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Oklahoma State University

Ken Pinkston receives alumni award

Friday, October 30, 2020

OSU’s Ferguson College of Agriculture has honored Ken Pinkston as an outstanding alumnus.

When Ken Pinkston graduated from Oklahoma City’s Capitol Hill High School, his only criterium for college was that it be no farther south. Otherwise, he kept his options open.

So it was fortuitous that he met D.E. Howell, head of Oklahoma State University’s entomology program, at a Oklahoma Pest Control Association meetings. Pinkston’s father owned Capitol Termite Pest Control, so the teenager had already spent several weekends working with insects. OSU seemed like an obvious fit.

Like many college students, Pinkston would change his major several times before entering a career. He started with entomology because he thought it was easy; he stuck with it because he realized he could make a difference.

Pinkston did more than just complete his degree at OSU. By the time he retired from his teaching position at the university, he had impacted the lives of thousands of students, expanded the entomology program in Stillwater and improved the state’s pest control industry. 

Phil Mulder, a former colleague and current head of the department at OSU, praised Pinkston for what he did for urban entomology in his nomination letter for the Ferguson College of Agriculture Distinguished Alumni Award. Pinkston literally wrote the training book.

“Ken Pinkston was instrumental in establishing the Pinkston Education Facility for Structural and Urban Pest Control that continues to provide many opportunities for pesticide applicators to learn proper, safe and effective approaches to controlling general household pests as well as wood-destroying insects like termites,” Mulder said.

Thomas G. Coon, vice president for OSU agricultural programs, said Pinkston saw something beyond industry or academia alone.

“He was a true visionary in his profession, always ahead of the curve,” Coon said. “Ken Pinkston created opportunities to improve the industry’s relationship of service to the community in all that he did. He may not have even realized it at the time, but by doing so, he also highlighted OSU’s most valuable resource – people like Ken Pinkston.”

Before he began a doctorate in entomology, Pinkston enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving as an electronics communication officer until returning to civilian life in 1970. Back in Stillwater, he worked on the degree while serving as a graduate research assistant. Getting a Ph.D is never easy, but colleague Tom Royer recalled how Pinkston took it an extra step, actually putting his own life at risk for science.

“He accidentally injected himself with spider venom,” Royer said. “So he wrote about what it did.”

Luckily, Pinkston was working with a scientist studying medical entomology; he lived to tell the tale in his research.

Pinkston also served as the OSU Extension area entomology specialist based in Muskogee. He focused on protecting cotton and soybean plants from pests, although Pinkston admitted in hindsight that as a city boy he didn’t know much about either crop.

In 1975, he returned to Stillwater to become a professor and the OSU Extension state entomologist for the rest of his career. OSU Extension, OSU Ag Research and the OSU Ferguson College of Agriculture comprise OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

However, he also made it clear he wanted entomology to continue to be a prominent department at OSU. Pinkston and his wife Charlene showed their dedication to the university by investing in a $50,000 life insurance policy to establish the Pinkston Entomology Endowment Fund, which became a key part of his legacy with the university.

At about the same time, he was asked to shift more of his attention from classroom teaching to Extension. Pinkston likened the adjustment to a scene from the Godfather movie – a request he couldn’t refuse.

His biggest challenge was to develop an existing class called Insects and Society, which had attracted only about a dozen students, most of whom were not majoring in entomology.

Pinkston knew how to reach his audience, said colleague Jim Criswell. 

“What Ken would do is teach entomology in a very unusual way by entomology standards,” Criswell said. “When he showed up with a candy jar, you knew it was quiz day.”

Pinkston started lessons about insect pheromones by asking students whether they could smell each other’s perfumes. Criswell said they found such examples amusing, but it helped students personalize the science. He gained leverage with many athletes because the class had no lab requirement.

Coon praised Pinkston for keeping his classes entertaining. Before Powerpoint presentations entered the culture, he spent a lot of time tap dancing and telling jokes to introduce concepts.

By the time he retired, there were multiple Insects and Society classes, with more than 300 students enrolled. Criswell said some students were so inspired they went on to study entomology or get a doctorate in it themselves.

“He probably influenced more research in entomology than any other professor,” Criswell said.

From 1976 to 1998, Pinkston’s research garnered over $200,000 in funding for programs in OSU’s Entomology and Plant Pathology Department, which helped move several research projects to completion. He conducted chemical control tests for new products that could be used on peanuts, soybeans and cotton, as well as pests found around the house.

He took a sabbatical in 1985 and visited entomology programs at Texas A&M University, Purdue University and North Carolina State University in order to see how other schools were developing their programs. Pinkston dove deeper into urban entomology after the nine-month break.

He ended up writing a lot of training materials and manuals for state pest control operators. Criswell credits Pinkston for helping develop the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Integrated Pest Management Program with Director Gerrit Cuperus.

“He and Ken did a lot of groundbreaking in the urban environment,” Criswell said. “They don’t get a lot of credit for that, but they were really groundbreakers in that program. Ken was the idea guy and it resulted in a lot of grants for IPM in Oklahoma.”

Pinkston took the research to people in the industry, often presenting at Oklahoma Pest Control Association conferences – bringing his career full circle. He was heavily involved in pest control operator training taught at OSU and helping people learn the proper and safe way to use pesticides.

Mulder said in his award letter of Pinkston, “This program has ultimately resulted in nearly a 95% decrease in citizen complaints to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry concerning Oklahoma pest management professional services. By establishing the basis for the training program, he has facilitated others within the department to continue and expand the teaching and training program emphasis.”

While it’s easy to admire Pinkston the academic, those who worked closely with him also appreciated his pranks and sly grin. Criswell said one way to get even with Pinkston would be to tell him that a top football recruit was coming to Oklahoma State instead of another university. Pinkston loved OSU sports long before he came to campus.

Royer recounted a time when his friend was so worked up about a basketball game between OSU and the University of Oklahoma that Pinkston decided not to go – odds were in the other team’s favor and he couldn’t stand to watch.

The Cowboys pulled off the victory, of course. Royer was sitting in Gallagher-Iba Arena feeling awful for being at the game instead of Pinkston, who gave away the tickets.

“I was about to call him at half time and tell him he could come down for the rest of it. I felt so bad,” Royer said.

Pinkston hasn’t made it to many OSU games since he retired in 2004 and said good-bye to bugs. He’s followed recent news about killer hornet fears in Oklahoma, but his two teenage granddaughters have most of his attention these days. It’s a good trade, and the break is well deserved.

Besides his direct outreach to students and other educators, Pinkston’s knowledge has been captured in about 30 journal articles, 30 professional presentations and more than 160 OSU Extension presentations. He also co-authored more than 40 Extension publications and fact sheets.

His legacy with the pest control industry is probably best exemplified in what his peers think of his work. The Oklahoma Pest Control Association is one of many donors that helped create the pest control management center that now bears Pinkston’s name. With the endowment fund and the facility in place, Pinkston continued to work for the future of his industry and raised the money for an endowed professorship in structural and household pest control. In 2019, the position was updated to an endowed chair, which is now held by Brad Kard.

Other award recipient profiles are available online.

MEDIA CONTACT: Brian Brus | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-6792 | BBrus@okstate.edu

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