Jan. 20 2023 08:22 AM

The next generation of Purdue University dairy judging enthusiasts is breathing life back into the program that Steve Hendress built.

Dairy judging was how Steve Hendress loved to teach his students life skills while sharing a passion for good cows. Here, he is with his last team after winning Holsteins and reasons at the Southwest Dairy Cattle Judging Contest in January 2020.

The medallions placed around their necks were not first-place blue, or even runner-up red. You’d never know it, though, because third-place white had never looked as good to the members of the Purdue University dairy judging team as it did when the scores were tallied at the end of the Intercollegiate Dairy Cattle Judging Contest at World Dairy Expo last fall.

“I don’t think we could’ve been happier,” described team member Miriam Cook.

Third place at the national contest is a significant achievement in any year, but this group of students and their coach had extra reason to celebrate. For one, the result marked the school’s first top-five finish since they won the contest in 1968.

But what echoed louder that day was the fact that it was Purdue’s first dairy judging contest since the death of beloved former coach Steve Hendress, who took over the program in the 1990s. The school had not participated in a dairy judging competition since early 2020 — after the pandemic, Purdue then went another year without a team when Hendress had to step down and ultimately passed away in 2021 because of cancer that recurred.

The 2022 team’s re-emergence became a tribute to the legacy of a man who coached and impacted hundreds of young people over the course of his more than 20 years with the college in West Lafayette, Ind.

“Steve Hendress was the definition of a servant leader, and anyone could tell that he loved talking cows and interacting with students,” said Grace Allen, who was a part of Hendress’ last dairy judging team. “He will forever be one of the most impactful mentors in my life.”

Allen and the countless other students who interacted with Hendress during his time as a dairy judging coach, dairy club adviser, teacher, mentor, and friend remember him as a listening ear and a helping hand as they navigated their way through courses, clubs, and life. “You didn’t have to be a part of his team to feel his friendship or devotion,” said Jill Linnemeier.

When last year’s judging team got together and began practicing, Linnemeier was asked to share some memories of her time judging with Hendress to help them better know and understand the man they were representing. He loved his family, students, and Brown Swiss cattle, in that order, she wrote. She was also sure to tell them that, “He created something very special when he took on the dairy judging program at Purdue.”

Humble heart

Hendress, who was raised on his family’s dairy in Wolcott, Ind., returned to his alma mater well-prepared to coach dairy judging in addition to his work at the school’s Dairy Research and Education Center. His love for Brown Swiss cattle that was developed during his younger years had translated into a significant career as a Brown Swiss classifier, which allowed him to meet breeders around the country and evaluate many herds.

He had also achieved a bucket list item for many dairy cattle owners by the time he got to Purdue in 1996. Two years prior, his homebred cow Hoosier Knoll Jade Monay had been named Supreme Champion at World Dairy Expo.

That was an accomplishment Hendress kept close to his heart. “A lot of people don’t know about Monay because he was so humble about it,” said Cook, who learned about it only after asking Hendress about a photo on the wall during one of her visits to his office.

“That made him the best kind of character and super relatable,” she described.

Hendress’ humility and relationship with his students and dairy youth was most evident in the activities he dedicated his time to. In addition to coaching judging, he served as an adviser to the Purdue Dairy Club for decades. That was a job that would have him at the dairy barns late into the night preparing cattle for the club’s judging invitational, running a booth at the state fair so visitors could pet a calf, or just welcoming students into his office to talk. “Steve made a campus of 40,000-plus students feel like home,” described Allen. In 2020, Purdue’s College of Agriculture presented him with its Outstanding Service to Students Award.

Over the years, Hendress judged dairy shows in countries around the world, was honored with the Brown Swiss Lifetime Achievement award, and was inducted into the Livestock Breeders Hall of Fame. Being involved with the dairy students at Purdue combined two of his passions, and he especially valued teaching judging as a way to share his love for cows while preparing students for whatever career path they followed.

“When people asked Steve about his career, he would say, ‘It’s the best job in the world. Kids and cows — how can it be any better?’” remembered Hendress’ widow, Lydia.

She and their three children took Hendress to the 2021 World Dairy Expo just two weeks before he passed away because he wanted that to be the last thing he did. As they moved through the barns, hardly an aisle went by where they didn’t stop to visit a friend of his. And when his celebration of life was held later that month, hundreds of people stopped in to share their memories of their coach and friend.

Firing back up

Because of the pandemic and the return of Hendress’ cancer, Cook never got to judge for him like she had planned to since deciding to attend Purdue. But she had practiced with him some as a freshman while preparing to compete in the national FFA competition; she learned from him and knew his impact. With his passing, she also knew the school’s judging program would need a new champion.

“I said, ‘We can’t let it end with Steve,’” the college senior recalled.

An experienced 4-H and FFA judge, Cook took the lead on working with the university to secure funding and support for the team, and when that was taken care of, she started re-building enthusiasm and recruiting teammates. Over the course of the summer and early fall, Ryland Nierman, Breezy Slonaker, and Josie Burbrink took her up on the opportunity.

They also needed a coach, and they ultimately found one in Brian Engleking, another Purdue graduate and former classifier (albeit in the Holstein breed) with plenty of connections. Just two weeks before classes started, the university gave him the official green light, and his group immediately started practicing at the Indiana State Fair. “I was relieved we had four kids at the first practice,” Engleking laughed.

Word that the team was back spread quickly, and alumni soon began reaching out with words of encouragement and their own judging memories.

Still, the expectations were low going into their first contest at the All-American Dairy Show in Harrisburg, Pa., because of the short turnaround. The goal for the year was simply to be competitive, and even though they finished seventh that day, Engleking thought that’s exactly what they had done. “After Harrisburg, we proved we belonged and that Purdue was back,” he said.

A few weeks later, they traveled to Expo with the same mentality of just doing their best. Of course, the third-place performance blew them away and stirred many emotions. “We just kind of had a magical day at Expo,” Cook shared. She, Burbrink, and Nierman all placed in the top 25 individually.

A small pin inside their jackets allowed the Purdue dairy judging team to carry their school’s former coach with them at all of their contests.

Engleking is quick to credit the work ethic of his first team when reflecting on the success of the year. They also carried a little bit of luck with them at every contest in the form of a small pin dedicated to Hendress.

It is Cook’s intention that those pins will be given to future Purdue dairy judging teams as a way for students who didn’t meet Hendress to still recognize they are representing something bigger than themselves. “That way they know this is where it started and his memory always lives on,” she said.

Engleking is looking forward to leading those future students in line with Hendress’ popular saying that “It’s a great day to judge cows.” He described, “It’s an honor to follow Steve. I’m hoping this is just the beginning.”