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December 28, 2009   Email to Friend 

Soil Man: AU's Guthrie Receives Service To Agriculture Award
By Darryal Ray

Guthrie, who earned a football scholarship to Auburn University in 1958, will retire this year from AU.
He speaks their names with such fondness that you'd think they were his children: Aridisol, Alfisol, Andisol, Ultisol, Oxisol, Entisol, Histosol, Vertisol ... On and on, until he's named them all.

But it isn't his family that Dr. Richard Guthrie is talking about -- it's families of soil types.

"There's a story in all of them, and people who work in soil science help tell that story," says Guthrie, whose study of soils carried him through a 20-year career with the USDA's Soil Conservation Service, and took him around the globe and back to his alma mater where he became dean of Auburn University's College of Agriculture and director of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station.

There's a story, too, in Guthrie, who was presented the Alabama Farmers Federation's Service to Agriculture Award at its 88th annual meeting in Mobile last month -- the same event that memorialized his mother in 1971 for her years of service with the Women's Division of the Federation. Nell Guthrie had died in 1970 of a brain tumor.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Guthrie, who had attended the 1971 meeting with his father, John W. Guthrie Jr., and brother, Dr. Larry Guthrie. "My mother really loved the Farm Bureau as it was known then. So there is something deeply sentimental with me about this award. It brings back a memory, a warm spot. She'd been proud of me."

There's no doubt of that. Despite his considerable accomplishments, the 68-year-old Guthrie remains a man of the earth.

A giant of a man whose roots sprang from the Bullock County soil, Guthrie grew up milking cows on the family's dairy farm, raising chickens and baling hay.

Somewhere in between, he found time to become a star athlete at Union Springs High School, earning a football scholarship to Auburn.

He arrived after the undefeated 1957 national championship, but was a red-shirt freshman end on the 1958 unbeaten, once-tied team. "I wasn't very good, but I still treasure those years because of the association with the coaches and the players," says Guthrie, who played under Coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan along with the likes of Zeke Smith, Mailon Kent, Loyd Nix, Jackie Burkett and Bobby Hunt.

But Guthrie did find his niche at Auburn. It was there that the young agriculture student began to take an interest in the soil science. "It started to intrigue me that there was something under that grass and it's not all the same," he said. "In fact, it's very different from field to field, state to state and country to country. And it's very important to know something about the soil where you are and how it affects what you're going to do, whether it's growing corn or building a house or building a highway."

Earning a doctorate from Cornell University, Guthrie put his knowledge of soils to good use. Whether mapping soil types in Alabama with the Soil Conservation Service or helping produce food crops in Timbuktu (now Mali) as associate dean with Auburn's International Agriculture Programs, Guthrie found his calling.

"What I enjoyed most was going out there and working with a local individual or team and seeing what they were doing," says Guthrie.

His greatest reward, however, has been as dean of the College of Agriculture, a position that lured him out of retirement in 2003.

Sometime this year, he will retire again when the search for his successor is completed.

He hopes the legacy he leaves is one of a soil scientist. "That's something that's very significant and meaningful to me," he says. "A lot of folks here refer to me as an agronomist. But an agronomist is one who specializes in crop production, and that's not my specialty at all. Yes, crops grow in soils, but so do buildings and trees. I'm there for the soil part."

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