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Former dean, longtime agriculture faculty member ‘makes us all better’

Dr. Elmer Gray retired as WKU’s dean of Graduate Studies five years ago, but that doesn’t mean the agriculture teacher and researcher has slowed down.

Dr. Elmer Gray discusses one of the sunflower varieties being grown at the WKU Farm. Dr. Gray continues to teach and conduct research in WKU's Agriculture Department. (WKU photo by Bryan Lemon)

During the summer, you could find Dr. Gray at the WKU Farm where he’s working with students on numerous research projects to improve vegetable production or to provide alternatives to traditional farm crops.

During the fall semester, which began Monday, you can find Dr. Gray greeting students in the Department of Agriculture and teaching a new sustainability agriculture course on Water in Food Production.

“I still get butterflies in my stomach before the first day of classes,” said Dr. Gray, who joined the WKU agriculture faculty in 1968. “When I quit getting butterflies, I’ll know it’s time to stop.”

Dr. Becky Gilfillen, agronomy professor, said Dr. Gray has served as mentor to her and other faculty members as well as hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students.

“We’ve often joked in our department that if we could clone one person it would be Dr. Gray,” she said. “He’s always energetic. He’s always the first to offer to help out. He still gets excited about teaching.”

Dr. Elmer Gray talks with research scientist Annesly Netthisinghe about his projects at the WKU Farm. Dr. Gray serves as a mentor to students and faculty members in the department. (WKU photo by Bryan Lemon)

“It’s wonderful to have him around,” said Dr. Jack Rudolph, agriculture department head. “He’s a great example for all of us and he raises the bar for everyone in the department whether it’s working with students, conducting research or teaching night classes. He makes us all better.”

Recently at the WKU Farm, Dr. Gray showed off several projects he and students have been working on — evaluating which varieties of sunflowers do well here, comparing the use of newspapers or shredded paper as mulch/compost on gardens and studying the market potential of baby corn production.

“There’s just something about classroom teaching but it’s the one-on-one teaching that is so important,” Dr. Gray said.

He’s excited about the new sustainability course and in helping farmers and even the WKU Farm do more to collect rainwater for their gardens, plants and animals. “That’s really an area that interests me,” Dr. Gray said.

He’s also interested in projects that diversify and add value to farming operations, such as production of baby corn and sunflowers. “We think these have good potential,” Dr. Gray said, adding that sunflowers are being supplied to WKU’s new Floral Shop.

Baby corn production is one of the areas that Dr. Elmer Gray and agriculture students are exploring. (WKU photo by Bryan Lemon)

A native of Jackson County, he received bachelor’s degree from Berea College in 1956, master’s from University of Kentucky in 1958 and doctorate from Cornell University in 1962. He taught at the University of Tennessee from 1962-68 before arriving at WKU.

Dr. Gray was named WKU’s assistant graduate dean in 1971 then was dean of the graduate college from 1974 to 2006.

While Dr. Gray is able to share his wisdom, perspective and experiences with students and faculty, Dr. Gilfillen said, “he’s a very humble person. He won’t give you advice that you don’t ask for. He’s a humanitarian extraordinaire.”

During WKU’s Centennial, Dr. Gray organized the department’s American Red Cross blood drive, which has become part of an annual competition between WKU and Middle Tennessee State University.

“He single-handedly got our fall blood drive going,” Dr. Rudolph said. “All he ever wants to do is to do more. We couldn’t be prouder to have him in our department.”

Contact: Agriculture Department, (270) 745-3151.

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