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Past, present at WCROC

From left are Lee Johnston, West Central Research and Outreach Center scientist and Director of Operations, retired WCROC head Jerry Wright, and Greg Cuomo, former WCROC head and head of all eight Minnesota ROCs and Extension Service ag programs.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Jerry Wright is officially retired as head of the West Central Research and Outreach Center, and he leaves with the peace of mind that his job -- and the job above his -- are in capable hands.

Wright was honored for his 33 years of service in Extension and the WCROC on Wednesday at the newly renovated WCROC building in Morris.

Although his job title is different than Wright's, long-time WCROC scientist Lee Johnston will assume the duties of research center head.

Former WCROC head Greg Cuomo will oversee operations of all eight Minnesota research and outreach centers.

Johnston and Cuomo spoke highly of Wright's work, and on the future of the WCROC.

"Jerry will be filling me in on a lot of different things," Johnston said last week. "In my book, he can be as involved as he wants to be (during the transition). He's certainly earned the opportunity to be on his way. That will be his call."

Johnston, professor of animal science who has been at the center since 1988, will take on the added role of Director of Operations at WCROC.

Johnston said he initially was apprehensive about taking on the new position because he never envisioned himself working in administration. Having Cuomo in his new position helped, too, Johnston said.

"This arrangement has more appeal to me," he said. "It's not 100 percent administration and I will be able to continue on with research work. I like the work and I like working with the students and producers. The fact that Greg is in the position he's in is good. I have a lot of respect for Greg and I'm looking forward to working with him."

In his new position, Johnston will provide administrative oversight of the center, as well as coordinating research and outreach programs.

Since the administrative structure is new, Johnston said it might take time to determine how it will fit together.

The WCROC has 1,100 acres of research land near the UMM campus. Its research specialties include dairy breeding and production, agricultural water quality and swine production systems. Six full-time faculty members and about 30 staff work at the center.

"The devil is in the details," he said. "Sometimes you don't know until you give it a go. There are a lot of good people at the center doing a lot of good work. My job will be to allow that to continue and stay out of peoples' way."

Johnston will work closely with Cuomo, who is now associate dean for research and Extension in the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

All of the U of M's eight research and outreach centers now are administered by Cuomo as a single unit, in a move designed to streamline and make agricultural research more efficient and relevant.

Cuomo said he has great confidence in Johnston.

"Lee is extremely well-respected in the community, at the university and around the country," Cuomo said. "Everything he does is done with the highest integrity, and I'm really happy he has stepped up and taken on these responsibilities."

Cuomo will be the university's top administrator for the Extension Service ag programs and all eight research and outreach centers.

The university chose to reorganize its administration to stay ahead of difficult economic times that are likely coming. There were no demotions at the ROCs.

"The next 18 months look tough (economically), and after that things look really tough," Cuomo said. "As reductions come, we have to decide where our strengths are and what we can do. We can't just cut like we have in the past."

ROC employees are "cautiously optimistic" about the new structure, Cuomo said, and he believes the reorganization will help them with their work in the long run.

"People have worked under one model for a very long time, so people are apprehensive," Cuomo said. "We're not asking people to move, there's not a lot of upheaval. We want people to focus on the task at hand."

Wright was presented with a gift and kind words from some of the many colleagues he's had during his years in Extension and at the WCROC.

Dave Wildung, a U of M horticulturist from Grand Rapids, recounted the work he and Wright collaborated on.

"He's one of the best guys to work with that you ever could have," Wildung said. "He's a wonderful colleague and a wonderful friend."

Wright acknowledged the compliments and returned them. He also expressed confidence in the new ROC administration.

"It's in very capable hands," Wright said. "Both with Lee and Greg. I think the transition will be good. They have an opportunity with the new building and an opportunity to be all back together. They're all hopeful signs for a good future for (WCROC). It's a great facility and there are great people working on behalf of the university and the citizens."