CURTIS, Neb. - Weldon Sleight is not a fire and brimstone type of guy. Instead, he effectively and calmly expresses situations and gets results.
In six years as dean of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, he has driven to all corners of the state, not just to promote his campus but also to help rural Nebraska revive itself.
"Six years ago, this institution was too small to remain viable," Sleight said. "It'll be a 100-year-old campus this fall."
To see where that leads beyond this fall will have to be without Sleight, who announced his retirement this month, effective in December.
In its first century, the campus has been transformed from an ag high school to the University of Nebraska School of Technical Agriculture to NCTA. It has battled declining enrollment and funding. In the last generation, it survived being closed entirely.
To reverse long-standing trends, Sleight recruited the state's high schools, the ag commodity organizations and producers, and the Legislature, with not only financial and physical support, but also with enthusiastic rallying.
The education was in place, but the college needed more.
"To encourage kids to come here, we needed an activities-student union, more laboratory and classroom space and new dorms," Sleight said. "Students would go to other places that didn't have the education they could get here."
In 2008, state senators approved $8.7 million for a new Education Center on the Curtis campus, but those on campus were required to attain what was needed for the student union and the residence hall, and to raise $1 million to match the state's investment.
"We went out and sold the ag community," he said. "We told them we will send your kids home to revitalize the rural economy."
In six months, NCTA had met the $1 million match.
Curtis native George Garlick also stepped in. Garlick had helped build a community center in town, then helped again to convert the center into the home for NCTA's athletics. That opened the college's on-campus gym to be converted into a student union.
Garlick donated more than $800,000 to purchase an assisted living center that became a student living center next to campus and construction of a new residence hall.
"Now, we're ready to double enrollment in three years," Sleight said. "In a nutshell, this is a story of new buildings."
The Education Center replaced a ball diamond with state of the art technology, lab space for physiology, soils, agronomy, and chemistry and biology.
"All labs have Internet connections and power. The computer lab has 34 stations," Sleight said. "And, with this building, we now have an auditorium," which has 250 seats and could accommodate up to 300 with chairs.
The commodity groups that stood alongside Sleight while he sought their support are given display space on the hallway walls and lounge areas.
The animal science arena is in use most weekends, he said.
"We are hands-on oriented. The labs and classrooms make it come alive."
The addition to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital has allowed necropsy exhibits to be taken across the hall to pathology, so students will be able to see what diseases look like.
It also has permitted a curriculum expansion into the business end of veterinary work, something Sleight said was much needed.
The campus' heat conversion project is helping two natural gas boilers become biomass burners, using readily available wood chips from red cedar trees. The $1.75 million project is expected to use 103,000 tons of red cedar chips per year, Sleight said.
Red cedar seeds have been spread by birds for years and have gone far beyond the windbreaks that they were intended to form, he said. Clearing the trees that have spread over much of Nebraska's pasture land will improve what the pasture was for in the first place: to feed cattle.
"We can create grass that wouldn't grow under the cedar trees," he said. "It's free grass, and the land will be worth more."
Under Sleight's leadership, the campus has promoted The 100 Acre Farm Advantage Program and The 100 Beef Cow Ownership Advantage, both designed to get students actively involved in crop and livestock production where they can return home with a business plan and some equity in the production.
There is also the Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots initiative, which aims to help soldiers return to the farms and ranches.
"We want to produce the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Now we have the buildings to do that," Sleight said. "My mission is how to get them here and then go back home where they grew up. I want to put my arm around them and tell them, 'We want you to go home'."
NCTA enrollment has improved during Sleight's tenure, from 262 the year before he arrived to 333 in the 2011-12 school year.
"We want over 600, and I have an assistant dean who thinks 1,000," Sleight said, though that many incoming freshman might be more than student housing could handle.
Sleight will leave Nebraska to return to Idaho, where he will tend to a seriously ill daughter.
"This is agricultural paradise," he said. "I hate to leave, but we feel we need to be there."
Ronnie Green, University of Nebraska vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said Sleight "is not just one of the leading advocates for rural Nebraska within the university and state. I believe he's one of the most creative thinkers about the future of rural America in the nation."