If someone would have asked me 40 years ago my career goals and where I would call “home” I am sure the role of University professor in Manhattan, Kansas was never on the radar. In fact my career is a result of encouragement from friends and family to pursue a profession in academia.I am the oldest of four siblings and raised by conservative, honest, hardworking parents who instilled strong family values. Like all of us who were so fortunate to grow up on a family farm, I have vivid memories of our family working together and always willing to make sacrifices in order to keep the farm financially stable. I will never forget the early mornings spent in the soybean field hoeing weeds out, the long days spent on an open cab tractor with a six row cultivator throwing dirt to next year’s crop, and the hot days of summer putting 20,000 square bales in the barn. The first time Dad put me behind the steering wheel on the hay truck was an experience. I sat on a stack of books and could barely get the clutch to the floor. Dad would put the truck in gear, point me in the correct direction, and he would scurry to jump on the back and begin stacking hay as the loader delivered it to him. I learned quickly to never engage the clutch when traveling downhill and then out of fear, quickly let the clutch out and slam on the brakes. The result… was a load of hay and my father tumbling over the hood of the truck and landing on the ground in front of me. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. I knew at a very young age that I had a real attraction to the livestock portion of our operation. As a kid we would travel to Missouri to buy feeder pigs and would run them in the same feedlot as the cattle. It was a real treat when dad allowed me to skip school and travel with him to the Kansas City Stockyards to sell a load of fat hogs or cattle. I distinctly remember the activity and smell of the old yards and my father trying to deal with the commission companies.
At eleven years of age, my dad helped me select, halter break, and feed my first steer for the county fair. My steer, Cocoa, stood last in class at the fair and received a white ribbon from Dr. Miles McKee of Kansas State University, the judge. I was disappointed that day, not only for standing last, but also because that white ribbon meant that my steer was ineligible for the premium auction. Still, despite my disappointment, I committed myself that day to feed a better steer, to work harder the next year, and because of the impression Dr. McKee left on me, to judge shows someday.
I spent the entire day at ringside observing this legendary judge at work. I came to realize his passion, ability to educate, and his respect for exhibitors were unprecedented. Since that day, I have been fortunate enough to show under or observe some of the all-time greatest judges of our time including: Joe Lewis, Don Good, Dan Hoge, and a number of others. As a young exhibitor, I showed a few champions, of which I was very proud, but more often than not I didn’t take home the champion banner. I was always interested in the judge’s reasons for preferring another calf over my own. The comments made over the microphone were part of an essential education that I valued. I also realized that each judge had a different opinion as to which specific traits were more important or necessary in their evaluations. I always tried my best to take into consideration the comments of these learned judges when I selected my next year’s calves to show. All of these great judges, regardless of the type of calf they preferred, shared a common theme of professionalism, honesty, communication skills, and the ability to educate. These are the same principles that judges today aspire to and live by.
I will never forget the day my parents shipped me off to Manhattan, Kansas and enrolled me at Kansas State University. That same day my dad informed me that I would need to find a career outside of our operation because it was not big enough to support two families. That was a sad day for me and certainly a feeling of disappointment. I was not sure of a degree plan, but because of Dr. McKee and Dr. Good, I knew I wanted to be a part of the Animal Science program and a member of the judging teams. Kansas State has a rich tradition and some of the great leaders in Agriculture have been members of that program. As a student at Kansas State I was surrounded by some of the most highly respected faculty and coaches in the country.
Upon graduation from KSU, I pursued graduate work and livestock coaching duties at Clemson University and the University of Kentucky. As fate would have it, the coaching position at Kansas State would become available, and I have been honored to coach within a historic program behind eight legendary coaches since 1903. I have been blessed to coach some of the brightest students of which many are recognized today as leaders, and outstanding judges. My family today not only includes my wife and two sons, but also the more than 250 judging team members who have been part of our lives the past 21 years. My former students make me proud and they are the reason I enjoy my profession so much. Even though I have retired from coaching, I plan to continue my role as an educator at Kansas State.
Today, my wife of 28 years, Kandi, and sons, Shane and Shilo, and I aim to live by the same family values upon which I was raised. We work hard together as a family. My wife and I support our sons at youth sporting events and livestock shows. Our family has a passion for agriculture, its people, and we strongly support youth shows. I will never forget the day when my youngest son, Shilo, reminded me what junior programs are all about. After getting beat at a show where we took a steer and thought we had the quality to win, rather than pouting or throwing a fit he turned to me and said, “Dad, not much we can do about it now, the steer looked good, we did our best, and I had fun.” It reminded me that we do all this for our children because our children enjoy it, and for the Schaakes, it is truly a family event. ▪