Jon Mark Beilue: What 'Transformational' Looks Like

Jon Mark Beilue Nov 12, 2020
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Jon Mark Beilue: What 'Transformational' Looks Like

Engler Foundation gift to WT of $1 million a year is just getting started


Dr. Kevin Pond and Dr. Amjad Abdullat posed for a photo with the man whose name fronts the colleges of which they are deans at West Texas A&M. The ceremony on Nov. 6 was one of the reasons as to why that is.

“It would be a heckuva of note if these checks bounced,” quipped Paul Engler as the cameras clicked.

“I made sure they wouldn’t,” said David Terry, CEO of the Paul F. and Virginia J. Engler Foundation. “We’re good to go.”

The two checks were for $500,000 each – large gifts to be sure – but still just a fraction of the long-lasting and far-reaching amount that Engler, the chairman of Cactus Feeders, Inc., has provided the WT College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences as well as the College of Business that bear the family name.

For Pond and Abdullat, they separately came up with the same adjective to describe the $1 million annual gifts from the Engler Foundation will impact the university as a whole, and their colleges specifically.

“This gift has been transformational,” said Pond, dean of the Paul Engler College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. “This annual gift allows us to meet immediate and future needs. Support has been directed to students, faculty and needed equipment.”

“There is no doubt in my mind this is a transformational gift,” said Abdullat, dean of the Paul and Virginia Engler College of Business since only January. “This gift allows us to change our college’s trajectory of what we can be to our students and our community.”

There is a reason the gift ceremony was on the second floor of the Paul Engler Agriculture and Natural Science building, part of the new and expansive Agriculture Sciences complex. There’s also a reason there is a sign on a prime parking spot in front of the building that reads, “Reserved for Paul Engler at All Times.”

That’s what providing $1 million a year for 80 years – and possibly as long as 160 – can do.  The Engler gift is currently the largest gift in the history of WTAMU and one of the largest private gifts to higher education ever in Texas. The early November COVID-conscious ceremony marked the third anniversary of the Engler gift.

In 2010, Engler, a 1951 graduate of the University of Nebraska, gave $20 million to the agribusiness curriculum of his alma mater. That was the single largest gift of the school’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Engler left his native Nebraska for the Texas Panhandle around 1960. When working for several prominent ranchers in Nebraska while buying and managing feeder cattle, he saw that West Texas was a prime location where cattle and grain could come together to be shipped across the country. The supply chain efficiency and the mild climate in the Texas Panhandle, such as in Hereford, was ideal for large-scale cattle feeding operations.

After establishing the first cattle feeding operation in Texas, Engler left for a while for a management position with Iowa Beef Processors. But the processing side of the cattle business was not his enjoyment. He returned to the Texas Panhandle and would co-found Cactus Feeders in 1975.

Feeding cattle on a large scale in the Texas Panhandle was a reversal of the current practice of shipping grain and homegrown beef out of state. Cactus Feeders became the largest cattle-feeding company in the world.

“Around five years, I was visiting with Paul and a few others and he mentioned he was finishing his obligation to the University of Nebraska and wanted to do something in Texas,” said Dr. Neil Terry, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs and former dean of the business college. “He wanted to invest in Texas, and in particular West Texas A&M as much of his focus has been on higher ed.

“That started the conversation as to this gift that eventually became the naming gift of the colleges of business and agriculture and natural sciences. I’ve been asked quite a bit how we got to the point of naming two colleges. It’s not unusual for one, of course, but very unusual for two.

“I asked Paul once what would be the ideal student that he could support? He said I have positive affinity for students who have an accounting and financial background, but it’s also important they know how to drive a tractor and have a little bit of applied ag background.”

Terry and the late Dean Hawkins, former dean of the College of Agriculture, decided from the outset of the Engler gift to, in effect, put their two tables together.

“We can both end up making a pitch, but if you think of it like high school, the college of business has a table. We know in a lot of ways, Paul would like to sit at our table and want to hang out with us,” Terry said.

“At the same time, he’s probably more comfortable at the ag table. That’s where he worked, where he belongs. For Dean Hawkins and I, if we want to do right by Paul and WT, why don’t we put the tables together and let him sit in the middle?”

It is the sharing of these annual $1 million gifts that reaches more students, and that’s where Engler’s priorities are. While he talks of sustainability and innovation, and garnering matching funds with the gift, it’s not the primary reason for the millions he will give to WT.

In a way, he sees a bit of himself when he left tiny Stuart, Neb., in the 1940s to study at the University of Nebraska.

“The payoff is going to be tremendous,” Engler said. “The payoff is the graduates that we will turn out. This is about investing in people. It’s people – students – that make a university.

“I tell the story about riding in a ski lift one time in Colorado. You have a captive audience with the person next to you. I like to talk with people. This guy wasn’t talking much, and I asked him what he did. He said he was a professor at Harvard.

“I congratulated him on that, and he said what makes Harvard a great school aren’t the professors. It’s the students – period. I say the same thing about WT. It’s about the students.”

Both Pond and Abudullat listed immediate uses of the Engler gift that included multiple scholarships, studies abroad, additional professorships, including a faculty chair, new programs as well as classroom and laboratory equipment.

“Paul has been there from the beginning and he will guide us in the future,” Terry said. “There are obvious financial benefits of the naming of a college, but this creates a brand. WT is one of the finest regional institutions in the country, but the brand and having the Engler name on the two colleges gives students more confidence, helps provide resources for students, and makes the two colleges better academic units.”

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at