Joe Eakes standing on a bridge in the trees.

'The Human Touch'

Passion for Students Earns Horticulture’s
Eakes Honors by jamie creamer

“I believe in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.” —George Petrie

Joe Eakes is not an easy A. In fact, the Auburn University horticulture professor’s Small Trees, Shrubs and Vines class, in which students must learn more than they ever would have thought possible there was to know about 150-plus different plant varieties and their uses in the landscape, can be grueling.

Even so, semester after semester, Eakes earns some of the highest student evaluation ratings in the College of Agriculture. And in March, the 24-year veteran of Auburn’s horticulture department was named the 2013 Outstanding Educator of the Year by the Academic Excellence Foundation of PLANET, the national trade association of landscape industry professionals.

His nomination for the prestigious honor was student driven and included an influential, student-produced video that gave those outside of Auburn a glimpse of how Eakes interacts with and supports his students. Yes, his classes are demanding, his tests challenging and his expectations high, but the video made it clear that what most stands out about Eakes to students is that the man genuinely cares. About them. In the classroom and beyond.

It’s what The Auburn Creed—a framed copy of which hangs in Eakes’ Funchess Hall office—calls “the human touch.”

Take Biscuits with Bess and Joe, for instance.

Every Tuesday morning of every spring and fall semester, Eakes and wife Bess open their modest Heard Avenue home to Auburn students, who are welcome to help themselves to a spread that typically includes ham, fresh fruits, cheese, coffee and OJ, jams and jellies and, the hottest items on the menu, Mrs. Eakes’ golden-brown, melt-in-your-mouth, made-from-scratch biscuits.

The Eakes family—including son Joseph and daughter Nettie, Ace the boxer and Fathead the cat—hosted its first “Biscuits with Bess and Joe” five or six years ago, while Eakes, now Auburn’s Jimmy and Chris Pursell Endowed Professor of Horticulture, was serving as interim department head.

“Actually, ‘Biscuits’ started when our son brought a homesick student to our house to spend the night, and then we ate breakfast together the next morning, just to give the student a feeling of family,” Eakes says. “We’d been praying about a ministry for college kids and knew this was how we could share God’s grace.”

The first to learn about the Tuesday morning breakfasts with professor and family were horticulture students and students from the family’s church, but word of mouth is a powerful advertising tool.

“Everyone is welcome, no strings attached,” Eakes says.

While the Eakeses never know how big a crowd they’ll have from one Tuesday to the next, they can always count on at least 25 or 30 undergrad and graduate students stopping by before, between and/or after morning classes.

“If they’re homesick or stressed or just hungry and want to come hang out and have a cup of coffee and a biscuit, we want them to know that as long as they’re in Auburn, they have a place to come,” Eakes says.

The couple is up at 5 a.m. every day, but on Tuesdays, Mrs. Eakes heads straight for the kitchen.

“I love having the chance to get to know the students while they’re at Auburn,” she says. “This has been such a blessing in our lives.”

That’s mutual, says Taylor Vandiver, a horticulture master’s student who’s been enjoying Tuesday mornings at the Eakes home since her undergrad days.

“During my time here at Auburn I feel blessed to have gotten to know Dr. Eakes and his wife Bess,” Vandiver says. “Friends of mine are always saying, ‘You go to your professor’s house? You know his wife? No way.’”

Eakes says that, Biscuits with Bess and Joe, he’s simply extending the open-door policy he has at work to his home.

“I want my students to know they can come here or call on me any time they need to,” Eakes says. “If they live in a trailer and it’s going to be bad weather, or if they just need to talk to somebody.”

A Huntsville native, Eakes came to Auburn in 1977 as a pre-engineering major but somehow wound up in an Evergreen Trees, Shrubs and Vines class—basically the same course that he now teaches—under a young faculty member by the name of Harry Ponder. This is the same Harry Ponder who is now Eakes’ colleague and who was named PLANET’s top educator in 2010.

“I loved Harry and his enthusiasm, and once he was able to convince me that you can actually make a living in horticulture, I changed my major,” Eakes says.

Still, at the end of his freshman year, Eakes began rethinking this college thing.

“What I really wanted to do was get married,”—yes, to high-school sweetheart Bess—“but I couldn’t do that until I’d saved up some money, and I couldn’t save money because I was paying my way through school,” Eakes says. “About that time, I got a call from a construction company I’d worked for in Huntsville, and they wanted me to come back and work with them, so I considered leaving school to go back home and work.”

Enter the Department of Horticulture, its strong scholarship program and a professor named Henry Orr.

“Henry Orr helped me get a scholarship, and that’s what kept me in school,” Eakes says. “Then I got a Garden Club of Alabama scholarship and got a job working at the (Paterson) greenhouses and did that till I graduated.”

After graduation, he worked in the industry for a year and a half but then returned to Auburn for a master’s degree under horticulture professor Charles Gilliam, who, like Ponder, is now Eakes’ colleague. Master’s in hand, Eakes married Bess and they moved to Blacksburg, Va., where he obtained his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. He joined the Auburn horticulture faculty in 1989.

It had been at Tech, to earn extra money, that Eakes had taught his first undergraduate class, and he had quickly decided that teaching was not his thing.

“If somebody had told me I’d wind up teaching for a living, I’d have told them they were crazy,” he says. “I didn’t love teaching, but I didn’t love going hungry, either, so I did what I had to do.”

In the decades since, he has done an about-face. Teaching and the students who come his way are his passion.

“What I love most about my job are the students,” he says. “They challenge me. They ask me questions, tough questions, and expect me to do my best, and I expect the same in return. I want to see every single one of them succeed.”

Kira Chaloupka, who graduated with a bachelor’s in horticulture in May and is remaining at Auburn for a new master’s program in public horticulture that Eakes has played the lead role in establishing, says Eakes’ high expectations inspire students to meet them.

“Dr. Eakes doesn’t just teach from a textbook,” Chaloupka wrote in a letter supporting Eakes for the Outstanding Educator award. “He applies real life circumstances and experiences. He doesn’t give you the answers to questions; he gives advice for you to solve problems. He makes you learn the material, and because of that, it sticks with you.”

Chaloupka also cited Eakes’ dedication to Auburn’s student chapter of PLANET, an organization he began in 1991 and still serves as faculty adviser, a position that commands a lot of time, energy and traveling with students to conferences, on field trips and international study tours and to PLANET’s Student Career Days competition. It was with that competition in mind and in an effort to address green industry concerns that college graduates lacked hands-on experience that he developed Landscape Construction, a course that requires students to put landscaping techniques they learned in class into practice in the field.

Eakes has prepared students for and taken them to Student Career Days competitions for 20 years, but this year, for the first time ever, Auburn hosted the four-day event, and Eakes was the workhorse behind that event’s resounding success. It was during the closing session of Student Career Days 2013 that the Outstanding Educator of the Year winner was announced. That announcement caught Eakes completely off guard.

“They first read some of the nomination letters students and industry and colleagues had written, enough that I figured out they were talking about me, and I was thinking ‘this isn’t real,’ but then they showed the video,” Eakes says.

The three-minute video, titled “The Auburn Creed: Defining an Auburn Man,” focused on the beliefs George Petrie penned in 1945 and how Eakes exemplifies every one of them, including “the human touch.”

“The video was a very humbling and emotional moment,” says Eakes, already the recipient of numerous teaching and advising awards throughout his career. “In all my years of teaching, this was the greatest award I ever won, not just because of the title, but because of what it represents and who made it happen. The students did it. That meant everything.”

The Eakes video is posted on Search for “Joe Eakes PLANET academic excellence.”

June 2013
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