When Weldon Sleight arrived in Curtis in 2006, he looked around at a rural Nebraska that was struggling, with many youth leaving hometowns never to return.
Slieghtset out to help reverse that trend by transforming a tiny college that had fought off a near-death experiences into a catalyst for rural business.
Six years later, as Sleight prepares to retire as dean of the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, he can point to a number of improvements that are helping the college give rural Nebraska new ways to survive and thrive.
Sleight has roots in Nebraska; his great-great grandfather farmed in the state. He's retiring to tend to a seriously ill daughter in Idaho.
"This is agricultural paradise," he said. "I hate to leave, but we feel we need to be there."
Sleight's retirement takes effect in December. The university will begin a national search for a replacement later this year.
To the casual observer, NCTA's most obvious success under Sleight is a construction boom that produced a new Education Center, an addition to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, a new residence hall and a biomass project to use wood chips from red cedar trees rather than natural gas for the school's heating system.
Those improvements were critical to improving the student learning and living environment, Sleight said, but private investment in bricks and mortar doesn't come "unless people see the vision, understand what you're trying to do."
That vision starts with a fairly simple premise: For rural Nebraska to survive, it must keep its young people from leaving forever. Sleight said rural communities must tell young people they want them to return and help them see potential there, and they must drive that point home to youth before they go away to college.
"Put your arm around those kids and invite them to come home" is advice Sleight gives often in presentations to communities. "What happens more times than not, though, is we say, 'there's nothing here, get as far away as you can and make a better life for yourself.'"
"Many kids would like to go back, but they don't know how to go home," he added.
Under Sleight's leadership, NCTA has worked entrepreneurship into its entire curriculum. Most recently, the college began a yearlong outreach program, called "Own the Farm or Ranch," aimed at producers and farm and ranch employees who want to one day own their own agricultural enterprise.
Other efforts include the 100-Acre Farm, 100 Beef Cow and the NCTA Business Builder ownership programs, and there's also the Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots initiative aimed at returning soldiers.
The cow program currently has 25 students enrolled, with more interested.
Sleight said support from Nebraska's agricultural industry, including major commodity groups, has been key to NCTA's progress. The school's enrollment has grown from 262 the year before Sleight arrived to 333 in 2011-12.
Sleight also is encouraged by NU's development of the Rural Futures Institute, saying it's "an absolute must" for the entire university to partner with others in the state to revitalize rural Nebraska.
Bob Phares, University of Nebraska regent from North Platte, said, "Weldon's cast a vision for that school that is rare, and I think he has excited not only the faculty and the staff but a lot of people of rural Nebraska, about how we can revitalize the rural areas of our state.
"NCTA is stronger than it has ever been," Phares said. "It's better positioned than it ever has been. And a lot of that is due to his vision and his persistence in getting it done. We're extremely fortunate to have had him."
"Weldon is not just one of the leading advocates for rural Nebraska within the university and state. I believe he's one of the most creative thinkers about the future of rural America in the nation," said Ronnie Green, University of Nebraska vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
"Weldon has been a terrific advocate for NCTA and rural Nebraska," NU President James B. Milliken said. "He had a vision for a vibrant agricultural economy and rural life and was always innovative – and I've been particularly impressed by his commitment to serving our students. Weldon has made tremendous contributions to the university and to Nebraska and he will be missed. We wish him and his family the very best."