For Rex Campbell, the questions never stop. They appear in his mind with clockwork regularity, urging him to seek out new information — or a new understanding of old information — in a way that belies his 85 years of age. Campbell has spent a total of 68 years either studying or teaching at the University of Missouri.
“You can take me out and drop me in the middle of cornfield and I’d be interested in the varieties of corn,” he says. “I just have that curiosity… I’m fascinated by everything.”
Every day, Campbell reads the same five newspapers. Although he has taught within the department of rural sociology since 1965, he is apt to pick up a book or read a magazine article about something completely unrelated to his area of expertise, such as astronomy, biology or physics.
“One of the things we’re trying to get across is life-long learning. Curiosity will give you life-long learning,” Campbell says. “We’re humans who have a large three-pound brain and the vast majority of us go through life without ever using it, pretty much. So why not use that asset that we’ve been fortunate enough to have by learning?”
Depending on your perspective, Campbell has either been cursed or blessed with this voracious and compulsive drive to learn, which has propelled his efforts as a professor, administrator, government official and art connoisseur. Based on the overall results of the ideas that surfaced as a result of that unwavering inquisitiveness, though, most members of the MU community and Columbia residents would go with the latter answer.
“He has a very creative mind. He is always looking at things in a different way,” says Brady Deaton, a former chancellor at MU who worked with Rex for several years as colleague administrators in the Division of Applied Social Sciences. “He’s a very exciting person to work with because of his ideas.”
“He oftentimes seemingly came right out of the blue with ideas nobody had thought of or nobody was discussing and so he often contributed brand new ideas to the discussion,” adds Darwin Hindman, who worked with Campbell for many years as the mayor of Columbia from 1995 to 2010.
“He’s very knowledgeable and able to speak on almost anything and the thing I always enjoyed about him was that he would cause you to be a more analytical thinker,” says Alisa Warren, a former graduate student of Campbell’s who currently serves as the executive director of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.
During a luncheon at the Reynolds Alumni Center on April 21, a collection of people who know Rex and his wife, Mary, the best took the time to reminisce about many of those ideas and the impact they have had at MU and the surrounding community — and to celebrate their selfless generosity.
“Rex and Mary are an exceptional couple,” CAFNR Dean Tom Payne said. “We are blessed that they have been dedicated supporters of the CAFNR family for decades. Over his many years of work for the University of Missouri and city of Columbia, Rex has proven to be an invaluable resource for our communities. The impacts from his ideas are found in both MU and Columbia. We are deeply indebted to both Rex and Mary for their collective service and outstanding generosity.”
‘A pleasant surprise’“…Your class taught me so much more than any other here at Mizzou. You’ve inspired me to take the road less traveled and not to participate in group think. Because of this class, I’ve learned to be more aware of the world around me and the impact I can make if we just simply try…”
The preceding words came from a thank you note from a former student in Campbell’s rural sociology class last year at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center (GOBCC). The class is entitled, “Leadership in Today’s World.” He has been teaching the class in the same building since it opened up in 1998. Typically Campbell does not keep letters of any kind, but he made an exception for this one, with its bright paper and artistic penmanship.
It was from a communications major named Karen Spears from the not-very-rural South Side of Chicago. “I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t know what rural sociology meant,” Spears says. “It was a pleasant surprise.”
What she found was an all-encompassing class filled with the latest statistics and information relating to the overall socioeconomics of the country by a professor who will not present any PowerPoint slides “when it’s just a leftover.” She had classmates working on degrees in various programs all across campus who felt secure sharing their ideas and contributing to candid conversation on all matters.
“This class made me super comfortable to talk about these issues that people tend to brush under the rug,” Spears says. “He brought a lot of issues to light.”
It turns out that Spears, who has always had as she puts it “uncannily neat” handwriting, runs an online business, Kareracter.com, a graphic design studio that specializes in hand-lettering. The heartfelt reply email she received back from Campbell reaffirmed her decision to expand her business into stationery and other related products. “I really do want to bring back this art because I know about the influence it can have on people,” she says.
In his class, Campbell is known make statements that are preceded by “This is my opinion. You can take it whatever way you want to.”
“It’s really refreshing to have a professor who is really straightforward and honest and opinionated,” says John Heinecke, a senior in agricultural education leadership who is currently taking Campbell’s class. “From taking his class and getting to know him, I would have to say it’s his goals and helping educate kids and not only educate but get them out of their comfort zone discussing controversial topics that we’ll have to face later on.”
Alisa Warren remembers how Campbell’s eyebrows would shoot up at the top of his 6-foot-3 frame when he would challenge an initial response from a student. “He would say ‘Well, was it really that way or was it something else?’ That would cause you to question your answer, which I think is where learning really happens, so he really challenged you to think more analytically about things,” she says. “The knowledge is not just black and white. There’s some gray. He made you think about things in a deeper way.”
Beginning in 2003, it took Warren seven years to finish her doctoral degree in community development. Being the full-time working mother of three children who was going through a divorce in the middle of her studies, “life happened during that time,” as Warren says. As her advisor, Campbell guided her through the needed classes as she retook initially incomplete classes along the way. “Rex always believed in me. He believed in what I was capable of doing and gave me the strength to go on when I wasn’t sure I could,” says Warren, who regularly gives guest lectures at psychology department classes at MU.
She ended up defending her dissertation in the conference room in Read Hall that was named after her mother, Mary McDonald, who taught nutrition and dietetics as the third black professor in MU’s history. Now a days, she does her best to believe in those who work for her in the same way. “I try to share that same personality trait with the people that I interact with because it absolutely, without a doubt, changes the outcome by having that person there to cheer you on,” she says.
Many of Campbell’s class slides features the following phrase in various colors at the bottom: “You must be the change you wish to see,” a variation of one his favorite quotes from Mahatma Ghandi: “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.” He first heard it at a campus meeting at the MU Student Union about 10 years ago and it stuck. He recalls how a former student of his, Tim Crockett of Crockett Engineering Consultants, recited it upon first seeing him on the street. “Now I have two children,” Crockett told Campbell. “I’m trying to do that and it’s terribly tough to do.”
A short lesson on Rex and Mary
Rex Campbell was born in the beginning stages of the Great Depression on Jan. 8, 1931, in Jasper, Missouri. The town sits 27 miles northeast of Joplin. His earliest childhood memory from the early 1930s consists of him going on a horse-drawn wagon to a river mill to ground wheat that his family had grown into flour. His parents, who were subsistence farmers by trade, grew wheat and other small grains along with cattle and dairy cows. “If we didn’t grow it, we didn’t eat it,” he says.
When he was in fifth grade, life for him and his three older brothers and one sister turned into a nomadic existence, as his family moved from gravel-road locale to locale around the Kansas City area. He spent his high school years in a total of three high schools, bookmarked by years in Lamar (Missouri) High School.
When he arrived at MU in the late 1940s, he arrived with the notion of being a dairy science major, but eventually decided to pursue a path to be an extension agent. While a freshman, Campbell was assigned to a dormitory, which used to be located where the School of Medicine now sits, with two psychology graduate students.
“They were required, as part of their master’s program, to run a complete intellectual inventory of somebody and I was the pigeon who happened to be very conveniently available, so they would run every test they could find on me,” Campbell recalls.
Through the series of IQ tests and similar intellectual probes, the scholar started to realize his possible future in academia. “What they didn’t ask me, the Army did,” says Campbell, who enrolled shortly after graduating from MU with his B.S. in agricultural extension, after hearing that his draft number was more than likely around the corner. He enrolled on July 1, 1952 (Campbell is big on exact dates).
Following a series of aptitude tests, Campbell was informed by Army officials that he “did two standard deviations above the norm.” “I said ‘Translate that for me and tell me what that means.’ They said ‘That means you’re pretty smart.’ And I still remember the conversation very well. I said well ‘I never remember myself being particularly smart.’ And they said ‘Well we didn’t either.’”
Before Campbell could be sent off to the Korean War, he had to receive some training in Camp Chaffee, located in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He had a car and so on the weekends he and some fellow trainees would head up to the college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, the home of the University of Arkansas. In the fall of 1952, Campbell was coming back with a date who was a member of the Delta Gamma sorority when he first saw Mary Higgins, his date’s roommate. Mary was from Hot Springs, Arkansas, where her father owned a gas station. She grew up in a classic Southern house that had a porch that wrapped around on three sides.
Shortly after Rex and Mary met, they started dating before Rex had to take “a long boat ride” bound for Korea in late November of 1952. Mary went on to graduate from Arkansas in 1953 and begin her career as an elementary school teacher in Hot Springs, while Rex served overseas as a member of the artillery squad. Rex’s last day in the Army was June 30, 1954. “They had me scheduled to the date. When I hit the shoreline, my enlistment was over,” he says.
After heading back to his family’s house in Barton County, Campbell found out about a job with MU Extension based in Kirksville, Missouri, that would involve half of his time working with 4-H clubs and other similar organizations and half with promoting farm management practices. He started on Oct. 1, 1954 — with Mary still teaching in Arkansas they would get married a year later. He went back to Columbia in the summers to work on his master’s in agricultural extension.
One exact date that eludes Rex is when he was assigned to Schuyler County on the Iowa border for a few years. He would quickly learn that his new community made up one of the more conservative parts of the state. He remembers talking to a farmer in his 50s at one point about the current practices that were being recommended by MU. “The guy looked at me and he said ‘I’m going to farm just the way the father did. It was good enough for him and it’s good enough for me. I don’t need any of your new fancy book learning,’” Campbell recalls. “And when that’s said to me, I may not be in the right place at the right time. The poor guy went out of business, but I would have gotten more of a response talking to that wall, I think.”
Eventually the Campbells’ path lead back to Columbia in 1958. He finished his master’s degree in 1959, before becoming an instructor in rural sociology in 1960 while working on his doctorate’s degree, which he earned in 1965.
A bridge between two worlds
At first Columbia’s political scene represented a formidable challenge to Campbell, when he joined the city’s planning and zoning commission in 1974. “I just thought it would be nice to see if I could. I’m very immodest. If there’s a challenge, I’ll step right in,” he says with a laugh, about jumping into politics.
He would serve on that commission for six years before taking a seat as a fourth ward representative of the Columbia City Council for 12 years from 1989 to 2001. He also served 15 years on the Board of Adjustment, and currently still retains the position of being an adjunct member on the board. Campbell also served on the MU Faculty Council from 1999 to 2006.
Knowing that the relationship between MU and the city had “always been somewhat strained,” he saw that he could help pull the two sides closer together. “It was unusual for someone like Rex to come forward and participate, but Rex demonstrated how valuable the faculty members or any other university representatives can be to this community,” says Darwin Hindman.
Hindman says that two of the biggest contributions that Campbell gave to the city was helping spearhead both the city’s Commission on Cultural Affairs and The Percent for Art Program, the latter of which devoted one percent of public expenditures on buildings. “There’s a lot of public art in Columbia that has resulted from that and it’s permanent. That was a Rex Campbell idea and it’s still going,” says Hindman, who added that the concept was initially met by skeptics who wanted to put the money into surrounding streets or reduce the overall costs of projects. “It’s one of those things that if you start it, over the years it proliferates and Columbia is much better off for it.”
Although several people wanted Campbell to run for mayor following Mary Ann McCollum’s tenure from 1989 to 1995, that was never an option for him given his previous and first commitment to being a professor. He did, though, serve as mayor pro tem for four years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Did you ever try to figure out what you were going to say to an undertakers’ convention on Saturday morning?” Campbell says. “I found myself in that position.”
When Campbell entered the city political scene in 1974, he was already a trained demographer, a skill that would come in handy when discussing issues about projecting growth or sales taxes for Columbia “We would hire consultants, but then Rex would hold a session and give his opinions,” Hindman recalls. “He oftentimes would have a contrarian demographic opinion and he had his own statistics to back up his opinions.”
Talking about his relationship with Campbell, Brady Deaton’s mind pictures the large annual maps of Missouri that Campbell would create, showing a detailed breakdown of the gradual shift in population, as people moved from the northern part of the state to the south. Deaton always kept them in his office, including when he was chancellor.
“From someone in an area like ag econ and development in my case those are very meaningful things because there’s so much that goes with them: the peoples’ attitudes, the changing infrastructure of the communities and economic opportunity,” Deaton says. “He and I almost every year would have a big conversation about just that one topic. He was very proud of that work. It would tell you what was going on in the state to an incredible degree.”
Deaton and Campbell first met at a conference that centered on rural urban linkages in Racine, Wisconsin, in the ’80s. At the time, Deaton worked at Virginia Tech, while Campbell was one of several well-known and well-published sociologists from MU, along with Daryl Hobbs and Bill Heffernan.
Deaton had just finished a presentation at the conference when Campbell came up to him to talk about matters relating to Missouri. It would be the first of many chats on the subject between the two, when Deaton came to MU as the chair of what is now the Department of the Agricultural and Applied Economics in 1989.
“I think one of his real legacies will be, in a sense, he’s a professor’s professor,” Deaton says. “He’s an outstanding academician who committed himself to understanding the dynamics of change in Missouri and in doing that he developed, along with his participation in politics, a keen sense of understanding and exploration of the role of leadership.”
Developing a philosophy
At some point in the ’90s after Campbell stepped down as department chair, he decided to get involved with national and regional committees on collegiate teaching. At a meeting related to these pursuits in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a professor first asked all of the fellow professors there to talk about what his or her teaching philosophy was. Oddly enough, it was one question that had yet to pop into his brain before then. “I had never thought about my teaching philosophy,” Campbell says. “And I started writing and I wrote all the way back on the plane. I guess I’m still writing on it.”
Campbell recently put the finishing touches on a 10-page teaching document that includes his philosophy of both undergraduate and graduate instruction and testing and grading. On all three matters, he’s not shy to state his perspective, particularly on the last subject. “I’m thoroughly convinced today that what we do in higher education is a poor job,” he says. “We know a lot more about learning than we apply.” Furthermore, he says that starting as early as middle school that the educational system in general teaches “the game of being a student” instead of “the game of learning.”
“They learn to play a game,” Campbell says. “It’s a role play. By the time they get to here they’re indoctrinated, not in learning, but how to play the roles to get a grade. What we need to do is get under their skin, so to speak, or in their brains and get them to change rather than this role playing gamesmanship that they do in 99.9 percent of the classes.”
In Campbell’s class, he does not give traditional tests. Instead, students give a 25-minute presentation on a chosen topic and then later write a second paper at the end of the course that includes the 10 main takeaways and what it means to their lives. He has taught close to four-fifths of all the classes in rural sociology at one point or the other and created approximately 20 of them on his own. He has won a long list of teaching awards, but the one he treasures the most is being named a William T. Kemper Fellow for Teaching Excellence in 1999, when Deaton, serving as chancellor at the time, surprised him in his classroom at the GOBCC.
Part of his philosophy on undergraduate teaching is that “each student is a unique individual with unique talents and experiences. It is my job to help them sort out and enhance their unique qualities.” Such a mentality has also helped Campbell become a nationally and internationally acclaimed art appraiser, particularly of Chinese and Japanese art. It’s a hobby he started 29 years ago as another outlet for his curiosity. “I’m always interested in learning anything new and that gave me an excuse to learn something new,” he says. Rex and Mary share a joint passion for art of all kinds. Mary served as a volunteer at the gift shop at the MU Museum of Art and Archeology for many years.
As Rex finishes up telling his story, the attention shifts to Mary, a woman of few words, but many laughs. She declines the opportunity to describe her husband to those who have never crossed his path. Rex is quick to describe his wife, though, to the outside world.
“The one thing that my wife has in large quantities is patience,” he begins as Mary to starts laugh a little louder than normal.
“Because anyone who would put up with me for 60 years has got to be a very unusual person.”