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Progressive Communicators

Biscuits baking in Jane McKimmon’s kitchen. Blacktop subduing the dust of a country road, courtesy of “great roads Governor” Kerr Scott. The unmistakable radio intonations of Frank Jeter.

Vivid memories sprang and historic names dropped like so much well-ripened produce at the April 14 dedication of the Butler Communication Services Building on the N.C. State University campus.

It was Chancellor Marye Anne Fox who, speaking before the audience of more than 200, noted that Cooperative Extension legend Jane McKimmon lived, in the early 1900s, just across Raleigh’s Blount Street from the family home of the Butlers for whom the building is named. Fittingly enough, Fox said, the two old Raleigh families are neighbors again: The new Butler Communication Services Building, named in honor of father and son Dr. Tait Butler and Dr. Eugene Butler, stands across Western Boulevard from the Jane S. McKimmon Continuing Education Center.

Gov. Jim Hunt evoked images of the road-paving that improved the lives of rural North Carolinians during his reminiscences about guidance he received in his student days from Dr. Dean W. Colvard, former dean of the College, for whom the executive conference room in the Butler building is named.

And communication services department head Mike Gray recounted the pioneering efforts in multimedia communications that marked Frank Jeter’s 40 years of departmental leadership, commemorated on this day with the official naming of the Butler facility’s Jeter Distance Learning Center.

The Butler Communication Services Building is the new $4.5 million, 29,415-square-foot home of the College’s department of communication services. The facility serves as a central location for the work of multimedia professionals who serve the state’s 1,370 North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service employees, as well as campus units from the dean’s office on down.

Services offered under one roof

Dean Jim Oblinger told the dedication guests that the new building brings all the diverse elements needed for such endeavors under one roof.

“It is our mission as a university and a College to take what we learn in our labs and through Cooperative Extension to make that knowledge available to North Carolinians wherever they reside,” he said. “We rely on this department to produce the vehicles through which we communicate and explain research-based information — the brochures, the manuals, the photography, the videotapes, as well as many World Wide Web sites.”

The structure itself is striking, standing a bit askew to its Faucette Drive address and actually facing in the direction of the university’s baseball fields. Its front facade is a spacious, green glass-encased lobby extending airily upward to a jutting gable that suggests an architectural hybrid of the past and the future. The atmosphere of this entryway is front-porch-meets-Florida-room: Large plants thrive here, and the effect is so New-Agey that one expects to hear soothing rain forest or ocean sounds wafting down from the green gable above.

However, busy-ness lies beyond, where writers, printers, videographers, photographers and other professionals keep communications coming.

Chancellor Fox described the facility as a “step toward the future that honors the greatest traditions of N.C. State.”

And she said the dedication was particularly special because it provided an occasion to recognize four leaders who have made a difference to the College, the university and the state.

They were agricultural communicators all: Tait and Eugene Butler, Dean W. Colvard, Frank Jeter.

Leaders in agricultural journalism

Unveiling the Butler portraitsDr. Tait Butler was the first professor of veterinary science and zoology at what was then North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College. He was also the first state veterinarian, serving from 1901 till 1908. He founded the Southern Farm Gazette in 1891, while he was a professor of veterinary science at Mississippi State University, and served as vice president and for 30 years as regional editor of The Progressive Farmer magazine, which was founded in 1895 by Col. Leonidas L. Polk.

His son, Dr. Eugene Butler, followed his father’s footsteps as a leader in agricultural journalism. He earned bachelor’s degrees from Mississippi State in 1913 and Cornell in 1915, a master’s from Iowa State in 1917 and an honorary doctorate from N.C. State in 1991. He was named president of The Progressive Farmer Co. in 1953, became the magazine’s editor-in-chief in 1958 and became chairman of the company’s board of directors in 1964. He was also instrumental in launching the highly successful and much-imitated Southern Living magazine.

The Butler Communication Services Building joins Polk Hall, Poe Hall and Kilgore Hall in commemorating on campus “the original legacy of men who founded a great tradition in agricultural journalism,” Fox said. All are connected to The Progressive Farmer: L.L. Polk was founder of the magazine; Clarence Poe purchased it in 1903; and Benjamin Wesley Kilgore was an editor and principal stockholder.

Ed Dickinson and Jack Odle, current publisher and editor of The Progressive Farmer, respectively, represented the company and the Butler family at the dedication. Dickinson noted that the magazine is now the largest farm magazine in America and conveyed the company’s pride in the legacy of its affiliation with N.C. State.

“This is home for us,” he said. “On the backs of people like Dr. Tait Butler and Dr. Eugene Butler, Southern agriculture was built. They loved farm families and agriculture, and it showed in their writings and their work.”

A great man of agriculture and rural life

From such a farm family came Dean W. Colvard, who was born in 1913 in Ashe County, raised on a mountain livestock farm and became one of the most important leaders in higher education in the College, the state and the nation. His career includes service as superintendent of Mountain Research Farms of the N.C. agricultural research stations; professor of animal science, head of the department of animal industry and dean of the School of Agriculture at N.C. State; president of Mississippi State University; and the first chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

During his tenure as dean, from 1953 to 1960, he was instrumental in establishing the two-year Agricultural Institute at N.C. State. In 1989 he co-wrote, with former agricultural communications (now communication services) department head Dr. William Carpenter, Knowledge Is Power, a history of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences from 1877 to 1994.

Gov. Hunt called Colvard “my dean and my hero, the great man of agricultural and rural life.”

Coming to the podium following Hunt’s tribute to him, Colvard made one more contribution to N.C. State — several boxes of rare volumes and research notes to be housed in the Butler building’s conference room named in his honor. Among these were two histories of The Progressive Farmer.

The father of communication services

When ceremonies turned to honor the late Frank Jeter with the naming of the Jeter Distance Learning Center, 11 members of his family, including his son, daughter and four grandsons, were present.

Called the “father of communication services,” Jeter was auteur of the department’s evolution. He joined State College in 1914 as the School of Agriculture’s first editor. In 1922, he became the first head of the department of agricultural information.

He disseminated information to the people of the state for the next 40 years, during which time “he led our institution from the typewriter to the television, right through the information delivery revolution of the 20th century,” said Mike Gray, current department head. “Whether he was teaching homemakers the safe way to can tomatoes, farmers the fine points of pruning an apple tree or 4-H’ers the least painful way to wean that calf, Mr. Jeter and his talented staff sent easy-to-understand educational information to the people of North Carolina. No other man had such a profound influence on communicating the land-grant mission in America as Frank Jeter.”

Now, beneath a gleaming green gable, the information delivery continues.