One glance around his office in 2-69 of the Agriculture Building, and you know that Tom Payne lives for the betterment of others. He is the vice chancellor for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri.
A native to “the land of fruits and nuts and flicks,” Payne grew up in Bakersfield, California. He attended Bakersfield High School in the San Joaquin Valley, and graduated a year after his projected graduation date due to a repeat year of fourth grade. He said, “I liked it so much, I did it twice.”
As Payne reflects back on the trajectory of his life, his down-to-earth personality and humble nature shines through.
“There were four of us young guys that ran around together as little kids, and they thought it would be good to split us up,” Payne said. “So I was younger, so they kept me back, and the other guys went forward. We were mischievous.”
After high school, he attended Bakersfield Junior College for two years. Payne completed his education there and then became a student at the University of California in Santa Barbara, enrolled in a pre-med curriculum. Originally, he wanted to become a neurosurgeon after being influenced by an American medical drama series, Ben Casey, but quickly changed his mind.
“I got there and I found out, you know what, you gotta be pretty smart to do that stuff,” Payne said. “I mean, you gotta like take physics and chemistry.”
He changed his major several times, from the pre-med curriculum to psychology and finally to zoology. He graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and walked across the stage with his wife, Alice, whom he had met during his years at UC-Santa Barbara.
“I met Alice, and we got married two months later,” Payne said. “There must have been something because I said, ‘Why don’t we just get married?’ So we just got married.”
From there, he was accepted into graduate school at the University of California-Riverside where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in entomology and physiological psychology. Following graduation, he considered job offers at several universities, before accepting a position as a forest entomologist at Texas A&M University.
“That was funny, because I couldn’t tell a pine tree from a eucalyptus, but I had developed this research technique of using neurophysiological techniques to study olfactory behavior in insects,” Payne said.
He moved through the ranks as assistant, associate, and professor, teaching primarily insect behavior and sensory physiology. He also became a research coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Pine Beetle Program. Payne eventually became the research coordinator of that program, which covered 13 states.
He left Texas A&M after 18 years, and became a professor and head of the department of entomology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. After five and a half years at VPI, he was recruited to The Ohio State University to be the director of their experiment station, associate dean and associate vice president for agriculture administration. Six years later, Payne was given the opportunity to come to the University of Missouri.
He flew into St. Louis in an ice storm in January of 1999 to begin his tenure as the vice chancellor for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources — and would spend almost two decades in that role.
“Some people said, ‘you know they say 20 and out, or 80 and out,’” Payne said. “I just turned 75, and I thought ‘Five more years, good Lord, I’d have to have my own black and gold wheelchair with oxygen tanks and people wheeling me around.’”
Payne announced this past May that he will retire in December 2016 to spend more time with his family. He would like for his days to not be regimented, so that he and his wife can enjoy walks or go to events together without having to worry about his calendar for the day.
“It’s been an outstanding career opportunity, and my wife and I thoroughly love it here,” Payne said. “Everybody’s wonderful in the Midwest, not to say the east and west coasters aren’t good. I mean everybody’s cool.”
Not only has Payne left an impact on the University, but also on the students who have worked for him. Senior agribusiness management major, Jade Schilling, hasn’t worked in his office for very long, but still noticed the dean’s compassion for others.
“The dean is a very welcoming person to talk to and always seems to care about the people working around him,” Schilling said. “I think this attitude helps to keep him close to what is happening within the school and the perception that the students have.”
For Evan Gorrell, senior agribusiness management major, it is Payne’s sense of humor and laid-back manner that has made a lasting impression.
“Dean Payne always has a smile on his face,” Gorrell said. “He is compassionate about CAFNR and all the people who work in the college. He possesses the ability to do serious work, while still remaining a normal, down-to-earth person.”
This past weekend, Payne joined together with students, parents, and the CAFNR family to celebrate commencement one last time.
The search for the individual who will fill Payne’s shoes is in its beginning stages. The new dean will bring his or her own personality to the role, but it will be a challenge for anyone to match the lighthearted wit and caring attitude students associate with the man leaving the offices in 2-69 Ag.