Beloved NDSU ag prof touches minds, hearts
FARGO, N.D. — As North Dakota State University graduates are handed their diplomas on May 12, many will think back on professors and cohorts who have changed their thinking and their lives.
Many ag students will think about Ed and Brenda Deckard.
Ed, 74, is a professor of plant science. He teaches "bookend" classes for the department — introductory classes and then some "capstone" classes, just prior to commencement. An NDSU faculty member for 48 years, Deckard co-teaches some classes with his wife, Brenda, who serves as a director of student services for the Plant Science Department.
Ed stands out on campus because he meets his classes in a suit and tie, but it's not hard to find students to describe their impact:
Brittney Aasand, a crop and weed science junior from Carrington, N.D., has seen Ed as a role model who wasn't afraid to "push me a little more." The Deckards are the "first people you meet — kind of there to help guide you and kind of there at the end to make sure you make it through."
Chase Grindberg, a crop and weed science junior from Fargo who was recently elected NDSU student body president, says Ed is diligent in imparting knowledge, but also simply cares for our well-being. "He could have been retired quite a few years ago but I think he wants to be here, and really cares for his students," Grindberg says.
Christopher Eggen of Mandan, N.D., graduates May 12 and is one of the commencement speakers. The Deckards "make sure they let you know that they care for you every day," says Eggen, 32, a U.S. Marine veteran who served across the globe including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, grew up in West Fargo, N.D. Eggen says personal connections with the Deckards meant a lot to someone who grew up in the city and decided to pursue an agriculture career. Eggen served as president of the NDSU Agronomy Club, NDSU Ag Ambassadors, among many student organizations. Upon graduation, he's been hired as a corn and soybean research specialist for Winfield United at Bismarck, N.D.
Ed and Brenda each touch as many as 500 student lives in an academic year.
The two team-teach the required "World Food Crops" course at the beginning of every plant science major's career. They co-teach a course called "Community Service Learning," where students work in ag-related service projects, including a food bank, an elementary vegetable garden and an animal shelter.
Ed teaches some upper-level courses, "Cropping Systems: An Integrated Approach" and "Advanced Crop Management Decision Making." His primary responsibility, of course, is covering the information and knowledge in the topic.
"But information is coming around so quickly nowadays; the amount of information that's available now that wasn't available two years ago is huge," Ed says. "It's more important to help students to learn how to learn, where to get information, how to keep up as new information comes" along.
Both take care to keep an eye out for individual students' emotional barriers and have an open door to discuss them. Over the years the Deckards have helped console students who were blind-sided by family traumas, untimely deaths of relatives or friends, and even the suicide of a classmate. They came to the side of Eggen when his father, Bruce Eggen, 64, died unexpectedly on April 23.
"I understand, when things happen that you're thrown off track," Ed says. He urges students to be aware that their age group is susceptible to lonelines. He urges them to strengthen friendships and to connect with faculty.
While the Deckards can help in that case, the students "came to the plate" for the Deckards. In 2012, when their son, Christopher, 26, a National Guard member, died by suicide.
While not a big joke teller or entertainer, Ed is known for poking fun at his own drawl, and urging students to laugh. Lectures can be illustrated with Calvin and Hobbs cartoons.
He is known for referring to his hometown of "Cynthiana, Indiana," the "Watermelon Capital of the World." After his undergraduate degree at Purdue University at West Lafayette, Ind., Ed went on to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for his doctorate. While in his second year at Illinois his father suffered severed both arms in a farm accident and and almost died.
Ed started his teaching career at NDSU in 1970 and has simply stayed here. "It's the perfect size in the perfect place, with a mix of excellent students, who are prepared, willing to work and respectful. I cannot imagine a better place to have ended up than where I've been," he says.
Lecturing is a standard for college classes, but Ed enjoys teaching new "tools" such as labs where he asks students to work in teams to come up with coping mechanisms for real-world problems.Those scenarios include a hail storm, a proposed Red River Diversion, or climate change. He doesn't get political but students learn to think about counter-moves by learning how others think. "Problems don't come neatly packaged, usually," says the man who always looks neat.
He declines to point to any stand-out students or favorites across the years: "There's some that you connect with that come back often," he says. "There are people you get text messages from. There's just so many."
Looking ahead, Ed says he says he doesn't like to think about retirement. He realizes there will be a time for younger professors. For now, he'll be "selfish," and continue on, serving and enjoying NDSU and helping students walk through and across the stages of their life.