Something indescribable about cattle captured Gary Gregory’s imagination in early childhood. And the same with NC State: Something he can’t quite put his finger on has kept him in the university’s orbit for six decades.
Gregory practically grew up at NC State. When he was a toddler, his father, animal science professor John Hayes Gregory, would bring him to campus to give his wife a break from child-rearing responsibilities.
Although Gary can’t remember those early visits, he can remember countless steps he’s taken on the university’s brick-lined paths as a student and employee.
Gregory retired last week as an instructor and Extension associate in the Department of Animal Science. But he said that the ties he’s made with the students, farmers and colleagues will keep him bound to the university and to North Carolina’s cattle community for years to come.
The Cattle Connection
Gregory’s interest in cattle emerged in early childhood. His father left NC State when Gary was 5 to take a job in Aurora, North Carolina, as manager of a farm with over 1,000 head of cattle. The farm became his classroom.
“In the summertime and the winter, whenever my father needed help, I’d go out and help him on the farm,” Gregory said. “I enjoyed it. I enjoyed getting out into the fresh air. And I was good at it.”
He was so good at it, and so comfortable with it, that he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, which meant going against his parents’ wish that he become a doctor.
“Working with cattle, you could see that you were doing something,” Gregory explained. “You get the cow bred, then she has her calf. And you watch the calf grow, and you help it along the way. When it was time for it to either go back to the herd or to be sold, you felt like you had accomplished something.”
Today, Gregory feels that same sense of accomplishment when he helps producers find ways to achieve their farming goals through their participation in the bull tests he supervises.
“I enjoy the genetic side of it – going out and picking out bulls for particular cows and trying to see if I can get the perfect calf,” he says. “Of course, that never happens, but it gives you something to continue to strive for.”
That drive has propelled his career.
The Path Back to NC State
To prepare for that career, Gregory came to NC State in 1977 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in animal science. After graduating in 1981, he took a job on a Richmond County farm, then joined the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a technician at the Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth. At the station, he worked alongside NC State’s beef cattle researchers and Extension specialists.
That post led to a job managing NC State Extension’s bull test station at the Butner Beef Cattle Field Laboratory. In 1998 Ken Esbenshade, then head of the animal science department, asked Gregory to move to campus and supervise the bull testing program.
It wasn’t long before Gregory would impress an animal science colleague who would steer his career in new directions. In the early 2000s, Professor Roger McCraw asked Gregory to help with a beef cattle course in NC State’s two-year Agricultural Institute (AGI).
Teaching college students wasn’t something Gregory had imagined doing, but he agreed to help McGraw because he respected him.
“I thought, ‘If I sit in there and listen to him, I might learn something that would help me do my job better,’” Gregory said. “And as I sat there, I realized that I enjoyed helping the students.”
At the same time, McGraw saw that Gregory connected with students and had a lot of first-hand knowledge to share. He encouraged Gregory to pursue teaching.
Gregory started part-time work toward a master’s degree, and after earning his diploma in 2007, he started teaching the AGI’s Introduction to Livestock and Poultry Industries course.
A Real-World Approach; the Right Career
As other faculty members retired, Gregory picked up some of their classes. He also created a new class in livestock merchandising.
Gregory wanted to help his students realize that working with cattle could be both enjoyable and rewarding.
“I hope students see the classes as lifelong lessons on how to survive in the real world,” he said, pointing to the merchandising class as an example.
“I tell them it’s more than a class – it’s an actual job. They’re required to show up on time at class or lab. And if they’re not going to be there, they need to let me know,” Gregory said.
The class culminates in a live auction. To succeed, students have to prepare their animals for the sale, attract sponsors and buyers, and gain the knowledge they need to answer buyers’ questions accurately.
“Those are the things that they will need when they get out into the real world,” Gregory added. “Learning the simple facts about how to act on a job can be a great thing.”
Gregory said he relates easily to students in the Agricultural Institute “because we’re all on the same wavelength.”
“When we get up in the morning, school’s probably not the thing that we think about first when it comes to what we want to do,” he said.
It also helps that Gregory has experience in interpreting academic language.
“I have a little bit of a knack of listening to someone that is on a higher academic level and being able to translate that down to a level where other people can understand it,” he said.
When asked if there was a moment when he realized he’d found the right career, Gregory said that moment keeps happening.
“It’s every day I get up,” he said. “I enjoy helping people, and I’ve had the opportunity to do that through the Extension side and the teaching side. It’s just been fun. And if it wasn’t fun, I would have left long ago.”