More than 40 years ago, the pursuit of excellence drew a 23-year-old Washington State University student named Gordon Davis to knock on the door of a young meat science instructor and coach named Gary Smith.
That meeting, and the mentorship that grew from it, shaped Davis’s path through five decades of teaching, service, and philanthropy. Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Davis, a CAHNRS alumnus and benefactor, has now received the American Meat Science Association‘s highest honor, the R. C. Pollock Award.
“To receive the preeminent single award in meat science is indeed humbling,” Davis said. “It’s even more fulfilling to think I’m on the same list as Dr. Smith.”
Honored June 27, 2023, at the association’s 76th annual Reciprocal Meat Conference in St. Paul, Minn., Davis (’69, Agricultural Science and Ag Education) is a retired university educator and meats judging team coach, founder of CEV Multimedia, and creator of the Cashup Davis Family Endowed Dean program in CAHNRS.
The Pollock award recognizes association members whose teaching, outreach, and service have made lasting impacts on the industry. It’s the capstone award for leaders in the profession.
Twenty-two years ago, Smith received the same honor. A prolific author and member of four professional halls of fame, and a gifted teacher, scientist, and communicator, Smith trained and inspired generations of meat scientists.
“His greatest contribution was to his students,” Davis said. “He’s had a positive effect on so many of us: I’m the sixth Pollock winner he influenced or mentored. It’s unprecedented.”
“He’s legendary,” Davis added. “He set the bar for me. He’s my number one mentor.”
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Smith began his career at WSU and built his reputation at Texas A&M University. He retired in 2020 as a distinguished professor at Colorado State University. He is an expert in microbiology, the science of meat tenderness, USDA grade standards, and cutability. His work over 50 years helped improve the quality, safety, packaging, and shipment of meat.
Smith studied general science and ag education at College of Sequoias and California State University, Fresno.
“The person I loved most, other than my dad, granddad, and preacher, was my ag teacher,” Smith recalled. After a stint as an educator, he decided he wanted to work with students who were further along in their career choices. Smith chose WSU to pursue a master’s degree under noted animal scientist M.E. Ensminger.
As a student, he was asked by Ensminger, prolific author of more than 13 animal science textbooks, to teach a meats course. It was a new subject for Smith, but Ensminger didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Smith remembers the chair telling him, “‘You’ve got all the natural prompts, and all that meat to work with.'” As a budding meat science instructor, he established WSU’s meat judging team, where he met a student named Gordon Davis.
Joining elite competition
As a young man growing up on his family’s Deer Park dairy, Davis was recruited to WSU by Timothy Blosser, head of the WSU animal sciences department, who wanted him for the university’s competitive dairy judging team.
But it was the meats judging team, coached by Smith, that really captured Davis’ interest. After competition for dairy and livestock judging teams wrapped up, Davis marched up to Smith’s Wilson Hall office and boldly asked to join.
“I said ‘Hey! I understand you coach some sort of meats judging team!’” Davis said. “I’m a competitor. I wanted to judge everything I could!”
Smith was thrilled to welcome him, and it wasn’t long before Davis was recruiting new teammates.
Rising before dawn to practice inside ice cold meat lockers, judging team members master knowledge and writing and time management skills, while honing their work ethic, judgment, and memory. The experience builds one of the most important skills in the livestock industry: being able to look at an animal and predict the quality and cutability of the carcass. Challenging but fun, it creates confidence and a winning spirit and draws a remarkable array of student talent.
“It was a chance to compete, to get personal honors and bring honors back to Pullman,” Smith said. “The team wins, and you win, and appreciate the value that was given to you, the merit you achieve.”
From just a handful at the start, the team grew to 10 dedicated members, drawing elite students in agriculture, animal science, and ag education as well as non-ag majors.
“They were really good young people that I followed for the rest of their careers,” Smith said.
Of that group, Davis stands out.
“He’s absolutely the only person I’ve ever known who wanted to win every single thing he got involved in,” Smith said. “He’s an absolute winner, one of the greatest, nicest people I’ve ever met. I just loved him.”
Nobody came close
As a member of WSU’s 1969 meats judging team, coached by Smith, Davis was forever hooked on the experience as the team placed first and second in regional competition at Spokane.
“It was the first time I had ever been on a winning college judging team,” he said. “It was a thrill.”
After graduation, Davis taught high school agriculture for three years in Lake Stevens, Wash., before seizing the chance to gain more education. He traveled to Texas A&M University, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate under his mentor, while helping Smith coach the university’s meats judging team. When Smith’s research duties required him to cease head-coaching duties, Davis and other graduate students took over leadership of several meat judging teams in the 1970s and 1980s under Smith’s mentorship.
The 1973 team notched six wins in a row.
“It was the most successful meat judging team in the history of Texas A&M,” Smith said. “It was all Gordon. He was just tremendous as a coach.”
“Nobody came close to that team,” Davis said. “I was learning how to coach a great meat judging team and how to mentor these young people and train them in meat science at the highest level.”
Judging was so central to Davis’s ethic that, upon graduation at A&M in 1977, he received five job offers and chose the teaching and research role at the University of Tennessee that enabled him to coach a collegiate team.
“To be on Dr. Smith’s judging team at WSU in 1969, be invited to get a master’s and Ph.D. with him and co-coach a meat judging team with him, were paramount to my success,” Davis said.
“The greatest prize a teacher ever receives is when a student comes back and says, ‘I succeeded because of your mentorship,'” Smith said. “But Gordon would have been outstanding regardless of whether he’d met me. He’s a one-of-a-kind, truly successful person.”
After 13 years in academia, Davis left his role as an associate professor in the Animal Science Department at Texas Tech to run a successful educational media company, CEV Multimedia.
The skills that Smith helped Davis develop are the through-line of his career. Meat judging was the very first video that his newly founded company created, and CEV’s success allowed him to give back to the meat industry and to education.
He and his wife, Joyce, have founded 15 endowments across six universities, all aimed at the advancement of agriculture. In CAHNRS, he created the $5 million Cashup Davis Family Endowed Dean program in honor of his great grandfather, Palouse pioneer James “Cashup” Davis, to foster academic and research opportunity, leadership, and the pursuit of excellence.
“Judging helped introduce me to Dr. Smith, taught me the pursuit of excellence and that it’s OK to win, and led to much success in academia,” he said. “All I wanted to do was improve teaching. Little did I know that would lead to becoming a philanthropist and giving back.”
“To the AMSA, I say thank you for the opportunity to work with the best of the best, both new and seasoned professionals in the field of meat science,” Davis said. “In my 54-year career, I have learned that success begets success, and it’s important to give back along the journey. It’s OK to win, and to have fun. And, it’s all about the kids.”
Learn more about the association and the R.C. Pollock award at https://meatscience.org/home.