Media Contact: Laura Muntean, 979-847-9211, firstname.lastname@example.org
COLLEGE STATION – Three Outstanding Early Career Alumni awards and four Outstanding Alumni awards were given recently at the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Legacy and Leadership Banquet held at the Brazos County Expo in Bryan.
The awards recognize former students who have exhibited leadership, career and public service activities. These are among the highest awards given to former students in agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M.
“We are proud of each of these alumni for the hard work and dedication they have shown to Texas A&M and those around them,” said Dr. Patrick Stover, vice chancellor and dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. “With their examples in leadership and selfless service, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences here at Texas A&M will continue to flourish and produce alumni who will make outstanding citizens, mentors and leaders.”
James Decker, Jessica Graham and Taylor Sass received the Outstanding Early Career Alumni award for their outstanding leadership and contributions in career, public service and/or volunteer activities within 15 years of their graduation.
William M. Huffman, Dr. David R. Thompson, Dr. Eddie J. Davis, and Phyllis and Lane Keller were recipients of the Outstanding Alumni awards, given to those alumni for their outstanding leadership and significant contributions in the areas of agriculture, natural resources, life sciences and other related areas.
Decker, a 2006 graduate in agribusiness and later a graduate in law at Texas Tech University, grew up in Stamford raising Angus cattle. Decker later returned to his roots to put his education and passions to use in his hometown. Targeting oil and gas leases on agricultural properties, Decker co-founded Shahan Guevara Decker Arrott law firm.
With his focus strongly on rural issues, Decker was elected to mayor of Stamford in May and plans to direct his efforts towards attracting new growth.
Decker frequently volunteers his time in many areas such as coaching his local FFA chapter and mentoring Dr. Ed Rister’s rural entrepreneurship class at Texas A&M, giving students the opportunity to converse and engage with fellow entrepreneurs like himself.
“James Decker astonishes me for any number of reasons, the most of which and not the least of which, being his love for Texas, his love for Texas A&M and his love for rural communities, the rural lifestyle and the agricultural industry,” said Rusty Smith, director of government and regulatory affairs, Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association.
Graham is a graduate of agricultural science and following her degree, she instituted a program allowing students to obtain the first-rate experience that produces both college and career-ready graduates upon completion of the program. A teacher at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Graham’s veterinary science program has been selected as the top agriculture, food and natural resources program in the U.S. by Advance CTE.
Graham schedules, educates and supports 67 agricultural education facilitators who bring in over 1,400 FFA students to take part in the Tours Contest at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo each year. As a student, she was an active member of the Sigma Alpha Sorority and now serves as a national board member, ensuring access to personal and professional development opportunities that will help mold informed and effective leaders.
“You won’t find a more dedicated ag teacher than Jessica Graham,” said Kevin Barrigan, agriculture science teacher and FFA advisor at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School.
Graduating with a degree in agricultural communications and journalism in 2013, Sass created a public affairs campaign for an 800-mile intrastate pipeline project. Her accomplishments earned her a position with DCP Midstream throughout the remainder of the project prior to her graduation from the university.
Upon graduation, she launched her career with Weisser Engineering & Surveying as a marketing director and helped the company reach new sectors and obtain higher profit margins. With her brother, Sass also established Cowboy Brush Cutters LLC. An institutional member of the International Right of Way Association, Sass founded a young professionals group that has grown to over 500 international members.
Sass also volunteers with Sky High, a charity that raises funds for pediatric research. She joined the board of directors for Sky High, and her work has led to the creation of the strategic plan to grow the fundraising goal from $5 million to $10 million.
“The Texas A&M University purpose statement is to develop leaders of character dedicated to serving the greater good, and if you have spent 15 minutes with Taylor, you see that in everything she does,” said Joel Colwell, principal of Midtown Engineers LLC.
Huffman graduated with a degree in poultry husbandry in 1953 and graduated with the highest GPA of any student that year for the School of Agriculture. As a junior, Huffman was a member of the 1952 National Championship Poultry Judging Team at the Southern Collegiate Contest and went on to win the High Individual at the Chicago championship as a senior.
Huffman then served his country as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. Upon completion, he finished an Associate Quartermaster Company Officer Course with honors. After receiving his law degree and finishing with the highest score on the 1959 Texas Bar Exam, Huffman returned to Marshall to begin his successful private law practice and start a family.
Huffman has continued his involvement with Texas A&M through generous contributions to the poultry judging teams, poultry science department, the Corps of Cadets and the Association of Former Students.
“As I watch Bill and I see how he interacts with other people, I know that he lives our core values every day,” said Porter S. Garner III, president and CEO, The Association of Former Students.
Thompson’s 30-year career in managing human flight missions and other projects for NASA came from an unconventional background with his degree in agronomy in 1964. Upon graduation, Thompson worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service and earned both his master’s and doctoral degrees in agronomy and remote sensing. He then joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture Large Area Crop Experiment in Houston where he gained international fame for utilizing satellite data to detect and monitor droughts.
While pursuing his career with the USDA and NASA, he also made the time for family, coaching his daughters’ soccer and softball teams. Now retired, Thompson and his wife travel extensively, and he gives unique show-and-tell presentations about space to his grandchildren’s elementary school classes.
“I’ve taught about 18,000 students. As far as I know, David is the only (one) who went to work for NASA,” said Dr. Murray Milford, emeritus professor of soil and crop science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Davis, an agricultural journalism major graduating in 1967, initiated the Lead by Example fundraising campaign at Texas A&M while also leading the university as president. Davis also launched the Together for a Change campaign with the University of Texas. He also paid tribute to the university through his long tenure as Texas A&M Foundation president, where he started the Capturing the Spirit and the One Spirit One Vision campaigns, raising over $2 billion for Texas A&M.
His nature to lead by example touched the lives of hundreds of students through scholarship, graduate student fellowships, and faculty chairs and professorships. He extended his commitment to the Bryan-College Station area by becoming a chamber of commerce board member, member of the governance committee of the CHI St. Joseph’s Health System and co-chairing a $20 million campaign to build a new church for St. Mary’s Catholic Center in College Station.
“Eddie Joe’s legacy will live on after all of us are gone,” said Leroy Shafer, chief operating officer emeritus, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. “Eddie Joe is the epitome of being an Aggie.”
Phyllis Keller, a graduate of agricultural journalism, and Lane Keller, a graduate in agricultural economics, both graduated in 1980. Since graduation, the two moved on to build two prosperous financial firms aiding families in long-term success within the agricultural industry. After acquiring their father’s practice that focuses on taxes and accounting, the Kellers formed KMH Wealth Management LLC, targeting financial planning, wealth management and investment services.
Realizing the challenge young graduates were having with their finances, the Kellers launched the Financial Planning Program in 2013 to provide financial literacy courses. Their efforts of support have benefited students with scholarships, internships and networking opportunities to advance their careers. The Kellers are also avid supporters of the 12th Man Foundation, Aggie Athletics, the Association of Former Students, the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and the Corps of Cadets, alongside many organizations in the Victoria area.
“Folks like Lane and Phyllis have been instrumental in providing liquidity and opportunity for farms to extend beyond the original owner,” said Dr. Nathan Harness, director of the TD Ameritrade financial planning program, Texas A&M.