50 Years of Kishwaukee College

November 16, 2018

Ag classes return with renewed community interest

They’re back! Ag classes at Kishwaukee College.

This fall Kishwaukee College began offering classes for those interested in agribusiness. The new program includes a two-year Associate in Applied Sciences (A.A.S.), a Certificate in Foundations of Agriculture, and a Certificate in Precision Agriculture.

Agriculture programs played a large role in the early years of the college and current renewed interest in the industry has led to the resurgence of the programs on campus.

Precision agriculture students Kyle Male and Levi Johnson learn how to wire a utility vehicle for GPS technology during their class at Kishwaukee College.

“We recognized it was time to bring agriculture back to the college,” said Bob Johnson, chairman of the Kishwaukee College Board of Trustees. “Our decision was based on demand for these classes and serving the community. We made the decision to give maximum effort to bring back ag classes.”

College President Lauri Borowicz said it made good sense to offer ag classes at their campus, surrounded by corn fields. “In our community discussions, we discovered there was interest in agriculture classes. The new ag classes are different from the past incorporating computer technology and business programs into the curriculum,” she said.

For 50 years, Kishwaukee College has maintained its ag transfer program for students completing an associate’s degree and transferring to a four-year college or university to attain a bachelor’s degree. In addition, the college offered a variety of ag-related classes until 2006 when the classes were discontinued based on declining numbers.

Kishwaukee ag students Stuart Hepker, Theresa Thode, and Addison Wetzel analyze soils in their Introduction to Soils lab.

Twelve years later, ag classes are back. Steve Durin, assistant professor in the Careers Technology Division, is the lead instructor of the new program.

Ag classes offered in the Fall 2018 semester include precision agriculture, mechanics, economics, marketing, animal science, crop science, soils, among several others.

The faces of today’s precision ag students

The most significant differences between ag students from the early days of Kishwaukee College and today are the gender of students and their diversified backgrounds.

Forty percent of today’s students are female compared to practically all male students in 1968. Then, most ag students had farm backgrounds. Today, some have farm backgrounds, a few are generations removed from the farm, and other students don’t have a farm background at all but are interested in an agribusiness career.

While the faces of ag students have changed, some of the classes have also changed, especially with modern technology being used on farms today. Precision agriculture classes are among the new trendy favorites as students learn how to use GPS (Global Positioning Systems) technology in farm equipment.

Jason Bohannon of Hinckley is enrolled in two precision ag classes – Introduction to Precision Agriculture and Precision Ag Equipment. “I’m a hands-on type of guy,” said Jason, 21. “The precision ag classes help me with my farm job in learning how GPS works, understanding VRT(Variable Rate Technology) and getting hands-on experience with precision tools.”

“The precision ag classes help me with my farm job in learning how GPS works, understanding VRT and getting hands-on experience with precision tools.” Jason Bohannon, Hinckley

Under the instruction of Steve Durin, Jason and other students use the Ag Leader GPS receiver to learn auto steer and guidance systems.

“It’s a good program with good instructors,” said Jason. “I like hands-on learning.” The reason he chose Kishwaukee College – “Because it’s close to home and I’m able to work on the farm.” Jason is on his way to attaining an A.A.S. in ag business while he works for a local farmer.

Noelle Jacobson of DeKalb remembers when her grandparents farmed and notes that her best friend grew up on a farm. “Farming was all around me, that’s why I’m interested in taking ag classes.”

“I was so excited to hear that agriculture classes were coming back because I love hands-on classes and to get my hands dirty.” Noelle Jacobson, DeKalb

“I was so excited to hear that agriculture classes were coming back because I love hands-on classes and to get my hands dirty,” said Noelle, 28. She is currently enrolled in the Introduction to Precision Agriculture class at Kishwaukee College, a four hour course which she attends two days a week.

Noelle balances school with work – she works at the Target Distribution Center in DeKalb. “At Kish they understand my work schedule. The teachers are great and they really work with you and understand you have a life outside of school,” Noelle stated. She hopes to earn certificates in Precision Agriculture and Foundations of Agriculture and an A.A.S. in ag business.  

Community college evolves from Malta farm

It started with a farm. The footprint of Kishwaukee College was deeply rooted in agriculture.

Before the final site was selected by the new board and administration, 13 different rural locations were considered in 1967, mostly in the Malta area.

The one that was chosen belonged to Ralph and Bertha Byro, who resided on the farmstead and grew field crops on the 120-acre parcel of farmland located at the corner of Route 38 and Malta Road. This farm site was picked based on being in the center of the district geographically, within a 30-minute drive from anywhere in the district. Another important consideration was having access to the future campus by good paved roads.

On Jan. 26, 1968 the farmland was purchased by the college from the Byros for $1,000 an acre.

The farmstead, with its traditional white farmhouse, red barns and sheds, was initially used for classrooms and offices until new buildings could be built. The barn was remodeled and used for theater, an art gallery and social events. The farm was often referred to as the “Ponderosa” after the popular television series.

Transforming a farmstead into a college campus is no simple task. But by spring, construction had begun on a series of five temporary buildings that would be used for classrooms and ready to accommodate students in the Fall of 1968.

The fall semester began on Sept. 17, 1968 with 608 students registered for
62 different classes.

The Kishwaukee College campus has changed dramatically in 50 years from the Byro farm to temporary buildings to today’s modern facilities as a top-notch institution for life-long learning. The college has expanded its campus through six construction phases and has graduated over 24,000 students in a half-century.

One thing that hasn’t changed at the college is being nestled among corn fields in rural DeKalb County.

Farm Bureau embraces newly formed college

The DeKalb County Farm Bureau and local farmers were supportive of the community college movement. From the early beginnings, farmers were involved in the college’s site selection and served on advisory committees. Four out of seven of the original board members were farmers, including Farm Bureau President Howard Mullins who also was the first chairman of the college’s board of trustees.

In the early years, Farm Bureau provided financial support to the college’s ag program, for equipment, and some years later for computers.

Over the last half-century, Farm Bureau has supported the college’s mission in referendums, surfaced and backed candidates for election to the college board, and has had a long-standing relationship with the college and its administration.

Farmers recall first years of classes at Kishwaukee

Having classes in an old dairy barn didn’t bother
Dale Gommel when he was a student at Kishwaukee College. As a DeKalb farm boy, he was used to working in barns while raising livestock.

In the early years of the college many classes were held off-site in nearby schools, community buildings, and even barns to accommodate students because classroom facilities weren’t available on the newly established college campus. “Back then we had more students than facilities but we made due,” said Dale.

Dale Gommel, DeKalb farmer, A.A.S. in ag mechanics, 1971

The ag mechanics class was held in an empty dairy barn just east of the college, owned then by Dr. Chet Palmer. “One side of the barn was used for the classroom and the other side accommodated the shop with tools. The center, open area, was where we worked on tractors,” said Dale.

“When the new temporary buildings were built the ag mechanics and other classes were moved to the college site,” he explained. “And we had a new ag shop there, too.”

He went to Kish in the Fall of 1969 taking a variety of ag classes while working on a farm and at an implement dealer. Dale earned an associate’s degree in ag mechanics in 1971. He gives Kish credit for the skills he learned and uses  regularly when he repairs farm equipment in his machine shop.

A lifelong farmer, Dale is pleased that the ag classes are back. “It’s one of the bases for a strong college,” he said.

Paul Koenig was the first generation in his family to go to college. “I almost went to JJC (Joliet Junior College) but my FFA adviser recommended Kishwaukee College,” said Paul. “So I went based on his recommendation and really liked it.”

A Hinckley farm boy, Paul took an assortment of ag-related classes beginning in the Fall of 1969. When he wasn’t in class he was farming with his father raising grain and livestock.

He remembers sharing rides to class three days a week, based on the 30-mile trip. Paul also recollects going to the Bird Cage restaurant in Malta in between classes. “I enjoyed the comradery with the guys in and out of class,” he said.

Paul Koenig, Hinckley farmer, A.A.S. in farm management, 1971

“I enjoyed everything about Kish – the instructors and classes. My classes were farm-related so they were all my favorites and I excelled in them,” said Paul.

In the Spring of 1971 Paul earned his associate’s degree in farm management and then returned to the family farm.

Several years later he took computer classes at Kish, amongst younger students. “I remember not knowing what booting up a computer meant then!”

A family legacy of college leadership & service

Bob Johnson was in graduate school at the University of Illinois when Kishwaukee College opened in 1968. His father, Laverne “Dutch” Johnson was serving on the college’s board of trustees.

During the early years of the college, Dutch, a DeKalb farmer, provided leadership and enthusiasm for the new community college. He helped with the site selection. He was seen parking cars on the first day of classes in the Fall of 1968. And being a pork producer, he started a tradition of cooking pork chops for the faculty to kick off the fall semester.

Bob Johnson, a DeKalb farmer, chairs the Kishwaukee College Board of Trustees. He is the second generation to have served on the board.

When Bob returned to the family farm in 1970 he became aware of his father’s leadership at Kish. “Dad drafted me to help cook pork chops for the faculty. He was in charge of cooking pork chops,” said Bob.

Dutch was one of four farmers on the original college board. He served with Howard Mullins, Howard Andres and Fred Willrett. These farmers were influential in their commitment to the development of a community college for higher learning in DeKalb County.

After an eight-year stint on the Kish Board, Dutch decided to step down. He approached Don Huftalin, another local pork producer, and said, “It’s your turn to run.” Don served for 30 years on the board of trustees and chose to retire in 2005.

“That’s when Don came to me and said it’s your turn to serve on the Kish Board,” explained Bob. Bob was currently serving on the college’s Foundation Board. He decided the “time was right” to serve on the board of trustees and was elected for a first term in 2005.

“It’s a family thing for me,” noted Bob, who now is in his third, six-year term. He has served as chairman, just like his father did before him, for the last 10 years. To honor his father’s legacy of leadership, Bob started an endowment in Dutch’s name to provide scholarships for rural students attending Kish.

LaVerne “Dutch” Johnson (standing, second from right) was on the original Kishwaukee College Board of Trustees. Four of the initial board members were farms. Pictured in 1968 are (seated, from left) Howard Mullins, chairman of the board and also Farm Bureau president, Barbara Schaffer, Kenneth Smith, (standing) Robert Caukin, Fred Willrett, Dutch Johnson, and Howard Andres.

Today under Bob’s leadership, agriculture classes are back offering students a variety of courses. “We had listening sessions in the community and we created an ag advisory group. Both groups recommended we provide ag classes for students,” said Bob.

The demand for ag classes was apparent to the board and administration. A number of community colleges had brought back ag classes. Even though the college continued its ag transfer program, now was the time to offer ag classes, like the traditional animal science class and new precision agriculture course to train students in technology.

“Community support is really what it’s all about,” suggested the Kish Board Chairman. Serving our ag community, business and industry, just like back in 1968, we listened to the general tone of the people of the community who voted to have a community college.”

He’s got connections to family, farm & college

Dave Gommel has fond memories of spending holidays with the Byros on their farm which later became the campus for Kishwaukee College. He recalls one year getting a pony from Great Uncle Ralph and Aunt Bertha.

The Byros purchased the 120-acre parcel of farmland in 1956, primarily based on the location, being nestled between good roads (Malta Road and Rt. 38). Their previous farmstead south of Malta was located on a dirt road. Dave’s relatives moved to the newly acquired farmstead in 1961.

Dave Gommel displays the sale bill from his Great Uncle Ralph Byro’s farm sale dating back to February of 1968 in his college office. Dave appreciates his family and college connections as a 27-year employee of the college.

“I remember Ralph and Bertha farmed together – Ralph took care of the crops and Bertha took care of the chickens,” said Dave. They both weeded fields.”

Six years after moving to the rural Malta farmstead, the Byro Farm was being considered for the site of a new community college.

“Ralph went to the old feed mill in Malta and Bill Hoppe told him that he had heard a story about selling his farm for a college,” Dave explained. “That was the first time Ralph knew anything about it.” Well, that story came true as the Byros were approached to sell their land for a new college campus.

“They never resisted,” recalled Dave. “They knew it was a good thing to do.”

With the land sale transaction occurring in January 1968, in February the Byros had a farm sale to sell off their equipment as they had chosen to no longer farm. After the farm sale, they purchased a house in Malta, next to the grade school. Ralph worked in maintenance at the grade school for 10 years and also drove a school bus for sports events.

Ralph and Bertha Byro sold their farm for the development of Kishwaukee College.

Ralph passed away in 2011; Bertha is now 99 years old and lives in Sycamore.

Dave appreciates his family connections to the Byros and Kishwaukee College, where he has worked for 27 years. He is Assistant Director of Facilities at the college.

Like his Great Uncle Ralph and Father Bob, Dave has farmed and has many skillsets. At the college he has been an electrician, worked in the diesel-tool room, been a custodial supervisor and worked with contractors during the many construction phases on campus. Dave’s brother, Mark, also works in the college’s Central Operations as a maintenance technician and farms.

One of the last conversations that Dave had with his great uncle was regarding farm tile. Since the old clay farm tile had been laid, Dave was dealing with underground water lines on campus and wanted to avoid the farm tile. His conversation with Ralph reverted back to his farm days. Ralph recollected “having pulled a lot of thistles on the farm,” the farm that became a college.

A farm conversation leads to decades of teaching

Terry Martin heard about the startup of a new community college through a conversation between two farmers, his father-in-law Archie Tuntland and LaVerne “Dutch” Johnson.

Dutch, a member of the new college board, indicated they were looking for teachers and urged Archie to have Terry, a biology teacher, apply. They were in the early stages of hiring faculty at Kishwaukee College.

“I learned they had an experienced biologist but needed another biologist to teach classes,” said Terry.  “I went to Rochelle to be interviewed by Dr. Lamar Fly, the first president of the college.”

Terry had two years of teaching experience at Geneva High School and was a recent graduate of Northern Illinois University with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology. He was hired and started teaching classes at Kish in September 1968.

He remembers those early years, teaching in the temporary “temp” buildings. He taught general biology, zoology, botany, human anatomy and physiology.

His teaching style was non-traditional as he interacted freely with students and he only used outlines for lectures and labs. “There was no front to my classrooms, because I wanted to be in the middle of a classroom mingling with students. And, I didn’t use any notes,” explained Terry. “It was a casual and open environment, which was well received by students.”

“They all had text books and lab manuals to study from, but when they were in my classroom I wanted them to learn from my discussions and hands-on activities,” Terry said.

With new construction and a new nursing program, Terry later taught in the Science Building and his primary classes were human anatomy and physiology.

Terry Martin, a biology instructor, taught classes for 45 years at Kishwaukee College. The present day photo shows Terry with a framed picture of one of the biology manuals which he authored. Terry became a faculty member in 1968 when Kish opened.

Terry taught full time for 35 years and then part time as an adjunct instructor for another decade. He also instructed night classes for EMTs. His teaching career spanned 45 years, making him the longest faculty member at Kish in the 50-year history.

“I enjoyed teaching,” said the enthusiastic, now retired teacher. Terry turned down an offer to be a department head simply because he “enjoyed teaching more.”

Besides teaching, Terry authored three major biology lab manuals and several updates for McGraw-Hill for 25 years. With some of the proceeds from the manuals, he and his wife, Sherrie, created an endowment to help fund the new Health Careers wing at the college in 2014.

“It was the right time in our lives to give back,” said Terry. He is gratified with the new facilities and legacy he leaves as a connection to the classes which he once taught.

Looking back on the past, he smiles as he remembers his years at Kish and the conversation that started with two farmers.

Ag classes are new again for lead instructor

Steve Durin has a long history with Kishwaukee College. He was an ag transfer student at Kish in 1975 and for the last 26 years he’s been teaching a variety of ag-related classes.

“I look forward to getting up in the morning and coming to work,” said Steve. “I like the students, they keep me enthused.”

Steve knows the history of the college’s ag program best, from a student and instructor’s perspective. As a student he took classes in the temporary buildings and then when he returned to campus as an instructor he taught in the “temp” buildings.

“In the mid-1970s the ag department was the largest on campus – 80 students strong,” he noted during his student years. “Most were going for an A.A.S. degree. Most returned to the farm or agribusiness. Most had an emphasis on farming.”

In the 1980s enrollment dropped due to the struggling farm economy. When he started teaching in 1993 the ag program began to make a comeback with renewed interest in farm management. The late 1990s saw another downward spiral in enrollment with the exception of the new diesel-mechanics courses. In 2006 the college dropped ag classes and only offered ag transfer courses.

After a 12-year hiatus, ag classes are back. Steve says the reason being, “The community asked for it. Our new president also saw the need for ag classes and made the commitment to the community.”

“Ag classes are new again. As class size grows we will offer
more classes. We can tailor our programs for the students.”

Steve is the lead instructor for the ag program. He noted that numbers are strong for the soils, animal science and precision ag classes. The college reports about
40 students in ag-related classes.

Technology is notably the biggest change in the history of the college’s ag classes. Steve is teaching Introduction to Precision Agriculture and Precision Agriculture Equipment classes. “As technology changes, the needs of the students change. Our classes reflect the needs of the community and technology,” said Steve.

He announced that the college has received a $220,000 grant from the state for remodeling the Kish greenhouse next year which will include crop production research for the benefit of horticulture students and crop science classes.

Steve Durin knows the history of the college’s ag program best, from a student and instructor’s perspective. Technology is notably the biggest change in ag classes. He instructs the precision ag classes helping students to learn how GPS works on farm equipment.

The ag instructor is passionate about his students’ future for internships and employment. “The market for these ag jobs is strong,” the long-time instructor said. “The word is out and we’ve received calls from companies who want to hire our students.”

Steve has taught most all ag classes but currently is instructing welding and precision ag classes. When he’s not teaching, he’s farming the family farm in rural Scarboro. The 5th generation farmer raises corn and soybeans and sweet corn for Del Monte.

Students, like Jason Bohannon, say they like Steve as an instructor because, “He understands agriculture and he can relate to us in the classroom and in our jobs.” ■

Sources for Kishwaukee College stories:
Kishwaukee College
Kishwaukee College Archives
Acres of Change