The scent of old woodchips, dusty work boots and the lingering, musty odor of past livestock shows and class demonstrations meet you at the doors of the Michigan State Livestock Pavilion. Through those main doors, you’re greeted by four portraits of Michigan State professors— Dr. Ron Nelson, Dr. Harlan Ritchie, Dr. Dave Hawkins and Dr. Maynard Hogberg — signifying they were inducted into the Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Gallery. Hawkins is the second from the right. He’s smiling at you from the corner of his eye, reflecting an approving twinkle, almost as if he knows you. He looks familiar, comfortable, unassuming, yet stately. Hawkins is a Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University (MSU), and just to the left of his portrait is a door to one of four classrooms where he used to teach animal science courses.
Open the door to the classroom, and nostalgia floods in. Old black and white photographs of MSU’s champion bulls at the National Western Stock Show and first place heifers at the North American International Livestock Exposition fill the walls. But when Hawkins walks into the classroom, his presence lightens the mood. The teacher in him seeps out.
“I can remember teaching in this classroom,” Hawkins recalls. “It was a very interactive place where students were comfortable to ask questions about the topic being discussed.”
In his labs, he would incorporate as many techniques as he could. From multimedia presentations and lectures, to hands-on activities, Hawkins always wanted his students to put the practices he taught into use.
However, Hawkins is no extrovert. He doesn’t command a room immediately upon entering it. His presence is different. When he enters a room, you feel safe, taken care of, almost at home.
Portrait artist Halstead remembers, “He was somebody who was good at meeting people … He was so good at working with people. He was unobtrusive, respectful, understood everyone’s particular areas of expertise and knew how to make it all work together. His greatest contribution has been more that of a teacher, a mentor and consultant.”
Many who know Hawkins might be surprised to find out he’s an introvert. But perhaps that played to his advantage as a teacher. Although he prefers to be alone, reading and thinking his own thoughts, he deeply cares about people and their future and their needs, Halstead recounts.
He’s a teacher to the core, and a dang good one. He used his professorship to mentor and grow students, but growing up in rural Ohio, Hawkins wasn’t sure if he was even capable of attending college.
Less than half of high school graduates went on to college in the early 1960s. And for a rural farm kid like Hawkins, who also was the first in his family to get a college degree, the prospect seemed daunting.
“It was a challenge to start out with initially because I basically grew up in southwest Ohio, and so to branch out beyond that, I had to gain the confidence that, yes, I could do it,” Hawkins recounts. Lucky for him, he had parents who cared. “Education was extremely important to my parents because they had not been able to reach their full potential… They had their own hopes and dreams of what I might be able to do if I went to college. And so they always encouraged me. It was never ‘if you’re going to college’, it was ‘when you go to college’.”
Then, when George Wilson, a professor from Ohio State, came and judged Hawkins’ county fair steer show, it was a done deal. Hawkins took home champion steer honors, and afterward, Wilson convinced him to go to college, at The Ohio State University (OSU), no less. Wilson was Hawkins’ academic advisor at OSU and continued to serve as a mentor to Hawkins throughout his life.
“I was a little unsure of myself – was I going to be smart enough to succeed?” Hawkins wondered. But with support from his teachers and a taste of success, it was full steam ahead.
When Hawkins started his college career, the plan was to come home after graduation and farm with his dad. A harsh dose of reality kicked in during his time in Columbus, Ohio, and he and his family realized there wasn’t enough income to support two families from the land. Although it was a glum realization, Hawkins found ample career opportunities, and, perhaps by fate, he landed in just the right profession.
Michigan state of mind
After Hawkins completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at OSU, he considered OSU for his Ph.D. However, Dr. Ron Nelson and Dr. Harlan Ritchie from Michigan State had also recruited him. Wilson, his mentor at OSU, suggested to Hawkins, that he go elsewhere and get another perspective beyond his OSU experience.
“At the time, I felt a little put off,” Hawkins says of Wilson’s counsel, “but it was probably some of the best advice that I ever got.” His time at OSU was a springboard and launched him into a lifelong career at Michigan State.
“Michigan State was a place, when I came here in the ’60s, that was really on the rise trying to change the industry,” Hawkins says. He moved to East Lansing for what he thought was just a degree, but after he earned his Ph.D., he landed a faculty position. When he joined the staff in 1969, the cattle industry was ripe for change.
Hawkins recounts when he bought baby beef, or “belt-buckle cattle” for his 4-H project growing up. The cattle were small, early maturing and early fattening in response for a demand for quality. But “as with most of our pendulum swings, it went too far,” Hawkins imparts.
The MSU faculty knew that and worked hard to reverse the trend. Hawkins says, “There were herds available, not well known, that did have seedstock available that we could bring in and use here to promote and change the industry. We started selecting for heavier muscled cattle that had larger frame and growth rate.” Then, artificial insemination became available to every day farmers and ranchers, revolutionizing cattle breeding. Cue the fireworks.
The team at MSU in the ’70s was electric. There was an influx of people coming to see growthier, leaner cattle, a far cry from the shorter, stockier cattle of decades prior. MSU faculty were asked to judge shows and travel across the country to speak.
“The key to all of this is the people involved because you can have the very best livestock at any one point in time, but if you don’t have the right people working with them and working with the students and working with the breeders to try to move the industry forward according to what the economic trends are at that time, it’s all for naught,” Hawkins articulates.
For 55 years, the MSU Animal Science Department was run by Dr. Nelson and then Dr. Maynard Hogberg, a time that Hawkins refers to as the “golden era”.
From 1971 to 1977, Hawkins taught meat animal evaluation courses and coached the MSU livestock judging team. For three decades after, he was a mentor to many MSU livestock judging team coaches.
Hawkins also was Beef Cattle Teaching Center faculty coordinator, and he led the center’s charge to develop high-quality beef cattle. Between 1973 and 2009, MSU won more than 60 grand or reserve grand champion banners at national shows across North America. Success in the show ring bolstered cattle business for Hawkins and the university. MSU sold bull semen and exported cattle across the world.
Hawkins was a big believer in performance testing and helped establish the Michigan Bull Test Station. In 2001, he was honored by the Michigan Cattlemen’s Association as MCA Seedstock Breeder of the Year. Over the years, Hawkins has been invited to judge at nearly every major cattle show in the U.S., Australia, Canada and Denmark.
Individually, Hawkins’ career is pretty impressive. But he prefers to talk about what he and his coworkers were able to accomplish as a team.
“We had the opportunity, and the people across the nation believed in us and what we were doing,” Hawkins says, taking care to give his entire MSU Animal Science team credit. “Everybody had a role. We all had the same vision. And it really didn’t matter who got the credit for what. And it was a very synergistic group where we got ideas from each other.”
Hawkins’ accomplishments and awards go on and on, but his real passion was in the classroom.
Beyond the classroom
Halstead remarks, “He asked me to include the globe in his portrait because of the students he had from all over the world. That sticks out to me as especially meaningful because of his impact all over the world. As quiet and unassuming as he is, he’s had a tremendous impact globally.”
Hawkins coordinated animal science undergraduate program for two decades. He taught nine courses that impacted more than 7,000 students and advised more than 1,850 undergraduate students. His influence on thousands of lives can never be measured, but many students still recall his lasting impact.
“Dave Hawkins has had tremendous influence on my life,” says Dr. Jeannine Schweihofer, one of Hawkins’ advisees. “He was one of the first faculty that welcomed me and made me feel at home and made it really feel like family in the department. He was really good at that.”
Schweihofer’s voice waivers, and it’s evident there is a lot of emotion behind her words. Her eyes convey just how impactful Hawkins was in her life.
That illustrates Hawkins’ success as a teacher. He considered his professors at Ohio State as role models, and they inspired him to become a professor himself. “You can never repay those people for what they did, except if you try to pay it forward,” he says thoughtfully. And he passed down that motto to Schweihofer.
“He’s really a people person; he always knew the best connections and people and ways to approach situations and different scenarios,” Jeannine recalls. “Watching that and learning from his mentorship has helped me to become a mentor to others.”
Today, Schweihofer is a meat quality extension educator with MSU extension. She still keeps in touch with Hawkins and enjoys running into him and his family at Spartan sports events.
“My vision was to be the very best teacher I could be, because the college experience gets to be a very challenging one for many people,” Hawkins explains. He knew that not every student graduated as class valedictorian in high school, and many freshmen grew up in rural America and simply didn’t know all that was available to them at MSU. That certainly was the case for Ken Geuns, who Hawkins helped recruit to MSU.
Geuns worked for an Angus breeder in Illinois and attended many cattle shows in the Midwest growing up. That’s where he first met Hawkins. Later, Geuns’ employer “coerced” him into visiting MSU and set him up to visit several professors, one being Hawkins.
That visit landed him an assistantship position in the animal science department, an opportunity he never even dreamed was possible. “He had such a tremendous rapport with students, very easy to talk to, and I was very lucky to have him as an advisor,” Geuns says.
Fast forward a few years, and Geuns landed a role on the MSU animal science faculty.
“In terms of my professional career, there’s no question that Dave had a significant role helping me get established as a faculty member and a person who did a lot of extension programs with youth.”
Geuns went on to retire from the MSU faculty in 2012 and is still an active community member in East Lansing.
“Dave has impeccable character. There’s no question about that,” Geuns pauses. “I’m kind of at a loss for words right now, and I’m usually not that way.”
Hawkins has that effect on people. It’s hard to find the words to do him justice, but after a moment, Geuns found his voice again.
“Dave Hawkins is a great individual from the standpoint of his knowledge of the beef cattle industry, from the standpoint of his character, and his passion. He’s a great individual, a great man, who’s really made a difference in the livestock industry and the lives of many young people throughout the U.S. and the world.”
Perhaps Hawkins had such an impact because he went above and beyond his post to teach students life lessons they could apply no matter what season of life they were in. He knew that the only way to really help a student and steer them in the right direction was to really get to know them beyond the classroom and understand their hopes and dreams.
“Some of the most rewarding things have been when we’ve had a student that maybe struggled a little bit, but through some of the opportunities we could provide, whether that be a work experience, classroom work, study abroad, or whatever it might be, helped them to develop confidence and become a very successful professional out in the industry,” Hawkins recalls. That was his favorite part; seeing students succeed by simply giving them the chance to.
“My talent, if there is one, was that of being able to impact students through the classroom,” Hawkins says softly and with some hesitation, as if it pains him to talk about his personal accomplishments. But talking about team victories is a bit easier for him. Reflecting back on his tenure at MSU, he says, “Looking back on it now and with four inductees into the Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Gallery, why, maybe we did some of the right things.”
To Hawkins, “greatness is achieved by one’s actions serving others”. The recipe for success has to include sharing expertise to inspire, and mentor others. Without the service component, the good can’t rise to become great.
“I think I’m good,” Hawkins articulates. “It’s up to others whether I’m great or not.”