OSU’s Gary Sherrer: A life well lived in service to others
Friday, December 8, 2017
A lifelong commitment to public service has been the hallmark of Oklahoma State University’s retiring Gary Sherrer, whose actions and widespread influence has benefitted Oklahomans statewide for decades.
Sherrer has served as assistant vice president of external affairs for OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources since November 2005, working on behalf of the college of the same name and the university’s two state agencies administered by DASNR: the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and the statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system. He retires the middle of December.
“I have been privileged to have known and worked with Gary Sherrer for some 37 years,” said Joe Neal Hampton, president and chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Agribusiness Retailers Association as well as the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association. “I have been a member of the DASNR Dean’s Advisory Council since it began. They say nobody is irreplaceable but I would not want to be the person who has to fill his shoes. I can’t imagine anyone else accomplishing some of the feats he did, not just with DASNR but in so many positions benefitting Oklahoma.”
High praise but well earned. Modest by nature, Sherrer’s soft spoken and predictable
“I did the best I could” response is an understated contrast to a career that has
been anything but typical:
● Sherrer was Oklahoma’s first – and to date only – individual to serve governors of different political parties in more than one cabinet area;
● He was Oklahoma’s first secretary of agriculture, serving in the cabinet of Governor David Walters;
● Sherrer served as Oklahoma’s second and sixth secretary of the environment in the cabinets of Governor Frank Keating and Governor Mary Fallin, respectively.
Gov. Fallin, who has known and worked with Sherrer for more than 20 years, praised Sherrer’s ability to work well with both Republicans and Democrats, as well as “his skill at achieving consensus among people with diverse interests and agendas.”
“Gary has always been committed to helping others and making the world around him a better place,” she said. “He was a strong voice for sensible, common-sense policies that have helped to protect Oklahoma’s environment while also making room for job growth and economic development. He served the state for eight years in the House of Representatives, and was very engaged with his constituents.”
Sherrer served as a state representative from 1981 to 1988, and was so highly regarded that he drew no opponent in either 1982 or 1984. He won reelection in 1986 with more than 85 percent of the votes cast in District 19. Sherrer mused that people might think having been secretary of agriculture best prepared him to be a part of DASNR but he believes it may well have been his time as secretary of the environment.
“Enabling land owners, organizations and communities to manage Oklahoma’s collective natural resources wisely and in as sustainable manner as possible is a need second to none,” he said. “It means being absolutely fair at all times, and looking at things in an unbiased manner. DASNR’s land-grant mission is to develop and make available unbiased research-proven recommendations that help people solve issues of importance to them, their families and their communities.”
As DASNR assistant vice president for external affairs, a significant part of Sherrer’s duties has been to promote awareness of issues facing Oklahoma on which division scientists and educators are working.
“I’ve had everyone from state legislators to community leaders to agency officials tell me ‘oh, that’s who is working on the issue and those are the benefits they’re providing our residents, constituents or stakeholders; we need to be sure we continue to support and invest in those efforts,’” Sherrer said. “Some have added, ‘God help us if we hadn’t known that.’”
Public service is job one
Hampton experienced firsthand Sherrer’s ability to educate individuals and groups as to the likely effect – sometimes unintended – decisions about enacting regulations and supporting programs could have for Oklahoma.
Of Sherrer’s time as commissioner and president of the State Board of Agriculture – another high-profile post influencing the lives of so many – Hampton recalls Sherrer dealt with issues affecting the grain, feed, seed, fertilizer and agricultural chemical industries.
“You could take it to the bank whatever Gary said. He applied agriculture law and rules that were both fair and equitable to all parties involved,” Hampton said. “Gary brought the same degree of professionalism to environmental issues, many of which crossed over and also were agricultural issues.”
No matter the volatility of an issue or condition, Hampton said Sherrer’s projected sense of calm served as an inspiration to whoever was involved. Cases in point, Sherrer’s work as executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board during the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
“That was I believe the most destructive act of terrorism in the United States at the time, and it struck us to our core, as Oklahomans and as Americans,” Sherrer said. “It certainly raised the level of awareness about the need for increased security of our resources while also protecting our basic freedoms. Calm, insightful deliberation and making sound decisions were and continue to be important.”
Being on the “firing line” was certainly nothing new to Sherrer, who volunteered for military service during the Vietnam War following his graduation from Antlers High School in 1966. A combat medic, the Pushmataha County native was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone, one of the most prestigious honors given by the U.S. Armed Forces.
Sherrer also was a contributor to the Vietnam Era book titled “The Heartland Remembers,” and is quoted on the wall in the Oklahoma History Center’s Vietnam Service Area.
In a moment of self-reflection, Sherrer credited his lifelong commitment to public service as coming from his parents while he was growing up in Snow, Oklahoma. His father Leonard owned the general store and also served as postmaster.
“I saw my father deal with all sorts of people and every personality under the sun,” Sherrer said. “A lot of his business was of the credit variety. Many of his customers were very poor. I spent years driving the family vehicle to deliver food and feed to folks in desperate need of both. Those experiences shaped me to be the person I am today. He and my mother Florida showed me firsthand there are people who need help and understanding. They showed me you do what you can.”
Sherrer added his upbringing is probably why all the jobs he has had have been of the service variety, positions that can make a significant positive difference in the lives of people.
“I’ve always admired and marveled at the respect Gary Sherrer commands not only in the state legislature but also in just about any group or audience,” said Claude Bess, OSU Cooperative Extension director for the state’s southeast district. “Gary’s conversational warmth and total respect have meant so much to DASNR and the university over the time he has served as our ambassador.”
Randy Pirtle, OSU Cooperative Extension director for the state’s northeast district, agreed with Bess, adding “Gary truly cares so much about our dedicated Extension workers and the people they serve. We wish him and his wife Joyce [a longtime Extension educator and member of DASNR’s administrative team] the best and thank them so much for their many years of dedicated service to the people of Oklahoma.”
Sherrer smiled when being told of what his colleagues think of him, adding “money is always tight but the beneficial and relevant nature of DASNR’s scientific and educational efforts is an investment not only in OSU but in everyone served by the university’s land-grant mission, and that literally is everyone in Oklahoma, whether they are aware or not.”
“I have always believed working to increase awareness about our DASNR programs and the need to support them to be worthy of my best efforts,” he said. “I can’t think of anywhere I’ve worked where the people so genuinely love the state and want to help make it all it can be.”
Tom Coon, OSU vice president for agricultural programs, said he feels “fortunate to have learned Oklahoma politics from Gary, and more important, to have learned Oklahoma civility and respect from him.”
“His dedication to public service is a model that inspires me and many others,” Coon said. “Gary’s network of colleagues and associates is expansive. It’s been my great fortune to benefit from meeting so many of those people whose lives have been affected by him.”