COLUMBIA – Jerry Litton, a two-term Missouri congressman, left a legacy of leadership both in government and higher education.
This year, his memorial foundation will honor him with a new lecture series and scholar program at the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, where he graduated from in 1961.
What: Litton Lecture Series
When: 7:30 p.m. on Monday
Where: Monsanto Auditorium, Bond Life Sciences Center, at the corner of Rollins Street and College Avenue.
Litton was 39 years old in 1976 when he died in a plane crash on his way to a victory party in Kansas City after winning the state's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
In October 2010, the Jerry Litton Family Memorial Foundation created a $250,000 endowment at the college, which funds the new programs.
The foundation collaborated with Thomas Payne, vice chancellor and dean of the college, to create the lecture series and year-long scholar program, which encourages students to pursue leadership opportunities through a seminar class.
"It's a lecture series that emphasizes leadership, and that's what the Litton scholars are all about," said Edwin S. Turner, vice president of the Jerry Litton Family Memorial Foundation.
Orion Samuelson, an agribusiness director at Chicago's WGN radio, will speak at the inaugural Litton lecture, "Let's Push the Wheelbarrow Right Side Up, Developing Leadership for Tomorrow's Agriculture." It will take place at 7:30 p.m Monday at the Monsanto Auditorium in the Bond Life Sciences Center. The 15 Litton scholars will be introduced that night.
"We hope to create an awareness with the importance of leadership and to motivate young people in college — across all disciplines — to achieve their highest goals and to strive for leadership positions where they can make a difference," Turner said.
The lecture is open to the general public and MU students. At this point, no further lectures have been scheduled, though there will be more to come, Turner said.
"We wanted to provide some flexibility so we could bring some key speakers to campus, provide leadership for students and support for faculty," said Darcy Wells, the executive director of advancement at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
The idea came from a number of projects led by Mildred Litton, Jerry's mother. When Mildred Litton died in 2008, the foundation pursued her quest to make a difference at the college.
"We wanted to endow a presence of the congressman in the college and put a program together that we think will be very beneficial in lots of different avenues," Turner said.
For Turner, starting the lecture series in honor of Litton was a personal experience; Litton was his Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity brother and roommate at MU. Turner also worked as Litton's campaign manager in his first congressional campaign and as his chief of staff in Washington, D.C.
"He had the talent and the ability and the communication skills, and he certainly had the drive, the enthusiasm and the energy to have been in the big White House," Turner said. "Where he was in 1976 to achieving that goal is a long road and a winding road, and whether all the dominoes would've been in place to have allowed him to achieve that goal was anybody's good guess."
Thirty-six years later, Litton's speeches are still circulating around the country. The State Historical Society of Missouri has all of his papers, a digital library and the original "Dialogue with Litton" programs, a televised round-table discussion that started through radio before moving to TV.
Litton invited other figures in government to the discussions, such as Jimmy Carter, from other states and Missouri. He encouraged the audience to ask questions and join the conversation, something historians say was revolutionary because no other congressman had done it before.
"It was a way to air out concerns about what the government was doing," said Laura Jolley, senior manuscript specialist at the State Historical Society of Missouri. "That's not something that has been tried since — maybe small scale and local politics, but Jerry Litton really took it to a statewide audience."
By the time he died, the program was airing not only in Missouri but also in surrounding states.
"He left a legacy that is unbelievable," Turner said. "It was 1976 when he was killed, and here we are still talking about him and having a lecture series. My personal experience with him was an experience of a lifetime and one I will always cherish."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.