The Fish Fry
The initiation of the annual meeting in conjunction with the winter extension conference and its graduation evolution into an annual banquet get-together has been noted previously. At the outbreak of World War II, attendance at these get-togethers was running between five and six hundred and advance sale of tickets in the counties was initiated.
Just what happened during the World War II years is not clear from the records. It is noted however, that an "annual meeting and fish fry" was held during 1949 winter conference with 749 tickets being sold. (Records show that for the next several board meetings there were discussions as to whether fish should continue to be the menu. A pork barbecue was proposed, but fish won out!)
As the years progressed, special outside speakers were headlined. Governors and other dignitaries began to attend. In 1954, about 1,000 attended and the Ag Engineering facilities were becoming inadequate.
In 1958, the event was moved to the Armory with E. L. Butz, the new Dean, the featured speaker. The next several years saw a parade of scientists, politicians, and comic speakers, culminating in 1970 with Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon as featured attraction.
Beginning in the 1970's the annual event developed around different themes. Costuming and sets became more elaborate. More and more signs and gag events made fun and roasted all the dignitaries. The opening parade featured old cars, circus performers, and patriotic themes. The Purdue Glee Club and Bands became featured parts of the programs and major speeches were downplayed. Having fun at a memorable event became the goal.
As the event got bigger and more complex, more and more planning and people became involved. Committees began functioning in the early fall. Department heads and faculty became waiters. Ag student fraternities and honoraries were recruited to help. Several man hours were necessary to fill the "goodie bags" for each person attending as more and more companies wanted to supply advertising souvenirs for the event.
This event was initiated as a strictly stag affair. (After all, Ag Alumni in the early years were all male!) In the mid-1970's the inevitable occurred - a couple of women showed up! Nothing cataclysmic happened, however, and Ag Alumni continued its evolution into the new age. Attendance was 2,500 in 1984. The University now charged for labor, etc. and set-up costs were $5,600 and the food bill $6,240; tickets were $8. Every year, collective breaths were held for fear the event might be snowed out; but luck held.
This event started as a meeting held in conjunction with the winter extension conference so that alumni would come. It gradually evolved until the Ag Alumni Fish Fry far outshone the conference as a drawing card event. In 1960, the morning program, Fish Fry Science Forecast was designed as a gathering point for those attending the noon event. Here the scientists of the Ag School showcased their most recent findings. The guiding directions for their presentations were to be brief, understandable, and humorous.
Representatives from alumni associations throughout the country have come to witness and marvel at this annual meeting event. Most of you reading this think of Ag Alumni in terms of your memories of past fish fries. To help you recall, a chronology of Fish Fry themes is attached.
In 1990, the Association had another major bridge to cross. Mauri Williamson, who had been the major architect of the Association for nearly forty years, was retiring. The search committee wisely determined that Mauri, as all Alumni knew him, could not be replaced and reached out for a new talent to open the second century. They appointed Donya Lester as the new Executive Secretary. The county associations were no doubt prepared for change - but a non-Purdue graduate from Georgia and a woman! It is easy to imagine that many Purdue Ag graduates must have been in a state of shock! However, by quickly visiting the counties and after the first Fish Fry demonstrated her capacity for holding her own, Lester became widely accepted as the new leader.
The upcoming years no doubt will bring a continuing challenge of change. But, compared to many states, Indiana's and Purdue's agricultural operations have shown resiliency and vitality. The Ag Alumni Association has been a part of the vigor. What will the coming century of Ag Alumni bring?
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