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Make a Difference

I am reflecting on a great man who made a pivotal decision in my life. That person is Dr. Louis M. Thompson, Dean of Students in the College of Agriculture at Iowa State when I was a student there in the late 1970s. He is pictured below. On a warm early October day in 1977, a buddy and I nearly caused an international incident and a campus brawl at Iowa State as a result of the sophomoric stunt we pulled that day. An international conference on towing icebergs to Saudia Arabia was being held on campus and we decided to mock it by paddling a canoe and pulling a styrofoam iceberg behind it around Lake LaVerne, which faced the Memorial Union where the conference was held. We thought we were heroes, but as you can imagine, it blew up in our faces. You can read all the sordid details in Chapter 7 of my book Back to the Futures

My buddy and I were called into Dean Thompson’s office the morning after our stunt, and for all the money in the world, I was sure we were going to be expelled. We were raked over the coals in the extreme. But Dr. Thompson showed us grace that we surely did not deserve and allowed us to stay in school. And guess what, in trying to encourage me to get on a more productive path, he told me I should consider graduate school and he shared with me the latest research he was working on. I did not know it but he was world famous for building statistical models to predict corn and soybean yields. Today, those models are known as “Thompson-style” crop weather models. One of his famous papers is shown below.

Dr. Thompson held my future in his hands that day. I cannot even imagine how my life might have turned out if I had been expelled. Maybe I continue in college somewhere else or maybe I don’t. It’s hard to see how I would have ever gotten back on track to go to graduate school and ultimately have a long and rewarding career in academics. Some debts you can never repay. I certainly owe a huge debt of gratitude to him. Here is to you, Dr. Thompson! I hope you will reflect today on his example and make a difference in someone’s life.

Finally, in the ultimate irony, I have spent much of my last 20 years building and analyzing the kind of crop weather models that Dr. Thompson pioneered and I first encountered on that October morning in 1977. You cannot make this stuff up! I sent out an email earlier this week about my latest crop weather modeling work on farmdoc daily: The Relative Impact of Crop Weather Variables on the U.S. Average Yield of Corn – farmdoc daily (

Postscript: Dr. Thompson passed away in 2009. A few years earlier I worked up the courage to write to him and tell him about my research on crop weather modeling. He sent back a wonderful letter, which I treasure. Of course, he remembered who I was!

Laurence J. Norton Chair of Agricultural Marketing
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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