuable as he worked with teachers to develop better programs and SOEPs.

As the Dean of the Agriculture Department at Modesto Junior College, Mark left a legacy of success with the program being recognized as the Outstanding Post-Secondary Program four times.  One of the greatest physical tributes to Mark’s dedication is the Agriculture Pavilion on the west campus of MJC. This amazing complex came to fruition under the watchful eye of Mr. Anglin’s management.

Bill Hobby 2004-2020, Dairy

In November 2004, voters in the Yosemite Community College District approved Measure E, the $326 million general obligation bond for the repair, upgrade and new construction of Modesto Junior College and Columbia College facilities and the expansion of college education centers in Patterson, Oakdale, Turlock and Angels Camp.

The funding changed the landscape of West Campus. Projects included things like the Ag Modular Living Units for students who work on the animal facilities. Today there are 28 West Campus Interns who get to work, in exchange for housing, and gain true hands-on experience in production agriculture.

One of the most notable improvements, is that of the ACE Pavilion, an ag-multipurpose building that houses classrooms, offices and numerous ag-related events throughout the year, everything from Livestock Show, Tractor Pulls and Ag program fundraisers.

While Bucknell mentioned small Animal Units prior to the $1.00 purchase of West Campus, students today get to work on upgraded animal units including a 16,000 square foot beef unit and 11,000 square foot sheep unit.

“I got the amazing opportunity to live on West Campus while attending MJC in the early 2000s. I worked on the poultry unit, swine unit and the division office. I look back on my time at MJC and specifically my experiences on West Campus fondly. The instructors at MJC go above and beyond for their students and keep the program fresh and relevant to the advancements in agriculture. Today I serve on the MJC Ag Advisory Committee, in hopes to give back to the program that shaped me.” – Anna Genasci, Farm News Editor

Gail Brumley 2005 – 2017

Still Going Strong:

  • Don Borges, Dean
  • Marlies Boyd, Animal Science, Poultry Science, Ag Business
  • Todd Conrado, Power Mechanics/Heavy Equipment Repair
  • Troy Gravatt, General Agriculture
  • Julie Haynes, Veterinary Technology, Equine Science
  • Lori Marchy, Agriculture Business
  • John Mendes, Animal Science
  • Mike Morales, Plant Science
  • Nicole Morris, Dairy Science, Ag Business
  • Dale Pollard, Environmental Horticulture Science
  • Jennifer Terpstra, Animal Science
  • Andy Alderson, Operations Manager
  • Ryan Amaral, Program Specialist – Strong Workforce
  • Steve Andrade, Agriculture Instructional, Support Technician
  • Rhonda Deming, Agriculture Administrative Technician
  • Jennifer Gomez, Veterinary Technician Instructional, Support Specialist
  • Sue Hobby, Agriculture Computer Instructional, Support Technician
  • Kim Langley, Agriculture Sr. Administrative Secretary
  • Lance Loogman, Agriculture Mechanics Instructional, Support Technician
  • John Macedo, West Campus Operations Manager
  • Tim McDaniel, Veterinary Technology Program Specialist/Instructor
  • Nick Tobin, Instructional Support Technician-Horticulture
  • Krista Vannest, Regional Director – Employer Engagement for Agriculture, Water & Environmental Technology
  • Sector for Central Motherlode Region

While the faces and hairstyles may have changed over the years, the sentiment is the same. “Today there continue to be great instructors like, Boyd, Mendes, Hobby, Amador and Gravatt,” shared Hodges. Currently there are 2000 MJC students taking agriculture classes, 1350 of them are majoring in agriculture. Here’s to the next chapter of agricultural leaders.  

A special thanks to Ron Alves, Lee Bucknell and Stan Hodges for their time on this project.  

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