An Extension of Themselves

CAFNR alums donate estate gift of $2.65 million to help further beef genomics and nutrition research

It was not glamorous work that helped get Marge Slayton through her undergraduate years as a home economics major at the University of Missouri in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She had a job at the poultry department within the Division of Animal Sciences where she would collect research data.

“Barry always kids me and says that I worked my way through college by gathering eggs,” says Marge, who graduated in 1972. That would be her husband, Barry, who had his own noteworthy student job tied to the Division of Animal Sciences while working on his animal sciences degree in the late ’60s.

“Mine was really important,” Barry says as he talks about the work he did for the entomology department, which involved going out to the university’s beef research farms to pick up fresh cow manure three days to a week to help raise flies for various experiments. He would later on go on to cart around a film projector for any professors who needed to show films in their classes.

At the time, with the Vietnam War dominating headlines and the collective conscience of the country, Barry and Marge Slayton were — in Barry’s words — “just poor kids looking to have a good time and get through school.”

Given their humble beginnings on campus working 30 to 40 hours a week, the two college sweethearts — who actually met before they arrived in Columbia — would have a hard time fathoming the scene that played out under the Jesse Hall Rotunda on March 11, when it was announced that the Slaytons would be giving an estate commitment worth $2.65 million specifically to research centered around beef genomics and nutrition in the Division of Animal Sciences of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. With the gift, MU was able to reach the $700 million mark of the $1.3 billion Our Time to Lead Campaign that launched on Oct. 8, according to Tom Hiles, vice chancellor of University Advancement.

The two dogs of Barry and Marge Slayton are "Miz" (mostly white) and "Zou" (mostly black). Photo courtesy of Barry Slayton.The two dogs of Barry and Marge Slayton are “Miz” (mostly white) and “Zou” (mostly black). Photo courtesy of Barry Slayton.

“Our Division of Animal Sciences ranks in the top animal sciences research and education programs in the world,” CAFNR Dean Tom Payne told the crowd at the announcement, which was attended by faculty, staff and administration representing numerous facets of the College. “Beef production around the world is big and you have an increased use of beef in parts of the world that never used to eat it because their economies are improving. And so Missouri plays a very important role in the economy of this state through its beef-cattle production.” Payne added that Missouri consistently ranks as either the no. 2 or 3 state when it comes to overall beef cattle production.

The Slaytons initially made a plan to establish the estate gift in the 1980s. Both of them grew up around farms and have run their own farm and raised cattle near their West Plains (Mo.) home for many years. They say that they are excited to know that their gift could have a to-be-determined impact down the road on the beef industry.

“That’s kind of the intriguing part of the gift,” Barry says. “It will be something that we don’t know because as time changes the research will change. We felt CAFNR would be a good place to do that for the production of beef, the advancement of the industry as a whole… we wanted to do something with research that would move the industry along and we felt that was the best way to do it.

“We’ve been blessed financially and that’s probably a result of hard work and an education and both of those we developed at the university,” Barry says. “We just felt that would be a good way to give back.”

The Slaytons’ passion for MU runs so deep that they have two dogs who help Barry with his passion for quail hunting: a mostly white German shorthaired pointer named “Miz” and — you guessed it — a black French Britney named “Zou.”

Overcoming obstacles

Although Barry earned his degree in animal sciences in 1970, he found his calling in the banking industry. What started out as just a job turned into a way to build personal relationships with farmers in southern Missouri. In July 2013, he retired as a senior vice president and chief lending officer of West Plains Bank and Trust Company after a little more than 20 years of service.

A little less than two years later, Marge retired after serving 32 years as a State Farm Insurance agent on June 1, 2015. That morning, the Slaytons were preparing for her retirement party and for an impending phone call from his doctor. Barry had noticed a lump on his chest a few days earlier. They received the news that Barry had Stage 2 breast cancer.

Before too long, Barry’s retirement had a morphed into a series of medical appointments. First, there was the surgery performed in Cape Girardeau by Dr. Ray Silliman, who happens to be married to Marge’s niece. That was followed by a string of chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Ozarks Medical Center.

CAFNR Dean Tom Payne jokes with Barry and Marge Slayton on March 11 during the announcement of the couple's estate gift to the College's Division of Animal Sciences.CAFNR Dean Tom Payne jokes with Barry and Marge Slayton on March 11 during the announcement of the couple’s estate gift to the College’s Division of Animal Sciences.

When he started to regain some clarity following the initial treatments, Barry found himself stuck in bed. He needed a distraction that came courtesy of materials on the latest beef genomics research sent to him by Tom McFadden, director of the Division of Animal Sciences, and Jared Decker, an assistant professor in beef genetics extension and computational genomics.

Jared had asked Barry to be on the advisory board for a project of his with the working title of “Identifying local adaptation and creating region-specific genomic predictions in beef cattle” that he was pursuing for a grant as the project director. Barry would spend hours on his iPad, reading the material. “He did his homework,” Marge says.

After several months of treatment and rest, Barry started to feel more like himself. They were ready to make a trip to Columbia to meet with McFadden, Decker and others at the Division of Animal Sciences who will drive the research their gift supports — including Jerry Taylor, Curators Professor of Genetics and Animal Sciences, and Allison Meyer, assistant professor in ruminant nutrition and nutritional physiology. In early February, the Slaytons made the trip up north in a two-day visit that allowed them to sit in on lectures, laboratory sessions and stops to the nearby research centers.

The trip represented a “little celebration,” Marge says, for being on the road to remission following seven months of relative isolation. “Probably the most important was as we were wrapping that up, we both felt very good that we had done the right thing,” Barry adds. “It really made us proud of the university and our gift.”

During the visit, Decker was able to give the Slaytons some good news: He had been awarded the grant for $3 million by the USDA for three years. Jared first met Barry a while back through MU Extension. “It’s always great when you can talk with a producer who’s passionate and interested,” Decker said. “He goes to the coffee shop every Monday and chats with a friend about beef genetics and beef production, as so as somebody in extension, when you can find that audience who is interested, that’s gold. You just want to talk with them and understand their perspective. That helps guide your thinking about how to help producers. It makes a two-way interaction.”

‘No telling what they’re going to be able to do’

At the Friday event, Payne announced that a portion of the gift would go to help fund undergraduate scholarships and graduate student fellowships with the Division of Animal Sciences. “And in the end all of this goes into producing new information that our extension folks can take out to help the people in this state and the nation and the world, for that matter,” Payne said.

Barry and Marge Slayton stand with two main recipients of their gift, Jared Decker (on the left) and Allison Meyer (on the right). Division of Animal Sciences director Tom McFadden is on the far left. Barry and Marge Slayton stand with two main recipients of their gift, Jared Decker (on the left) and Allison Meyer (on the right). Division of Animal Sciences director Tom McFadden is on the far right.

Decker, who earned his doctoral degree in genetics from MU in 2012, added that the field of genomics research is experiencing rapid change. For example, the $100 million cost in 2001 to sequence the entire DNA of an animal has now dropped to about $1500. “The purchasing power to do genomics research has just grown exponentially and so questions we couldn’t ask before now, we can actually generate the data to identify those differences between animals and use the genetics to help guide how we breed and manage the animals.”

Meyer hopes to use a portion of the Slaytons’ gift to one day help establish a center for maternal and neonatal nutrition to continue her growing work on pregnant animals, lactating beef cattle and newborn calves. Her work has a direct connection to the work that has been done by Monty Kerley, professor of nutrition, to help improve the overall nutrition of beef cattle in the state.

“One of the hardest things right now is to get money to do a lot of exploratory research, and so having people who are willing to support whatever we’re thinking about gives us more opportunities to do some of that work and to really increase the education component by involving graduate and undergraduate students,” said Meyer, who returned to campus in 2013 after earning a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition from MU in 2007.

While the Slaytons spoke with professors and researchers during their February visit, the conversation turned to the CRISPR-Cas9 technology that revolutionized the way that genetic research is conducted by making it cheaper and faster to get desired results. It played a vital role most recently in the recent breakthrough that Randall Prather, Curators Professor of Reproductive Physiology and Molecular Biology, and his laboratory made in creating pigs that are resistant to the Porcine Reproductive & Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) virus.

“They were talking about CRISPR,” Marge says. “I think that just sold it for me because I knew then that someday in the future, there’s no telling what they’re going to be able to do and it’s comforting to know that our little bitty contribution is going to help in some way.”

“That was awesome,” Barry said about his February visit, after the announcement. “If other people had the opportunity to that, there would be more giving.”

Boy meets girl

The Slaytons’ story traces back to Ripley County, which is about a two hour drive east from their West Plains home. Barry grew up in the small town of Fairdealing — a fitting place given his future profession — before tough economic farming conditions forced his parents to move to St. Louis for work when he was in grade school. Barry’s family, though, maintained a farm and would work on it during the weekends. His family “had a little bit of everything” at the farm, including beef cattle, dairy cows, sheep, chicken and pigs.

Marge grew up seven miles south of Fairdealing in Naylor. It was there where the two first met at a watermelon festival during the summer of 1966, when Barry had just earned his diploma from Lindbergh High School in south St. Louis County and was preparing to come to Mizzou. Marge had two older siblings who had attended Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau and her family expected her to follow suit. She did for a semester before joining Barry in Columbia. “I finally got my way with my parents,” she says.

Office of Advancement scholarship graphic

Nineteen seventy was a big year for the couple. In that year alone, Barry graduated from MU and they married. Barry was then drafted into the U.S. Army that September. He was sent to a medical records school at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in the Washington, D.C., area. After his time there was done, the Slaytons moved to Doniphan, Missouri, for Barry to work as a loan officer before taking a similar role at a bank in Alton, Missouri in 1977.  “They wanted you to know something about agriculture and figured they could teach the economics of lending and that’s how it started,” Barry says of his introduction into the banking industry.

Marge had worked as a school teacher for four years before taking a role of what was known at the time as an extension area home economist for MU Extension when they moved to Alton, where she helped provide her services for a four-county area. She also earned a master’s degree in extension education from MU in 1984, before going to work as a State Farm agent.

“We’ve always been active in it and continuing to learn and if you don’t continue to learn and change and adapt, you’ve got nothing,” Barry said about Marge’s and his involvement with MU Extension. “That applies to everything: farming, banking, insurance, whatever.”

The couple has lived in West Plains since 1986. Given that their town sits just 20 miles from the Arkansas border, the Slaytons were very excited when MU joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012 and started to form a new rivalry with the University of Arkansas.

“There’s always been that rivalry here for us. A lot of the people in our area here go to Arkansas,” Marge says.

“We think it’s great,” Barry adds. “Hopefully we’ll be able to win one of these days.”

“We didn’t realize until we got out and got into the workforce what our education was and how much it meant to us.”
― Barry Slayton

Over the years, even being away from Columbia, the Slaytons have looked back at their days at MU and maintained relationships with various people at MU Extension and their other work with CAFNR and MU. Barry served a three-year term on the board of the Jefferson Club, from 2004-07. Marge is a past president of the Greater Ozarks Black and Gold Alumni Chapter.

“We didn’t realize until we got out and got into the workforce what our education was and how much it meant to us,” Barry told the crowd at the announcement. “The one thing that MU taught us while we were here was to continue to learn and to change and to be able to adapt to whatever the circumstances were as you go through your career. And that was probably the most important thing that we learned during that time.”

No exact memories at MU flood Marge’s mind. Instead she remembers the warmth of “just enjoying the loyalty and the tradition of that campus.”

“We got wiser as we got older and really understood the importance of that education that Mizzou did give us,” she says, “because that’s why we’re at where we’re at now — because of our education.