Black coffee and black cows: The story of Dr. O.L. Robertson

Dr. O.L. Robertson, 73, head of the animal science department in the Hutson School of Agriculture at Murray State University. Photo: McKenna Dosier

Dr. O.L. Robertson, 73, head of the animal science department in the Hutson School of Agriculture at Murray State University. Photo: McKenna Dosier

By McKenna Dosier

At Murray State University, outside Oakley Applied Science building stands a man wearing cowboy boots, an old ballcap, drinking a cup of black coffee and smoking a Marlboro cigarette. That man is Dr. O.L Robertson.

But before he claimed his spot at Oakley and at Murray State, currently as the head of the animal science department, he started on his journey on his 150-acre family farm in Crockett County, Tennessee, where he spent his childhood springs hoeing cotton, his falls picking it and the time in between with the beef cattle and other crops raised on the family farm.

Robertson started his college career in the fall 1961 at University of Tennessee-Martin, majoring in general agriculture, the only agriculture major available at the time. There were also only two women in the program, neither of which you’d want to go out with, he said.

After he finished his bachelor's degree in 1965, he started down the two year road to his master's degree at University of Tennessee-Knoxville and graduated the spring of 1967.

Then, he and his newly married wife, Jo, moved to Wyoming for Robertson to attend University of Wyoming. He said they lived in the mountains for two weeks while looking for a permanent place to live in the new state, but now he said he can’t get his wife far enough away from an outlet to plug her hair dryer into.

“When you get married it’s just a journey. You change and you grow,” said Jo Robertson. “It’s just a journey.”

Robertson’s career would bring him and his family a little closer to home on July 1, 1970, when he accepted a job as an extension livestock specialist with the University of Missouri and moved to southeast Missouri where he continued to work for 30 years.

“If you really start looking at the bottom line I felt like I did some good there,” he said. “To see people that you have made suggestions to as to how they could improve an operation and you see them do it and actually carry that out, it does help the bottom line.”

Robertson said he didn’t always think he was going to be a professor, his wife moved to Murray, KY 17 years ago to teach early childhood education classes, which was two years before Robertson could retire as an extension agent.

He said as soon as he could retire from the University of Missouri extension service he did and moved to to be with his wife, but didn’t start teaching right away.

“I took care of my cows and watched replays of old football games for a year,” he said. “I decided I had a little more left to do.”

He called Jim Davis, the head of the Animal Science department at the Hutson School of Agriculture at the time and told him he was interested in a position and began that fall as a late hire.

“And now it’s 15 years later,” said Robertson.

He described his teaching style as informal, discussion and interaction based as well as challenging.

“I’m not gonna give anybody anything, but I’m gonna work with you as best I can to help you be successful here and later on,” said Robertson.

He is a professor who has left his mark on several students within the Hutson School of Agriculture and is well known for his life stories and advice.

“I still remember something O.L. said my first semester in his animal science class: ‘Change is inevitable. Progress is optional,’” said Meredith Penczek, a junior agricultural communications major. “I haven't had another class with him since then, but every morning when I go to Oakley, he says hello to me, and when I'm not in a rush, we'll have a conversation while we both drink coffee. He's one of my favorite people in the HSOA [Hutson School of Agriculture].”

“Love that man and have so much respect for him,” Rebecca Faeth, a sophomore pre-veterinary medicine major said. “He always said this ‘You lead a cow from the front and people from the rear’.”

Robertson isn’t just known by his students for his words of wisdom. He said he starts his day off with acup of coffee and a swing on the porch and during a visit from one of his four granddaughters he gave her a piece of advice he often gives in class. The next morning, he said, his granddaughter climbed up on the swing and said “Have you got another grandpa life lesson for me?”

But Robertson isn’t all funny sayings and coffee sipping. He takes his students learning and success in and out of the classroom very seriously. He said one of the most important aspects of his job as a professor is to give students all the knowledge they need to combine into the total package of everything they need to know to be successful in the livestock industry.

“He is one of those people who you know will be there if you need him and teaches by letting you experience what you are learning,” said Mason Larimore, a junior agricultural education major said, “I have a great respect for O.L.”

“I met him at my county before I ever came to Murray State and he has been there for anything I need and has already opened many doors for me,” said Emily Rose, a sophomore animal science major.

Robertson said one of the things he tries to do everyday is make a difference in someone's life, and that other people should do the same.

“We have this what’s called Make A Difference Day that we celebrate once a year, and I think that’s much too short,” he said. “Each of us need to try and make a difference in somebody's life everyday. And I don’t know that I get that done every day but it’s not for lack of trying.”

The 2005 – 2006 Max Carman Outstanding Teacher Award still hangs proudly in Robertson’s office.           Photo: McKenna Dosier

The 2005 – 2006 Max Carman Outstanding Teacher Award still hangs proudly in Robertson’s office.           Photo: McKenna Dosier

One of his favorite moments of the career he didn’t think would be his career is when he received the 2005 - 2006 Max Carmen Outstanding Teacher Award, the award is voted on entirely by students and hangs proudly in his office.

Another of Robertson's favorite moments as a professor is something he can’t hang in his office, only in his memory. He said when former students come to him and tell him they still remember what they learned in his class or a story he told them has helped them along in their career is his favorite part of being a professor because he can tell he has made a difference. 

“It’s been an interesting ride at Murray State for me,” he said.

After 30 years as an extension livestock specialist extension agent and the past 15 years at Murray State, Robertson said people often ask him when he plans to retire.

“I tell those people what happens to people who retire, within two years they die,” he said.

Robertson said he plans to teach “so as long as it’s fun for me to get up and come in.”