The community across the Delta region of the southeast corner of Missouri was struck with a deep loss with the passing of Jake Fisher in March. Fisher was the long-time superintendent and namesake of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ T.E. “Jake” Fisher Delta Research, Extension and Education Center (REEC) in Portageville, but to the community there and at the University of Missouri, he was so much more.
“It’s hard to pinpoint what Jake meant to the place and what he meant to the community and what he meant to the employees,” said Robert Cook, a Fisher Delta REEC Advisory Board member who counted Fisher as a friend since grade school. “He just pulled it all together.”
Fisher was loyal and highly-respected, with a penchant for getting things done and a passion for helping others.
“One of the most terrifying things before caller ID was when you would answer your phone and Jake Fisher was on the other end and he said, ‘I have an assignment for you,’” said long-time friend and former co-worker Charlie Kruse. “That didn’t mean when you got around to it. When Jake gave you an assignment, you got it done, but when Jake gave an assignment to someone, it was always about helping someone else. It was never about Jake Fisher.”
Fisher started working at the research center immediately after graduating high school in 1961. Initially he was hired to do maintenance-type work, but he quickly began to take on new roles. During his time at what was then known as the Delta Center, Fisher worked in research on soils and soybeans before being promoted to assistant superintendent and, eventually, superintendent.
“Although I met Jake nearly 14 years ago, it was not until I moved into my current role four years ago that we started working together closely and struck a deep friendship,” said Shibu Jose, associate dean for research in CAFNR and director of the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station. “Jake has worn multiple hats for the college over the years; most recently chairing the Fisher Delta REEC Advisory Board. We talked regularly and his passion for the REEC and the community was infectious.”
According to Kruse, when the superintendent position became open, it was so clear to Fisher’s co-workers and colleagues both at the Delta Center and within the agriculture community, that a group, including Kruse, organized a meeting with Roger Mitchell, who was CAFNR’s dean at the time, to advocate for the promotion.
“I give Dean Mitchell so much credit for putting Jake in that position,” Kruse said. “This position required a PhD, and here’s Jake with only a high school diploma.”
During his time as superintendent, Fisher worked diligently to expand the center and its capabilities. He brought in much-needed equipment and resources, and was notably successful in having a building constructed for large meetings and events – even if the building started not as a meeting space, but as a non-climate-controlled tractor shed! He often used creativity when it came to problem solving, friends and colleagues say.
“He solved problems by not making people upset, but by working around things and not making any enemies,” said Dave Haggard, long-time friend and Fisher Delta REEC Advisory Board member.
Today, the event space, Rone Hall, plays host to hundreds of stakeholders and dignitaries at an annual dinner that highlights the work of the Delta Center each year. This crowd often includes leadership from commodity organizations as well as government officials.
Rone Hall was named after a person who was very special to Fisher — his step-father, Son Rone.
“Jake patterned his life after him,” Kruse said. “He was this wonderful man who did so much for other people, and I know he just really made an impression on Jake.”
In 2009, Fisher used his stepfather’s namesake building to help thousands of people. Rone Hall was used to stage a massive response to an unprecedented ice storm that left more than 100,000 without power in the bootheel region. Utility workers and emergency responders arrived from across Missouri and the country to restore services, and they slept, rested, and ate at Rone Hall.
Kruse remembers this response and described the building as being full of cots with people and equipment trucks everywhere.
“It was like a big military operation and Jake was the commander,” Kruse said.
Kruse noted that this act of coordinating the response and offering Rone Hall as a staging point came naturally to Fisher.
“Mr. Jake Fisher is a real-life reflection of the character George Bailey from the holiday classic, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’,” said Christopher Daubert, vice chancellor and dean of Mizzou’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “In the film, George like Jake, led a life that unknowingly and selflessly impacted his community in so many incredible and positive ways. Jake and his amazing legacy inspire me to better serve my community, college and university to improve the lives of all people.”
While the community has not forgotten Fisher’s impact, his employees remember him bringing this philosophy of helping and supporting others into their daily lives at Fisher Delta REEC.
Cook recalled a time when Fisher was given a directive by the University to cut payroll costs, but he couldn’t fathom the idea of layoffs, so, after getting feedback from his employees, he spread the cuts out, cutting just a few hours from each employee to ensure no jobs were lost.
“We respected him as our leader, as our boss, but we also knew he had our back,” said Tina Clark, who is in her 25th year of working at the Delta Fisher REEC. “If we needed something we could go to him and say, ‘hey we need this,’ and he would make it happen for us.”
Clark remembers Fisher as a boss who was involved in every aspect of the operation. She fondly recalls seeing him drive his vehicle around the farm daily to check in on projects and on people.
Fisher was especially known to check in on young people working at the REEC. Mentoring young people was a passion of his, and one that working for the university made possible on a large scale.
“He would have a lot of young interns in summer jobs,” Haggard said. “Jake picked out young people who he felt like could advance to the University of Missouri, and, usually, they would advance. He tried to bring out the best in them.”
Clark remembers Fisher going above and beyond with these young summer interns. She recalls him personally taking them to Columbia — a four-hour drive from Portageville — for campus visits and even buying them clothes and supplies out of his own pocket if they were in need.
“He helped so many young kids,” Cook said. “He was always there to mentor.”
That legacy of helping young people interested in attending Mizzou will continue thanks to a scholarship fund established when Fisher retired. CAFNR established the T.E. “Jake” Fisher Scholarship, a permanently endowed fund at MU, in 2011. St. Louis-based Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer in 2018, helped create the fund along with pledges from Fisher’s family, friends and colleagues. The scholarship supports students in CAFNR programs, and has supported 23 students since its inception.
The establishment of the scholarship fund coincided with Fisher’s retirement, but he also received another honor that year. That was when the Delta Center became the T. E. “Jake” Fisher Delta Research Center in his honor.
“It was one of the few times that I’ve seen Jake when he couldn’t talk,” Cook said of the day the announcement was made. “He was kind of speechless, and he was proud of that too. It’s a great honor.”