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Director of Agricultural Division retires after 42 years


For the past few weeks, Wadell Altom has dedicated one hour each day to packing up his office. He sorts through old files, carefully ensconces plaques and memorabilia in bubble wrap and delivers rediscovered keepsakes to his employees--small mementoes of their many years together.

This daily process is a measured, good-spirited approach to saying goodbye, from a man known for both qualities. Altom, senior vice president and director of the Agricultural Division, will officially retire from The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation March 31, concluding a storied career in agricultural consultation and leadership that began more than four decades ago.

"The Noble Foundation is more than just a place I worked. It is more than just my career. It's been my life's work and I'm proud of what has been accomplished," Altom said. "I'm proud of this organization and these amazing people I've had the great fortune to work with these many years. I will always cherish them, but I find myself ready for the next challenge."

Altom announced his retirement to Noble Foundation employees late this winter. Michael Cawley, president and chief executive officer, said the Noble Foundation was losing a patriarch.

"Wadell's work ethic, commitment and kindness are unmatched," Cawley said. "In the 20 years I've known him, he's been a great champion of the Noble Foundation and agriculture, a sage counselor and a true friend. He has dedicated his life to the Noble Foundation, and we are all better for having him in our lives."

Altom came to the Noble Foundation in 1966 as a fresh-faced 23-year-old to join a four-member consultation team. At the time, the Noble Foundation was home to 62 employees (12 in the Agricultural Division), and the campus consisted of two office/laboratory buildings, a small greenhouse and five barns. Almost 43 years later, the Noble Foundation is now home to 365 employees from more than 25 countries. The campus consists of 500,000 square feet of research and administration space on an 800-acre campus with 12,000 acres of research and demonstration land available to the scientists and agricultural consultants.

"The changes in technology and the growth have been simply astounding," he said. "But it's always come back to the people, for me. In all these years, we've always had the most compassionate, intelligent, dedicated people. That's what has made the Noble Foundation successful."

Altom spent more than 30 years as a soils and crops consultant during which the Agricultural Division went from one team with four members to four teams with six specialized consultants. Today, teams provide no-cost consultation to more than 1,700 farmers and ranchers, helping them achieve a myriad of goals and improving land stewardship--the focus of Lloyd Noble's mission when he established the organization in 1945.

"As part of the Noble Foundation's consultation teams, we have the great fortune to work with some of the best people you'll ever meet," Altom said. "I hope that I've made some positive impact on the men and women that farm and ranch. I know that they've changed my life. They have taught me as much as anything I could have ever shown them, and I'm thankful for those many relationships."

Altom was eligible to retire more than a decade ago, but stayed to provide leadership for the Agricultural Division, first as part of a management team in 2000 and then as division director beginning in 2004. Two years later, he was named senior vice president. Altom's employees appreciate his hands-off management style and character.

"Wadell is one of those guys that you love to work with and for," said Clay Wright, livestock consultant, who has worked with Altom for more than 30 years. "He's true to his word. He's calm under pressure, and he brings a great deal of passion and humor to the job. He's been a mentor to so many of us, and his contribution to our lives and the agricultural community is almost immeasurable."

In the end, Altom said, he knew this winter that it was the right time to retire. "A lot of people ask why I didn't retire years ago," he said. "The simple fact was, I've been having too much fun. I love my job, and the amazing people I work with make every day a joy. Then, there's the organization. Not many people get to work at an organization where the mission is to benefit mankind. The question isn't 'Why have I not left yet?' The question is 'Why would I ever want to leave?'"

The answer to that question is simple: his family. Altom said he is ready to spend more time with family, specifically, his two grandchildren. "Like all people, I divide my life between job and family," he said. "Now, I'm at a place where I can give everything to my family and maybe have a little time to go on a nice vacation."

Altom's replacement has already been selected. The Noble Foundation will publically announce the new director of the Agricultural Division April 1.

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