Teacher, Mentor, and Legend – TK to me

Dr. Terry Klopfenstein was my graduate advisor, mentor, and friend.

In the weeks to come, there will be articles of the legendary Dr. Terry Klopfenstein’s passing.  They will likely mention his tremendous impact on the cattle feeding industry and his research on using corn byproducts in cattle rations, an incredible win for cattle feeders, ethanol plants, and corn farmers.  The articles will no doubt praise his creativity, research accomplishments, and incredible resume of awards as an animal science professor.  To me, however, his greatest impact came in the lives he invested in, one of which was mine. 

                As a naïve college senior, I had never heard of ‘TK.’  But Dr. Jerry Lipsey insisted I needed to pursue graduate school which led me to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Feedyard Management internship program and subsequently graduate school.  I likely wasn’t the typical student for the UNL Feedyard Internship or Ruminant Nutrition graduate program.  My transcript lacked organic chemistry and I had zero experience with cattle on corn stalks, feeding ethanol byproducts, or feedlots.  But Terry valued work ethic over GRE scores, and I was blessed to earn a spot under his guidance for three years. 

                To some, retirement means golf and vacations.  To Terry, it meant continuing to go to the office, continuing to participate in research, and continuing to invest in students, regardless of what his official university appointment was.  As a 23-year-old grad student, I scolded myself any day that semi-retired, 74-year-old Terry beat me to the office in the morning!  I don’t think Terry ever ‘fully’ retired but was a model of continuing to live each day with purpose. 

                Terry’s accomplishments were miles long but yet he faithfully taught 6th grade Sunday school weekly.  As a TeamMates mentor, he loyally met with his school aged mentee, taking time to leave the office one day per week and invest in a kid’s life.  He modeled servant leadership before that was a term.

                As a feedlot intern, I recall Terry asking our class what the purpose of the University feedlot was.  We quickly and wholeheartedly agreed it was research, given the tremendous impact that research had on the Cornhusker state’s economy and the US cattle feeding industry.  He disagreed.  We guessed maybe the purpose was to feed cattle and produce beef for the consumer.  We were wrong again, and thoroughly at a loss.  Its purpose, he explained, was to train students.  He said the research would always be secondary to the work they did training students, an astonishing concept to us that day.  He consistently exemplified that philosophy though as he made phone calls to line up internships for students, scrawled comments on abstracts, or created opportunities for everyone from undergraduates to PhD students through his extensive industry network.

                I don’t recall him ever telling a student they were wrong.  He simply questioned them long enough that they were able to come to that conclusion on their own and in the process discovered the correct answer.  He taught with discussions, questions, and a twinkle in his eye.

                He was kind and he was patient.  Once, after having submitted an abstract to the regional Animal Science meeting, I realized my statistics were incorrect.  With a pit in my stomach, I shared the news with Terry who remained calm, steady, and helped me fix the issue. 

                TK was frugal before frugal was fashionable.  While many graduate students ate out for lunch and drove nicer vehicles than he did on a fraction of his salary, he modeled frugality with his daily brown bag lunches and used Ford pickup.  With the money he saved by not keeping up with the grad students, he was extremely generous in his giving.   

                His words, “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up,” still ring in my head each time I consider if I should attend a graduation, wedding, or funeral.  He and wife, Nancy, drove the 300 miles to attend my and Kaleb’s Hyannis, NE wedding reception and faithfully sent Christmas cards each year. 

                After the birth of my daughter last year, he penned a note of congratulations and ended it with, “I believe a wife and mother is God’s greatest calling.”  Less than two months ago, we talked on his birthday.  He told me he was proud of me for not only my career, but my family.  This man whose industry accomplishments are tremendous, said he was proud of me.  As for me, I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have been a TK grad student and to have been trained by such a kind, generous, and humble man. 

Kari Lewis