By Walt Barnhart Contributing Editor
About 60 former National Live Stock and Meat Board staff and their spouses and guests got together in the Chicago area Sept. 29-30, 2023, to share stories and get reacquainted in a special Meat Board gathering. Most of those involved said the first Meat Board Staff Reunion will be remembered for a very long time.
The Meat Board was established in 1922 as livestock’s first self-help, checkoff-funded promotion, research and education program for beef, pork and lamb. For more than seven decades it was considered the foremost representative of meat industry interests among consumers, industry leaders and influencers. It was absorbed into the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 1996. Many former staff consider their years at the Meat Board in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s the best and most consequential of their careers.
Former employees from around the country, including Utah, Texas, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Iowa, Florida, Kansas and Minnesota traveled by plane and car to the Chicago area for the event. They joined the many who remained in Chicagoland after leaving the Meat Board.
The weekend had been in planning for about a year and began Friday evening with about 50 people who gathered and shared Meat Board stories at a “meet and greet” at Kenny’s Irish Pub in Countryside, Ill. Some attendees hadn’t seen one another in more than 35 years. Discussions of opening general sessions, board of directors meetings, “luggage cart rodeos” and many other interesting and amusing times were among the evening’s topics.
Saturday Sept. 30 began with a tour of famous Chicago buildings led by chef and former employee Dave Zino, who shared a history of Chicago “food trends” and coordinated lunch for the staff at a local favorite – The Billy Goat Tavern on the lower level of Wacker Drive.
Following lunch, former staff Jeanne Sowa led a tour of The Driehaus Museum/Mansion. The mansion was built by Samuel Mayo Nickerson, who established the First National Bank of Chicago and was president of the Chicago Stock Yards in 1867.
The memorable weekend concluded with a reunion banquet at Chuck’s Southern Comfort Café in Darien, Ill. From the opening welcome from Don Ricketts, to the roll call by Leslie Kelley and the “Prayer for Aging Meat Board Staffers” by Mark Thomas, the evening was three hours of laughs, stories and emotional memories.
John Huston was honored for receiving the Beef Board Visionary Award. John Francis led an “open mic” session during which many staffers spoke about the impact the Meat Board experience had on their careers and how the Meat Board “team spirit” can never be duplicated.
“I think everyone who came together agreed the National Live Stock and Meat Board was the greatest organization in American Agriculture and a great place to work,” said Thomas, who joined the Meat Board in the mid-1970s and now lives in the Chicagoland area. “We’re already considering another reunion!”
Bob Mertz, a Meat Board employee in the 1980s who drove from his home in Wamego, Kan., to be part of the festivities, said it was a tremendous opportunity to share with others the passion felt for the organization.
“It was wonderful to see this kind of enthusiasm, from employees in both in pre- and post-mandatory checkoff years, for what the Meat Board did,” he said. “We all shared the idea that every day was an important day for the industry, and we were part of something great. It really provided a foundation for our careers and generated some great benefits to livestock producers and agriculture.”
Mertz said he also appreciated the opportunity to acknowledge and honor the leadership of John Huston, who was a huge inspiration and influence to the many individuals who worked under him.