Kyle Troutman: He left it blank

Saturday, April 23, 2022

One of my most challenging assignments when I started my journalism career was a beat I had never explored before — the farm and ranch beat.

Having absolutely zero clue what news farmers and cattlemen in White County, Ark., would want delivered to them, I sought some guidance at the local Extension Office.

I met all kinds of knowledgeable individuals who taught me all sorts of things about row crops, dairy operations and beef operations. One thing that sticks out was when I, at an organic edamame farm, learned the difference between soybeans and edamame — there isn’t one.

My first story in print was actually a cattle story. It was the middle of July and in triple digits in Searcy, and as I was driving around looking for ideas, I passed the livestock auction buildings and saw all the cattle herded under the giant metal roofing. My thought was, how do they keep all those cows from overheating?

Despite my family sarcastically asking if I still report on the epidemic of “hot cows” in my current job, that story was not bad for my first original article.

As I continued reporting, my knowledge of things like soil composition, irrigation, culling herds and grazing grew exponentially. After a few months, I felt like I had a much firmer grasp of how to keep the farming community well-informed.

I brought that knowledge along to Barry County, hoping I could deliver the same level of farm and ranch reporting when needed.

To write good stories, you have to have good sources. They have to be knowledgeable, respected and trustworthy.

Not many people exude those characteristics as much as Eldon Cole, a 58-year livestock specialist and MU Extension employee.

Until his death of heart failure on Sunday, Eldon was the longest-serving faculty member of the Extension.

My work with Eldon occurred about two or three times a year. As many times as I have talked to him over the last 8 years here, I never got the pleasure of meeting Eldon.

Instead, he and I would connect through email, or more often, by phone. Anyone who has spoken to Eldon can probably pick out his cadence and dulcet tones. He may have the most recognizable voice of any MU employee.

Eldon was always lighthearted and willing to go the extra mile to help improve a story, whether it meant seeking out specific statistics or referring me to ranchers themselves for unique operations or successes needing reporting.

What always stuck out to me even more than his helpfulness and his voice for radio was his commitment to the Extension. Sometimes, it would take us a couple of days to connect. If that was the case, Eldon was usually out giving seminars or helping cattlemen.

On more than one occasion, we conducted interviews while he was on the road returning from one of his appointments.

I can’t speak highly enough of Eldon, and I have not even known the man for a decade. Our reporter, Melonie Roberts, has known Eldon for more than 20 years.

“He has never failed to respond promptly and courteously to my requests for information for a story and point me in the direction I needed to go,” she said. “He was quiet and patient, and someone I knew would never hesitate to give freely his knowledge or expertise. These few words cannot begin to express the measure of respect that I, and many others in Lawrence County and the surrounding area, have for this man. He will be missed.”

Others often mention a quirk of Eldon’s, his penchant for old-school tools.

“He has everything written down on a yellow legal pad, and for a while, he recorded cassettes for his spots that we would mail to the station,” said Janet Adams, Eldon’s secretary. “He’s extremely dedicated, and in fact, he beats me to the office most days. He’s usually on the phone with clients before I arrive at 8.”

Cole and his wife, Charlotte, have four children — Scott, Deanna, Brian and Kelly — and seven grandchildren, all representing a family tree festooned with black-and-gold Mizzou degrees. And the roots reach back to Cole’s fledgling moments as a young Tiger embarking on a long career.

In early April, Eldon said in an MU interview that he still had his paperwork from his first MU job interview — a simple, one-sheet application with one question that stands out.

“It asked, ‘How long do you plan to work for MU Extension?’ he said. “I left it blank.”

We hope Eldon’s left-it-blank attitude will continue to be a beacon of inspiration to the community.

Kyle Troutman has served as the editor of the Cassvile Democrat since 2014. In 2017, he was named William E. James/Missouri Outstanding Young Journalist for daily newspapers. He may be reached at 417-847-2610 or editor@cassville-democrat.com.

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