The University of Tennessee at Martin’s agricultural business program is among the top majors pursued by UT Martin students. It’s only fitting that the program’s creator, Dr. Rodney “Doc” Thomsen of Dresden, was honored for his vision, and the university did so in a notable way. Chancellor Yancy Freeman conferred an honorary doctorate of agricultural business degree on the retired faculty member Nov. 6 in the Tosh Family Auditorium located in Brehm Hall. The backdrop in the historic academic building was the actual classroom where Thomsen first taught classes when he was a faculty member.
Thomsen was raised on a Madison County farm, earned his bachelor’s degree at UT Martin and returned to the university in 1975 to teach after earning his master’s and doctoral degrees at UT Knoxville. His college teaching career began at the age of 25.
In addition to teaching, he was named acting director of the university’s Ned Ray McWherter Agricultural Pavilion in 1983 and director a year later – a position he held until his 2002 retirement. He oversaw traditional events, including UT Martin’s annual collegiate rodeo and Santa’s Village charity event. Among his honors were receiving the UT National Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award in 1996 and induction into the UT Martin Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2002. He was awarded the title of professor emeritus of agricultural economics after retiring.
Dr. Todd Winters, College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences dean, recognized attendees at the 7:30 a.m. event, which included many of Thomsen’s past students and former UT Martin chancellors Bob Smith and Nick Dunagan. Winters credited Thomsen as founder of the university’s successful agricultural business program.
UT Martin Chancellor Yancy Freeman, who later conferred the honorary degree – his first-ever degree conferral – followed Winters and spoke further about the agricultural business program’s importance. He noted that the program has grown to more than 300 majors and seven faculty members, which is one of the university’s largest agriculture and overall majors.
After Freeman completed his remarks and before the hooding ceremony began, Ernie Roberts of Friendship, a 1978 grad and former member of the rodeo team, stood and asked to speak before the degree conferral. He recalled that Thomsen convinced him that he should change majors to improve his prospects of earning a degree. Roberts joked that he earned a degree in another major six years later, thanks to Thomsen’s guidance and intervention. The ceremony was completed, and the “Doc” Thomsen stories continued at a reception in another part of the building.
Among the attendees was Dr. Joey Mehlhorn, agricultural economics professor and graduate studies dean, who was hired to replace Thomsen in 2003. Mehlhorn also holds the university’s Gil Parker Chair of Excellence in Agriculture, Geosciences and Natural Resources. At the time of his hiring, only two faculty members taught agricultural business.
“You can never replace anybody like ‘Doc’ Thomsen,” Mehlhorn said. “The students would all tell me stories. … They really loved that man, so I could tell that when I came here.”
Mehlhorn described Thomsen as “a visionary person that came up with the idea” of having an agricultural business program.
“He provided a lot of stability to the program and a lot of mentoring to the program. … It was a very specialized field,” he said. “It was a growing field at that time and of course now it’s extremely evolved and growing. But yeah, he was the architect and made it happen.”
Thomsen will also be remembered for his many years as director of the Ned McWherter Agricultural Complex and oversight of traditional events that called the facility home. Those events included the annual Santa’s Village charity event for area families and UT Martin collegiate rodeo.
“Santa’s Village would not be what it is today if it wasn’t for Rodney Thomsen, I’m convinced,” Mehlhorn said. “I know that was one of the first things that I was told when I came here … and Rodney helped connect me with the other people because I was teaching those classes that he was teaching.” Students from these classes provided necessary volunteer help for Santa’s Village, which Mehlhorn described as “the legacy of Doc Thomsen.”
“Rodney was a great faculty member,” he added. “If you talk to alumni, to have the kind of things that they say about him all these years later, that man truly made an impact on their life, and I think that’s something that really all faculty members should strive to do that someday.
“And it’s really humbling to see these people say those things about him, so really cool.”
After his degree was conferred, Thomsen told those gathered in his honor, “The best times of my life were at UTM.” He reminisced briefly and added his appreciation for everyone’s attendance. “I thank every one of you. God bless everyone.” Those attending would likely agree that “Doc” Thomsen’s impact on the university goes far beyond the classroom and serves as a reminder that one person can make a lasting difference.
Photo: Dr. Rodney “Doc” Thomsen received an honorary doctorate of agricultural business degree Nov. 6 from UT Martin in the Tosh Family Auditorium located in Brehm Hall. The backdrop in the historic academic building was the actual classroom where Thomsen first taught classes when he was a faculty member. Pictured with Thomsen (seated) following the ceremony are (l-r) Dr. Charley Deal, vice chancellor for university advancement; Dr. Todd Winters, College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences dean; Dr. Yancy Freeman, UT Martin chancellor; Dr. Joey Mehlhorn, agricultural economics professor and graduate studies dean; and Dr. Philip Acree Cavalier, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.