A thousand-step staircase.
That’s one way Al McQuinn tries to explain his ascent into the annals of American agriculture as an entrepreneurial and visionary businessman who originated more than 80 patents relating to machines that mix and blend fertilizer formulas for variable soil conditions across fields.
“Each step up is based on something that happened to me, something that I was exposed to, something that I learned or something that enabled me to do the things I did,” he says.
He attributes many of those steps directly to his time at the University of Missouri in the early ‘50s as an undergraduate student who paid his way through classes with manual labor. Eventually, his experiences at MU turned a farm boy into a pioneering salesman who established the framework for what is known as precision agriculture. He would graduate with his degree in agricultural economics in 1954 before founding his revolutionary company, Ag-Chem Equipment Company, Inc., nine years later.
“The University of Missouri will always stand among the most appreciated and the most important ventures that I have ever experienced,” Al told the audience gathered for the inaugural Jefferson Club Golden Quill Alumni Excellence Awards on April 29 inside Jesse Hall. At the event, he became just the fourth alumnus from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources to have his name etched into the southern entrance of the iconic building, joining Jerry Caulder, Don Faurot and Marlin Perkins.
The Golden Quill award harkens back to the bronze statue on the MU campus of Thomas Jefferson with a quill pen in hand. It was purchased by the Jefferson Club as a symbol of the university being the first of its kind to be established on the land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase during Jefferson’s tenure as the nation’s third president.
With all they have done for decades for MU and for CAFNR in particular, the McQuinns are charter members of the Jefferson Club. “There’s hardly a part of the college he hasn’t had an impact on,” says former CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Tom Payne, adding that the support the McQuinns have given the college can easily be seen in all six academic divisions based on creating countless research and scholarship opportunities alone. “The magnification of Al’s generosity is huge.”
For the occasion in April, Al brought his wife, Mary Agnes, and two of his three daughters and their husbands. The family’s itinerary included a visit to Shakespeare’s Pizza.
“Al was so excited. It was a lot of fun watching him having so much fun taking us all there,” says Mary Jetland, Al’s youngest daughter. “We don’t get to spend much time in any of our parents’ old stomping grounds since we are all in Minnesota, so it was such a treat to see them go back and relive stories from their college days.
“As a family we are very proud of everything he’s done for so many people. It was nice to be there to see him honored by his alma mater and to see how touched he was.”
Al was one of just five recipients of the award at the event, which was emceed by ESPN personality and MU alumnus John Anderson.
“I was honored. It’s a wonderful recognition to what I have been able to accomplish in my lifetime. I look back on it and there is not the slightest reservation in my thought that I ever could have done what I did to advance agriculture without the University of Missouri,” says Al, whose accomplishments include being named one of the top agricultural innovators of the 20th Century in the millennium edition of Farm Chemicals International trade magazine in 2000. “And I think if I had gone to any other school or university that it just wouldn’t have been the same for me.”
Hello, Mr. Truman
Al McQuinn was born on Oct. 22, 1931, in Butler, Missouri, a small town a little more than an hour’s drive from Kansas City. He grew up on a cousin’s farm during the height of World War II. When he was 8, his mother became a single parent, left to raise and feed Al and his two younger brothers, Morris and Donnie. At that same time, he found his first job delivering newspapers in his trusty red wagon.
In 1942, when Al was 11, his mother moved the family north to Independence, Missouri, where she found work at an ordnance plant, running a machine that would put caps on bullets. During that time, until he would leave for MU, Al found plenty of work on a large farm owned by the Beets family, who were cousins of his mother.
“Mrs. Beets would be waiting for me when school was out on Friday evenings,” Al says. “I would change clothes and just jump right into farm mode. And I would stay there until Monday morning and go back to school.” Al’s to-do list included plowing fields, cultivating corn and loading hay bales. He also picked potatoes at 10 cents a bushel on the side. That last job, in particular, would help grow an interest in soils — and later fertilizers — as he would take note of how poorly the crop would grow in clay-based soils when compared to the blacker soils that were richer in organic materials.
“That may not seem like a very big thing, but it certainly implanted in my mind the variability that existed in soils,” Al says.
If Al needed any inspiration for what he could become beyond the city limits of Independence, all he had to do was look for the stately gentleman who would regularly walk down Pleasant Avenue with little to no secret service agents: Harry Truman. Al lived on that street and would often pass him on his walk to high school. “Mr. Truman always greeted me with ‘Good morning, young man.’ Sometimes I would try to beat him with a ‘Good morning, Mr. Truman,’ before he could get it out,” Al says.
Furthermore, Al would attend political fundraisers for Truman, a U.S. senator at the time looking to run for the presidency, as the guest of a friend from high school whose father organized the events.
“I would meet Mr. Truman each time,” Al says of the 33rd U.S. president. “I don’t think he ever really nailed my name down, but he certainly knew who I was and he knew me on the street, too.”
Heading to Columbia
Even though Al was the oldest of his three brothers, he ended up getting a ride to Columbia from Morris, who would follow Al’s path to MU through a track-and-field scholarship.
Upon Al’s arrival in 1950, he joined the Farmhouse fraternity, an agriculture-based organization of young men established at MU in 1905. One of Al’s fellow freshman and pledge class members was Bob Marshall, who would go on to become the first Wendell Arbuckle Professor of Ice Cream Research at MU and the co-inventor of the famed Tiger Stripe ice cream flavor in the late ’80s. “He is a great friend,” says Bob, who adds that he would describe Al as very “imaginative, progressive and personable.”
Al recalls how Bob’s dedication to his academic pursuits in food science — and the rest of his fraternity brothers’ for that matter — helped inspire him to remember the top reason for coming to Columbia in the first place: a usable education.
“I remember him as a top individual in his world of academia,” Al recalls of Bob. “There were other top students in the fraternity and many of them I felt were gifted to be so academically advanced in their chosen fields and I would ask myself this question: ‘Why aren’t you doing something like this?’ And the answer I gave myself, or excuse, is that I need a broad, broad base of learning to do what I want to do.”
This sentiment led him to the office of the dean of the students, Dr. Jack Matthews. As Al would explain to the man known in most circles simply as “Black Jack,” (a pirate name he was given because of the many students he made walk the plank as a disciplinary measure) he needed to find an academic path that would expand on his previously established agricultural background while providing him the tools needed to run a successful business.
Al requested an academic path that would expand the traditional agricultural curriculum and infuse it with a dozen or so classes representing a wide range of business disciplines, such as business law I and II, Constitutional law, general real estate, general insurance, a speech class and a geology class, all of which proved to be of vital and material importance in business management. Although his proposal would lay the groundwork for enhancements to the agricultural economics program, no one had ever made such a request of Black Jack, who mulled over the idea, and most likely discussed the request with others. After two weeks of counsel and consideration, Dr. Matthews gave Al a call and the university approved his request.
“They were going to give me the latitude I needed,” Al says.Two years later, as he recalls, the university offered a business ag major.
“You must have sold them on the idea, which is kind of the beginning of your salesmanship abilities,” says Mary Agnes with a laugh.
Meeting his match
If winning over Black Jack counted as one of the more significant steps on Al’s upward climb, winning over his wife of 63 years was even a bigger victory.
Like Al, Mary Agnes had a farming background, raised in a small town in Indiana. She had chosen to study art at what was then Christian College, an all-female school that would later change its name — and add male students — to become present-day Columbia College. At the time, the male-to-female ratio at MU was around six to one, Mary Agnes says, so the female students from Christian and Stephens College “created a balanced effect for college students.”
“It was a really great place to be young and to go to school. It was a dreamy time in our lives, it really was, so there’s a lot of sentiment involved with Columbia,” Mary Agnes says.
In Al’s junior year, he took notice of a girl who had been around the fraternity house, and had briefly dated one of his fraternity brothers. For the sake of this story, we will call him Joe. He spotted that same girl on a sunny day in September 1953 enjoying herself on the patio of the MU Student Union with some of her other Christian College girlfriends, some of whom were dating other Farmhouse members at the time.
“I saw her… I said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’ This is only the second time I’ve told this story,” Al says. “I just knew.”
Knowing the unwritten rule around the fraternity, Al asked Joe on two separate occasions if it would be okay for him to ask her to go to the first fall party that Farmhouse was throwing.
“I’m going to look around for a bit,” replied Joe.
“Sounds like it was a cattle sale,” Mary Agnes says, listening to her husband’s recollection.
And so Al ended up placing a call to Mary Agnes at her dormitory at St. Clair Hall, where a room with three phones had to satisfy the communication needs of more than 100 college girls. Even though Mary Agnes was not completely certain who Al was, she looked forward to seeing old friends who she had met from dating Joe at their fraternity. She said yes to Al. Seconds later, Joe had called Mary Agnes to ask her to the party. “I said sorry… That’s the way it goes.”
In Al, Mary Agnes had found someone who shared a common experience of necessary maturity during childhood. She herself had helped to raise her younger brother after her father passed away of a heart attack when she was only 15, leaving her mother to take up his job as a journalist two weeks after his death.
“I think we both had this independent, self-reliance maybe beyond our age at that point,” she says. “He wasn’t a silly frat boy. He was serious.”
After going on several dates, Al invited Mary Agnes to that year’s Fall Barnwarming dance. In the spring of 1954, Al later proposed to her at Farmhouse’s spring formal. They were married in October 1954 before Al went off to serve in the U.S. Army, beginning in January 1955.
Mary Agnes says that one of the biggest joys of all of their philanthropic efforts over the years was the many trips they made to Columbia as part of the For All We Call Mizzou campaign, which Al co-chaired with Lowell Miller.
“It was so much fun after all those years to go back to my old college with its new name, Columbia College. Yes, it brought back memories to both Al and me, but it was also rewarding to see the great improvements both universities have made and how well they have done,” she says. “It’s been a joy to help further their progress. We have had a lot of fun, and we have enjoyed fond memories, and met a lot of new friends.”
Taking to the skies
After completing four years of ROTC courses and graduating from MU, he simultaneously received a commission of Second Lieutenant in the Army. Al reported for active duty assigned to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, where he attended an officer basic training course, from January to April 1955. While attending this course, he applied for U.S. Army flight school. He was accepted for the September class at Gary Air Force Base in San Marcos, Texas. From April to September, Al was assigned to a Ft. Sill Battalion as a supply officer while waiting for flight school to begin in September 1955.
After completing 90 days of basic flight training at San Marcos, Al was assigned to a unit at Camp Rucker in Alabama for tactical flight training, which ended in the spring of 1956 when he was stationed at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. He remained there on flight duty until September 1958 when he was discharged from the U.S. Army with an honorable discharge but with a remaining 15-month commitment to fly in a Minnesota Reserve unit to complete his five-year obligation. In those days, military service was a five-year duty requirement of all who enlisted.
In addition to flying, Al had other duties, most often teaching a leadership school to non-commissioned service members or serving on various boards from court-martial to Warrant Officer Candidate School, and reviewing other non-commissioned military sergeants for OCS (Officer Candidates School).
Being selected as a leadership teacher and board review officer, from court martial to officer status, Al found he needed to improve his written and oral communication skills.
As Mary Agnes tells it, one day after feeling embarrassed about his board reports, he came home and grabbed an English textbook from one of his previous university courses, and “we started forming sentences,” Al says, pointing to her.
“He’s became a wonderful letter writer,” Mary Agnes says. “Al can learn anything if he sees that he can use it.”
“She’s got it,” Al says with a chuckle.
Although he is known for being a visionary, Al will be the first to tell you that at first he did not realize the tremendous use that having the ability to fly would have on his career.
Flying added the ability to quickly go anywhere and at any time. It would also determine his fate after being asked to volunteer to fly a high-ranking sergeant up to Wisconsin for a family emergency in the summer of 1958. Since the general had asked for volunteers from his aviation section, Al and a fellow pilot whose family lived in Minneapolis bargained with the general for permission to fly the airplane from Wisconsin to Minneapolis and keep it for four days to celebrate the Fourth of July and then fly back to Ft. Bliss.
The general quickly agreed and they were on their way in two hours.
After leaving the sergeant in Wisconsin, Al, flying the airplane, crossed into Minnesota and decided to fly about 200 feet above the beautiful little farms and green acreage in southeastern Minnesota where he could see all of the potential that this area held for an agriculture-based business. After landing in Minneapolis, and over the next four days, Al fell in love with the area and with the idea of moving his family to Minnesota upon discharge in the following September.
After reviewing Minnesota, and specifically Minneapolis, with Mary Agnes, the McQuinns agreed that it was a perfect choice for them to move up north. They arrived in Minneapolis in early October, and during his first job search, Al found an opportunity to manage and as he puts it, “resuscitate” a chain of fertilizer businesses, by relying on his agronomic upbringing and his knowledge of soil variability supported by university agronomy and chemistry courses.
Using the company plane to visit clients, he would build a network of satisfied customers by giving select farmers prescriptive fertilizer combinations needed to fit their specific conditions. “I am here to make a winner out of you, so I can be a winner,” he would say. “One year of results does not work for you and does not work for me.”
“Frankly, I never knowingly sold a product in my life that wasn’t going to be a win for the customer,” Al says. He did pass up some reluctant buyers who did not want to follow the required guidelines.
Recognizing a need for more efficient farm equipment and chemicals, Al founded Ag-Chem in 1963 in Jackson, Minnesota, a town near the Iowa border. From there he built a line of large application machines known as Terra-Gators and liquid applicators called Ro-Gators that he would then sell almost exclusively to fertilizer retailers, who were serving farmers in corn and grain production. The company was sold to AGCO Corporation in 2001.
Go forth and multiply
Al and Mary McQuinn have taken that same approach when it comes to their philanthropy: Donations are best when, like crops or business ventures, they can be multiplied.
“I don’t like to donate to entities that consume money, more or less,” Al says. The preferred recipients for Mary Agnes and Al’s financial support are those who can take the donated funds and invest it or spend it to benefit or enhance life for the masses by leveraging additional funds for research, education, and more. “Now the money may be gone, but the substance and the benefit of the money are not.”
In Tom Payne, the former Vice Chancellor and Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Al recognized a fellow entrepreneur and leader who could take a donation and then double or triple the return in investment through matches from federal agencies or individual donors. Al’s trust in Tom resulted in establishing a fund that would give Tom the fiscal flexibility that would enable him to act quickly when it came to going after an opportunity or addressing an issue, such as retaining key faculty members.
Tom states, “Al’s foresight and generosity were very, very much needed, and I thought visionary, because not too many donors provide the flexibility that he afforded us.” Tom was recently asked by Al to provide opening comments for the introduction of a series of interviews being done for a book about Al’s life by the Minnesota Historical Society. The book is to be published next year.
CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Christopher Daubert met McQuinn for the first time this September, and expressed his appreciation for all that’s been accomplished with the flexible funds that Al has made available to CAFNR.
“Unrestricted funds give CAFNR the leverage needed to build stellar faculty, programs and facilities,” Daubert said. “Having this foundation in place was one of the things that attracted me to the college, and as its new leader I am committed to continuing this same smart business strategy of developing relationships and leveraging partnerships as we build for the future.”
What the lasting legacy of Al and Mary Agnes McQuinn will be to the CAFNR community depends on whom you ask.
Some would think the majority of their impact has been on students, faculty and academic programming.
Others may think about the holiday parties that they have continued to fund — a tradition that was announced at last year’s party would continue into the tenure of new CAFNR Vice Chancellor and Dean Christopher Daubert. “I know the morale-boosting benefits of Christmas parties in my own company,” says Al, whose company had up to 2,000 employees when he served as the chairman and CEO.
Bob Marshall immediately thinks about his work with the Bond Life Sciences Center, a building supported in part by the McQuinns. It is there where Bob’s granddaughter, Kiley Marshall, has conducted work as a junior in bioengineering. She says, “It’s a beautiful place and there’s some of the most advanced teaching in that building.” Bob says, “We’re not going to forget that.”
One of their more noticeable contributions to the Bond Life Sciences Center is the massive 110-foot “Joy of Discovery” art installation — chosen by a committee of approximately 20 people, including Al and Mary Agnes — that hangs in the building’s atrium. Both the atrium and art installation were funded by the McQuinns’ donations.
Fittingly, the artwork is encompassed by a large staircase, leading to a scenic view of the MU campus at the top.