Our Fondest Memories: Our Tribute to John Hodges

As John Hodges tells the story, one of his first experiences with the UT Institute of Agriculture came as a boy when he accompanied his father to a tobacco field day at the Highland Rim Experiment Station (now the Highland Rim AgResearch and Education Center). As they toured the research plots, the young farm kid was especially impressed by how neat, clean and orderly the fields and roads were kept. The experience made such an impact that at the end of the visit he told his father he hoped he could one day work at an experiment station.

For nearly 50 years, Hodges did just what he set out to do as a kid. First as a student worker at the Blount Farm, then as Superintendent of the entire East Tennessee Experiment Station at the ripe old age of 27. He stayed there 34 years, leading the station through multiple expansions and a diversification of research programs. Since 2009, he’s served as assistant director of UT AgResearch, managing projects and events at all of the AgResearch and Education Centers. The Center Directors will tell you he still likes things neat, clean and orderly.

It would be impossible to sum up the contributions John Hodges has made to UT AgResearch and Tennessee agriculture. We’ve asked a few friends and colleagues to share their thoughts and observations of John. Recurring themes are his meticulous attention to detail, his extensive list of contacts (that may be even more extensive than previously thought), and his uncanny ability to simply get things done. Of course there are stories that are missing from this article. Another attribute of John Hodges is that he inspires loyalty … and discretion.

Dr. Hodges, we hope you enjoy revisiting these memories. Best of luck on a well-deserved retirement!

Charlie Goan, Dean Emeritus, UT Extension
John and I have been friends and fraternity brothers for many years. He served as advisor to UT’s chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho throughout much of the 1980s. He did a wonderful job in this role, and many of our leaders in the agricultural industry were influenced (or at least kept out of trouble) by John Hodges.

John was also an early chairperson of Ag Day. He and his crew were vital to the success of that event. He’s very meticulous, and whether he was planning Ag Day or an AgResearch field day, everything always ran smoothly when John was in charge.

One of my favorite John Hodges stories is from the early 1990s when there was a poultry farm across the river. They were going to build a new feed mill on the farm and UT President Joe Johnson and some of the higher-ups at Andy Holt Tower had come over to inspect the site. There was a big oak tree on the proposed site that some of the folks from Andy Holt Tower wanted to save. After John explained that saving the tree would be very costly, Dr. Johnson pulled him aside and said, “John, take care of that tree.”

That very night a thunderstorm came through Knoxville, and a bolt of lightning hit the oak! It was completely shattered and had to come down. We all knew John was well connected, but we had no idea just how high up his influence went!

John, I hope you enjoy retirement. Maybe now you’ll be able to get in enough golf practice to at least hit the ball into the right zip code. I hope you’ll still come around from time to time … you have a lot of wisdom still to share.

Don Richardson, retired Dean for UT AgResearch
John always had the capacity to see past the finite borders that become the horizon for most people. He conducted and expressed himself in a unique manner that encouraged others to follow him. All this verbiage to say he was a natural leader, a servant leader, with a vision of how our research acreages ought to be used.

My personal relationship with John, although we were well acquainted prior to this time, really began developing in 1982 when I became acting head of Animal Science and John was Superintendent of the East Tennessee Experiment Station. We needed to increase communication between research, teaching, and extension functions of the animal science programs. At the time we had five extension leaders interacting with the teaching and research department head, and all of us were making demands of the station’s resources. One quickly learns the necessity of personal interactions. A few years later we used the idea of developing relationships among groups that needed to talk with each other by getting station Superintendents and department heads together for a weekend of golf—and it is important to note that the dean was a real hacker. But again the program won because as communications developed people would resolve issues and everybody's vision became more focused on broader goals and less on “my” unit. These types of interactions were hatched in one-on-one sessions with key team members, of which John Hodges was always a significant player.

My great respect for John Hodges was based on the fact that he was a team player with an uncanny vision and the skill to make things happen.

Ike Sewell, retired Assistant and Associate Dean for UT AgResearch
John’s behind-the-scenes contributions to the University and research have been numerous. During his time as the Superintendent of the East Tennessee Experiment Station (now the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center), he came up with the idea to launch the Southern Regional Research project on mechanization of fruit and vegetable research. That project was very successful and helped farmers across the South. John was also instrumental in paving the way for establishing the very first location for the Anthropology Research Facility (also known as the “Body Farm”), which has produced many advances in knowledge for the medical and law enforcement communities.

John Hodges certainly was a superb Superintendent … no doubt about that. With John there was never any question about propriety or advisability of his positions.

John, you’ve been so busy through the years, I hope now you can forget about those experiment stations and go fishing!

Roland Mote, Associate Dean Emeritus for UT AgResearch
I will always remember John for his ability to pay attention to details … particularly details that no one else would think about. When John was in charge of field days or events it always seemed like things would just come together on their own. Of course, it only seemed that way to the rest of us because John and his crew had thought of everything.

I recall an especially hot Blooms Days where I found John on the edge of the crowd sitting on a golf cart. We visited for a few moments and then he pointed out an elderly couple he had been watching. He was afraid they might succumb to the heat, so he was keeping an eye on them. The couple never knew they were being watched over, but John noticed everything.

When it comes to looking at building plans, John was THE guy. He’s absolutely excellent at analyzing architectural drawings and determining what would work and what wouldn’t.

I’ve certainly appreciated all he’s done for the university and all the help he’s given me through the years. I highly recommend retirement, John. Forget about work and enjoy life!

Jim Anderson, retired Center Director, Ames Plantation
John, I have many fond memories of our work together. We may be the “tail end” of Charles Hobbs’ trained persons (Hobbs was the head of the Department of Animal Science in the 1960s.) It goes without saying that this training was “unique” to the ultimate. John and I will forever more remember the page after page of yellow legal pads he prepared the previous evening and delivered to his on-the-ground “agents” at Blount Farm … John and me in this case!

I would gladly underwrite a gift certificate of a stack of yellow legal pads that even John cannot use up!

Mike Estes, Regional Vice President, Farm Credit
I have valued John’s friendship for over 45 years, and during that time, I have learned a few things about him.

1. If you want to know the truth about something, just ask John and he will willingly tell you what he thinks.
2. Never ask John about something unless you are prepared to hear the facts. He does not mince words and has some very sound opinions on many things.
3. John will be missed by UTIA as he has been a loyal, hardworking, and dedicated employee.

Joe Huffine, Farm, Home & Fleet Division Manager, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative
As I look back on the beginning of my college experience, I realize how fortunate I was to have been influenced by Dr. Hodges. He was one of the AGR advisors and I remember his distinct, low, country speaking voice that was commanding and resonated with importance. I hung on his every word.

After pledging to the fraternity, I soon became part of a four-person team—supervised by Dr. Hodges—that was responsible for keeping the Brehm Animal Science Arena and stalls clean. The only requirement Dr. Hodges gave us was to “make sure it’s done by the deadline.” Whenever we cleaned the stalls, we used an old UT truck that would have been better served sitting at the Smithsonian, but then again it was only used for hauling manure. One evening, our straw boss Dale was behind the wheel and as he started driving down a hill, he encouraged us to bail out because the truck had no brakes! It wasn’t going that fast, but we could tell that it was picking up speed. As luck would have it, Dale was able to make a sharp left and bring the antique truck under control. We returned to the ag campus with the load intact.

The next day, three of us on the crew went to visit Dr. Hodges sounding like we had just survived a plane crash. “Where’s the truck now?” Dr. Hodges asked. We told him where it was parked and that yesterday’s harvest was still on board. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. That’s exactly what happened. We never saw the old truck again and had a dependable, newer-model replacement before the sun went down that day. I guess the Smithsonian got their truck and some extra cargo!

“I will take care of it” could, and probably should, be Dr. Hodges’ motto. For the students he influenced, and the staff that worked with him, he was well known for not only knowing what to say but also how to get things done. Through the years, Dr. Hodges has developed an extensive list of contacts and when needed, he could rely on them to help to get things done. I have always appreciated his style, straightforwardness and willingness to offer counseling or advice. Dr. Hodges knew when it was time to swap out the trucks, give his crews the tools they needed, and get the most out of both.

Two and a half years ago, I got to work closely with Dr. Hodges on a joint effort between UT, TDA, and Co-op. Over the course of six months, there were several meetings, phone calls and emails and regardless of the obstacle, Dr. Hodges was still reciting his favorite line: “I’ll take care of it.” As it turned out, he did just that and our project is now in motion. Not only did he work hard to make it happen, but he also kept the rest of us involved in the big picture. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

I wish Dr. Hodges well in his retirement and congratulate him on a successful career. But more importantly, thanks from all of us whom he has influenced through the years!

Kim Lane, Administrative Specialist, East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center
I have many stories from my years working with Dr. Hodges. There was the time we were under a tornado warning and shut the office down but left Dr. Hodges in his office in a meeting, forgetting to tell him he might want to take cover … the time we swapped his office for the Assistant Superintendent’s office without either one knowing … we purchased birthday “no blow out” candles for his cake and smoked the office up … once we taped his phone receiver down and transferred an “important” call to him, only to hear some “colorful” language … put grease under his door handles on his vehicle … we made him a birthday cake out of mud and covered it with real cool whip (he noticed a piece of grass before he actually took a bite) … and did I mentioned that he hired me twice! However, through everything we did to him—and believe me he did get us back at times—he has always said that “when the office staff is not laughing and enjoying themselves, that is when there are problems.”

Of course, we weren’t always joking around. We all knew that we were to get our work done and get it done right! If we didn’t, we would hear his famous words, “apparently we are not communicating.”

Dr. Hodges was a true inspiration to me. I use things that I have learned from him over the past twenty-plus+ years not only at work but in my personal life, too. For that, I will be forever thankful to him.

Dr. Hodges, here is wishing you a wonderful and relaxing retirement. May you enjoy your retirement to the fullest. IT IS VERY MUCH DESERVED!

Patty McDaniels, Senior Media Coordinator, Marketing and Communications
Dr. Hodges has been an ageless fixture in my career. He was here when I was first employed by AgResearch twenty-seven years ago, and I always figured he’d be here when I retired. Since I came from a non-ag background, whenever I had to ask a “stupid question,” he gladly and patiently guided me through the various viewpoints of scientists, working farmers, administrators and even lawmakers. To say that he’s taught me a thing or two would be an understatement. Among my most vivid field day memories is Dr. Hodges playing “magician.” I had my usual table-top display set up at the Beef and Forage Field Day at the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center Blount Unit, and it was a hot June day. I was particularly pleased with this new display, as it included a new table covering that was gingham-checked with a decorative edging – a real step up in terms of presentability over the previous plain white sheet. It was not to last. One of the patrons took ill with heat stroke and collapsed nearby, and out of nowhere Dr. Hodges appeared, took one look at the situation and in one fell swoop commandeered my table covering like a magician would snap a tablecloth. (Only, in truth, I grabbed the display so it did not topple.) He quickly doused the cloth in a water cooler, wrapped the sweltering lady in the cooled “blanket” and was on-hand when the ambulance whisked her to the hospital. She recovered, but I never saw the table covering again. Back to the white sheet…

Dr. Hodges and I have had numerous other “adventures” including staging the introduction of a world-famous dairy calf and then later reporting her untimely death; herding reluctant field day patrons out from under tents during sudden thunderstorms; and much, much more. For me it’s been a lifetime of learning, and a true honor.

Barry Sims, Associate Director, UT AgResearch
I am blown away by John’s vast institutional knowledge of the UT Experiment Station system, AgResearch as we know it today. John knows all the processes, policies, and procedures. Actually, I have heard some of the UT policies were written by him, or for him, or someone else said, “because of him,” although I could not confirm the latter.

Over the past two decades I have known John, almost any challenge encountered on an AgResearch and Education Center that was presented to him he had already experienced it. Actually, he generally had a story about it and a solution to the problem.

I admire his wisdom and knowledge about UT AgResearch. John always has a plan and seems to always be prepared for the challenge at hand. Another thing I admire about John is you always know where he stands.

A few lessons I’ve learned from John include crossing the “double yellow lines” and to “always look in the bottom right-hand corner.” To sum it up in John’s words, “he is a good hand.”

Blake Brown, Center Director, AgResearch and Education Center at Milan
I’ve always enjoyed working with John Hodges, but I found a new respect for him while working together on recent building projects. He’s so good at analyzing these plans, making sure all the pieces come together for good, and spotting potential problems before we build a barn that “drains the wrong way.”

Armed with his trusty three-ring binder, he’s also extremely organized. During construction meetings, Dr. Hodges could retrieve a document from his three-ring binder faster than any laptop or tablet operator. I think he took great pleasure in that.

John, thanks for all you’ve done for AgResearch. Enjoy a well-deserved retirement. Should you decide to take up bike riding in your spare time, remember, I have a bicycle with your name on it! You can pick it up at the next Milan No-Till Field Day.

Ginger Rowsey, Information Specialist, Marketing and Communications
4:30 a.m. For the past several years, that’s the start time Dr. Hodges has specified for those of us who set up the AgResearch display for Ag Day at the state capitol. One year I arrived at 4:32 a.m. to find that I’d been left behind. At the last Ag Day I joked, “Why not make it 4 a.m.” He did. Don’t joke with Dr. Hodges.

In addition to being habitually early, Dr. Hodges is often described as efficient, organized and disciplined. In my opinion, an adjective that is not used enough is “gracious.” Dr. Hodges is always quick to recognize those who have worked behind the scenes to make a project successful (even when it was he who deserved most of the praise); I’ve seen him go out of his way to make sure people felt included in the group, and he never misses an opportunity for a kind gesture.

Dr. Hodges is not only quick to recognize others, but he does it with style. He has a special gift for making other people feel appreciated. Give that man some orange UT AgResearch bags and he can win over anyone!

Dr. Hodges, thank you for being particularly gracious to me. I’ve always been able to count on your support. I hope you enjoy retirement! You deserve the best!

Whitney Fair, interim Human Resources Officer, UTIA
Dr. Hodges shared a concept for employee motivation that was new to me called 'room and board.' Apparently, you take the employee into a room and pick up a board. Somehow seeing that board changes the employee's attitude and performance improves. Details about implementation were unclear and he never said if he actually knew of anyone who used that approach, but I have my suspicions. Needless to say, I'm thankful it fell out of practice.

He's been here so long he knows the good, the bad, and the ugly. He jokes that he knows where the bodies are buried. You know he's kidding, but then again, is he?

In all seriousness, I will miss his constant support and encouragement. Underneath that gruff facade, he truly has a heart for employees.