By Ryan Whisner
Daily Jefferson County Union regional editor
Friends and colleagues today were mourning the death of Eugene "Gene" C. Meyer, who made his mark on not only his community, but the national dairy scene, as well.
The retired managing editor of the Hoard's Dairyman magazine died at his Fort Atkinson home Thursday. He was 81.
Those who knew Meyer best recalled his countless contributions to the dairy industry and Fort Atkinson in general.
"Gene was one of the U.S. dairy industry's most influential, most caring and most well-liked individuals," said Steve Larson, managing editor of Hoard's Dairyman magazine, who worked with Meyer for 36 years. "There literally are scores, if not hundreds, of people in the dairy industry across the United States and within this community who considered Gene Meyer one of their closest friends. That speaks volumes about his often-sought counsel, his common-sense approach to problems large and small, his sincerity and his empathy for others."
Larson said that although Meyer had received nearly every honor the dairy industry and Fort Atkinson offers, he remained humble, low-key and unassuming.
"In his own quiet way, he was one of Fort Atkinson's greatest ambassadors," Larson said. "During his 15 years as a member of the board of trustees for the hospital, including five years as president, he not only kept the hospital growing and improving but also was actively involved in attracting doctors to the community."
Larson also noted that Meyer was never too busy to show visitors Fort Atkinson, the National Dairy Shrine and the Hoard's Dairyman Farm Guernseys that he loved so well.
"One of Gene's great passions was the National Dairy Shrine," Larson said, noting that Meyer served as its president at the time that the organization's Visitor's Center came to Fort Atkinson to be part of the Hoard Historical Museum.
In 1986, the National Dairy Shrine awarded Meyer the dairy industry's highest recognition as the National Dairy Shrine's "Guest of Honor."
"Gene's work ethic, his countless dairy industry acquaintances and his grasp of dairy industry issues made him an ideal boss and mentor," Larson said. "Anyone who was an avid and undeterred Chicago Cubs fan for 70 year had to have had a certain sort of moxie."
W. D. Hoard & Sons Vice President Brian Knox echoed Larson's sentiments.
"All the national honors and community leadership things aside, what we who worked with Gene at Hoard's are going to remember him most for was what a true, kind, unassuming gentleman he was," Knox said. "No matter how tight the deadline or complicated the situation, he always seemed to carry a gentle smile and a slightly mischievous sense of humor that only a diehard Cubs fan can have."
Knox continued, noting that even after retirement and the onset of his illness, Meyer continued with W. D. Hoard & Sons Co. as a consultant and "ambassador without portfolio, not only aiding with his quiet advice and nurturing young employees, but continuing to serve the dairy industry on a national scale. There just aren't adequate words to say how much we're going miss him."
Retired Hoard's Dairyman advertising manager and friend, Mark "Bud" Kerschensteiner, called Meyer "a wonderful man."
"He was like a brother to me," Kerschensteiner said. "He was a perfect people person. He just liked everybody. He was a great civic leader, nationally and locally, and a huge contributor to Fort Atkinson."
Kerschensteiner said he had known Meyer since the first day he arrived in Fort Atkinson.
"We've been through a lot together," Kerschensteiner said. "I could write books about him. It's a shame he had to go so soon."
Across the country in Lynden, Wash., Meyer's influence was recalled by Myron W. Lancaster, president of the Klussendorf Society, the "hall of fame" of the U.S. and Canada's top dairy cattle exhibitors.
"Gene is one of the best men I've ever known," Lancaster said. "He has just been a super friend."
In 1977, Meyer was honored with the Klussendorf Society Honorary Membership Award, which Lancaster was given in 1983. In addition, Meyer also served as secretary-treasurer of the Klussendorf Society.
"He's just done so much for the National Dairy Shrine and the Klussendorf Society," Lancaster said, noting that the two couples have traveled together and remained close friends over the years. "I'm going to miss him. Maxine (Meyer's wife), he and my wife have been good friends."
Lancaster said Meyer was able to get along with anybody.
"I've never seen a man that could work with all breeds," Lancaster said, referring to both people and cattle. "Everybody loved him. They all had respect for him. He was involved totally in the industry.
"We'll miss a fine man and friend," Lancaster said.
One of Meyer's legacies both nationally and within Fort Atkinson is bringing the National Dairy Shrine to Fort Atkinson. Officials in that organization were recalling Meyer with fondness.
"Gene Meyer was one of the truly great leaders the National Dairy Shrine had in its history," said Maurice Core of Columbus, Ohio, executive director of the National Dairy Shrine.
Meyer was president of the organization in 1981, the year that the National Dairy Shrine museum was dedicated in Fort Atkinson.
"It's the right spot for our museum," Core said, crediting that Meyer and W. D. Hoard & Sons Co. President and Hoard's Dairyman publisher William D. Knox for having great influence on locating the museum in Fort Atkinson.
"We're going to have a changing of the guard," Core said, referring to the next generation of the National Dairy Shrine's volunteers and directors. "We're going to have a new generation."
The Dairy Shrine director pointed out that in 1998, Meyer co-authored the book "National Dairy Shrine's First 50 years."
They did a fantastic job, under Gene's leadership, putting the book together," Core said.
The executive director said his history with Meyer dates back many years. Core recalled listening to Meyer's agriculture reports on WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa. It was Meyer's first job, and he worked in the farm news department.
"Gene Meyer has been a longtime friend and mentor," Core said. "We hated to see Gene go to Wisconsin, but we knew that would be a great opportunity for him at Hoard's Dairyman. More people involved in the purebred dairy industry in the last four decades know Gene Meyer better than any other individual."
Core called Meyer "a true friend of the dairy cattle industry."
"It's going to be a tremendous change in Fort Atkinson," he said. "I regret that I can't be there this weekend, but my thoughts will be in Fort Atkinson."
Hoard Historical Museum director Sue Hartwick said the staff and volunteers will miss Gene Meyer. "On behalf of the Fort Atkinson Historical Society, let me say that our sadness at the loss of Gene Meyer is exceeded only by the gratitude we feel for having had him in Fort Atkinson all these years," she said. "Gene was a member of what has come to be called The Greatest Generation,' bravely serving his country in World War II and then returning home to build a better and stronger America."
She noted that Meyer's particular contribution was in the dairy industry, and his work as the managing editor of Hoard's Dairyman brought him nationwide recognition.
"He played a key rode in convincing the National Dairy Shrine to locate their Visitors Center at the Hoard's Museum, thereby giving us a national profile," Hartwick said. "Once they were here, he continued to support the Dairy Shrine by greeting visitors, coordinating Dairy Expo tours, having trophies engraved, presenting awards, authoring publications and whatever else he was asked to do all in his customary gracious style."
The museum director added that while all of Fort Atkinson certainly would miss Meyer, perhaps no one would miss him more that those at 407 Merchants Ave.
"We send our best wishes and deepest sympathies to the Meyer family," Hartwick said.
Al Haukom, retired president of Nasco and fellow member of the Fort Atkinson Historical Society, said he was proud and privileged to have known Gene Meyer.
"I consider him one of my very dearest friends," Haukom said. "He was a wonderful individual."
The two actually were in the same fraternity at Iowa State University, but did not meet until Haukom came to Fort Atkinson.
"I have the greatest respect for him," Haukom said of Meyer. "He's an outstanding individual. I couldn't be more fond of anyone that I am of Gene Meyer."
Meyer and Haukom organized the Dairy Shrine Summer Greeters program.
"We worked together in making the Dairy Shrine program a reality," Haukom said, noting that Meyer was a wonderful person with whom to work.
"There were so many thing I admired so much about Gene; certainly, his great knowledge of dairy cattle in particular," Haukom said. "It's a relationship I'm so proud of and privileged to have had."
Thomas L. Lyon of Cambridge, retired Cooperative Resources International chief executive, also remembered his friend and mentor.
"He was an accomplished journalist who through his writing, speaking and counseling in the last four decades touched more dairy farm families than anyone that I know," Lyon said.
He first encountered Meyer in 1960 as a student at Iowa State University studying dairy science.
"He became something of a professional mentor to me," Lyon said, noting that he eventually moved to Wisconsin to begin a career in the dairy cattle industry.
"I often sought his advice and counsel," Lyon said, adding that Meyer was very generous with his time and talents on behalf of others.
"He was a very modest individual," Lyon said. "Few people in the community knew or appreciated the level of stature he held in the dairy industry and, likewise, few people in the national dairy industry were aware of the tremendous amount of community service that he provided."
He said that Meyer simply had a demeanor that attracted people to him.
"His personality was just so compatible with people from all walks of life," Lyon said.
As an example, he cited Meyer's response upon being recognized as a National Dairy Shrine "Guest of Honor."
"I'm the luckiest person in the world," Meyer said. "I have a great wife, a wonderful family, a job I truly love and I'm fortunate to be in good health. I'm happy in my work, have hundreds of fine friends and we live in a nice home. If I weren't me, I'd be jealous of myself."
Outside of the dairy industry, Meyer was deeply involved in the community of Fort Atkinson. In 1960, he served as president of the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce.
"I only wish I could have known him then," said Diane Hrobsky, current chamber executive vice president. "I did get to know him beginning in 1988 and have found him to be a gentleman and to be so thoughtful of others."
She described Meyer as "one of the happiest people I've ever met," adding that he never complained, and was always smiling with something nice to say.
"Of course, he was a huge promoter of the dairy industry, which was very important to the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce throughout the years," Hrobsky said. "He will be greatly missed."
Gordon Day Sr. of Fort Atkinson was among the chamber board members during Meyer's tenure as president.
"Gene was a far-sighted guy," Day said of Meyer. "His very decent personality brought a cohesiveness to the board. Gene was a very fine person who had Fort Atkinson foremost in his thoughts. He was a great guy, very kind and very sincere."
In another aspect of his continuous community involvement, Meyer was president of the Community Chest when it was reorganized as the United Way Fund of Fort Atkinson in 1963.
"Gene was involved in the transition from the Community Chest to the United Way two years before I was born," noted Dan McCrea, current executive director of the United Way of North Walworth and Jefferson Counties. "He was a good and dear friend of United Way and we certainly appreciate his efforts to make United Way what it is here today."
Meyer also was a good friend to Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital, serving on its board of trustees from 1966-81.
"On behalf of Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital, we were grateful for Mr. Meyer's oversight as a board member," said Greg Banaszynski, Fort HealthCare president. "During his tenure as a board member, the hospital underwent two major expansions."
He said that the inpatient units at the hospital were expanded in 1969 and the laboratory and surgery support areas were expanded in 1975. "His contributions as a board member will continue to be visible on the hospital campus," Banaszynski said of Meyer.
Former hospital trustee Jim Schafer agreed, saying that Meyer exhibited strong leadership skills while serving as chairman of the Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees for many years.
"He was steadfast in his belief that the area should have quality healthcare provided by a local community hospital and he worked hard at it," Schafer said.