Professor in the Department of Horticulture
College of Agriculture
Huntsville native Joe Eakes enrolled at Auburn University in 1977 as a pre-engineering major, but early on in his academic career he discovered horticulture and made the switch. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in horticulture from Auburn and his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, all in the 1980s, and then in '89 returned to Auburn as an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture. Through the years, Eakes—now the Jimmy and Chris Pursell Endowed Professor in Horticulture at Auburn—has won numerous teaching and advising awards, most recently being named the 2013 Outstanding Educator of the Year by the Academic Excellence Foundation of PLANET, the national trade association of landscape industry professionals. Eakes' students, present and past, will say his classes are demanding, his tests challenging and his expectations high, but most will also say what they'll remember most about Eakes is that he exemplifies what George Petrie, in The Auburn Creed, called "the human touch."
1. As you pursued your graduate degrees in horticulture, was your end goal to teach?
Not at all. I was working on my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech when I taught my first undergraduate class, and the only reason I did that was because I was a newlywed and it was a way to earn extra money in the summer. But I didn't like anything about teaching and made up my mind after that class that teaching was not for me. If somebody had told me then that I'd wind up teaching for a living, I'd have told them they were crazy. I didn't love teaching, but I didn't love going hungry either, so I did what I had to do.
2. And now?
I'm not sure when my attitude toward teaching changed, but now, the students are what I love most about my job. 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, not just in class but in life. The main thing is, I want them to know I care and to feel like if they ever have a problem or just need to be around people and talk, they can call me any time day or night. I have an open-door policy at work, but I have that policy at home, too.
3. Which brings us to your and your wife's "Biscuits with Bess and Joe." What is that all about?
Every Tuesday morning during fall and spring semesters, our front doors open, and any Auburn student is welcome to come by for breakfast. It's very informal and relaxed—Bess makes biscuits, and we'll have fruit, cheese, coffee and orange juice. Generally, students start showing up around 7 o'clock, before they head off to class, and some even come first thing, go to class and then come back, because even if I have to leave for a class, Bess is still there, keeping hot biscuits on the table, and she really enjoys getting to know the students. We can always count on at least 25 or 30 folks stopping in between 7 and 10 a.m.
4. How did this tradition come to be?
It actually started five or six years ago when our son, Joseph, was in college and brought a friend who was extremely homesick to our house to spend the night, mainly to keep the student from feeling so alone. The next morning, we all sat down and had breakfast together, to try to give the student a sense of having a home away from home, and things grew from that. Bess and I had been praying for some kind of ministry for college kids, and we decided this was it, a way we could share God's grace. Early on, it was mostly horticulture students and students from our church who came because they're the only ones who knew about it, but now we have students from all across the campus because word's gotten around. Everyone is welcome, no strings attached.
5. Auburn hosted PLANET's Student Career Days competitions for the first time in March, and your horticulture colleagues give you the lion's share of credit for the remarkable success of that event. But for you, the most memorable moment of that three-day event came during the closing session, when you were named PLANET's 2013 Outstanding Educator of the Year. Can you describe how that happened?
It was at the very end, and before they announced the winner they started reading some of the nomination letters students and industry and colleagues had written, enough that it hit me they were talking about me, and I was thinking 'this isn't real,' but then they showed the video. It was a video the students themselves had put together, with a lot of pictures and based on the Auburn Creed, as part of their nomination package. The video was a very humbling and emotional moment, and when I tried to say something, I sounded like I'd swallowed helium. In all my years of teaching, this was the greatest award I'd 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.