Gordon Ropp, 2016 History Makers Honoree
Born April 5, 1933 in Normal, IL
It is impossible to study the history of agriculture and rural life in McLean County without examining the career of Gordon Ropp. His dedication to the advancement of agriculture and enrichment of rural life has played an instrumental role in shaping McLean County.
Gordon Ropp was born on April 5, 1933 and grew up on his family’s dairy grain farm, where he continues to live today. He has many fond memories of growing up on the farm, such as watching his father milk cows in his earliest years. By the time Gordon was 6 years old, he himself was helping to milk the cows before his father bought a milking machine a few years later.
Gordon joined 4-H at the age of 10. While his first heifer did not develop correctly, his second heifer, a Jersey cow named Corianda, helped kick start his 4-H career. “She was the perfect show cow,” Gordon says. “She got a little bit better every year until she was finally the champion of all the Jerseys, at the junior show and the open show.” The two went on to win many 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awards together, even winning five purple (Grand Champion) ribbons in one day. That experience kicked off a lifelong dedication to 4-H. To this day he’s an active participant, currently in his 61st year as a 4-H leader.
Gordon graduated from Normal Community High School as Valedictorian of his class and went on to the University of Illinois, graduating in 1955. During college Gordon received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the ROTC program and was a member of the Farm House Fraternity. He returned to the family farm, raising anywhere from 40-100 Jersey cattle at a time. He and his family also raised grain crops for cow feed.
In addition to working the family farm, Gordon was employed by Funk Seed Company as a young man. He remained active in the agricultural community, getting selected as a delegate to the Illinois Agricultural Association Convention by the McLean County Farm Bureau in 1960, at the age of 27. Around this time, Gordon was also state director of the American Dairy Association of Illinois, secretary-treasurer of the Illinois Jersey Cattle Club Association, president of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association of McLean County, served on the executive committee of the American Dairy Association, and Captain in the National Guard.
It was no surprise that in 1968 he got a call asking if he’d be interested in interviewing for the Assistant Director of Agriculture position. At first, Gordon was unsure—his brother Ray had just returned from military service in Korea. The entire family sat down to discuss how the farm would be run now that Ray had returned and Gordon would be pulled away from the farm to address state business. Gordon’s family encouraged him to go to the interview and accept the position while Ray focused on running the family farm. In 1969, Gordon accepted the position.
Gordon was the Assistant Director for one year under Director John Lewis, promoting Illinois agricultural products throughout the state, assisting in budget development and speaking on behalf of the Director throughout the state. In 1970, Secretary of State Paul Powell died and John Lewis was appointed to take his place. With Lewis’s appointment to Secretary, Gordon was appointed Director of the Department of Agriculture.
The position was a big one to fill, because the work of the department includes weights and measures, animal health, meat and grain inspection and more, which affects the lives of every Illinois resident. In his time as Director, Gordon implemented many new programs and practices while continuing to promote Illinois agriculture across the globe. One of the achievements Gordon is particularly proud of was the eradication of hog cholera, a highly contagious swine disease. “To the pork industry, that was a major plus because if your farm had cholera you had to depopulate all the hogs on that farm,” says Gordon. “We had a great event when we finally got certified; the Assistant Secretary of the USDA came to Springfield. While pictures were taken I was cradling this little baby pig wrapped in a towel.”
While in office, Gordon oversaw the implementation of the Centennial Farm Sign program which recognizes Illinois farms that have been in a single family for 100 years. “Farmers are proud people,” Gordon says, and appreciated the recognition of the work of generations that has gone into these family farms. Today, there is also a sesquicentennial farm program.
Gordon tackled many projects as Director: promoting Illinois agriculture globally, even traveling to Russia, Japan and Hong Kong; working with USDA Grain Standards; initiating the development of an infrared soybean tester to measure protein and oil; and supervising 600 employees throughout the department.
At the end of his tenure as Director of the Department of Agriculture, Gordon returned to the Ropp Dairy Grain Farm. He remained actively involved in a variety of associations, committees, and volunteer programs for a few years before deciding to run for the Illinois House of Representatives. “I felt I had as good of qualifications as anyone else. Being a dairy farmer, I took a milk bucket with me everywhere because I was collecting ideas and thoughts from my constituents to go to Springfield,” he says with a laugh. “Everyone had to have some kind of a gimmick, and that’s how they’d remember me—‘Oh, that’s the guy with the milk bucket!’”
Gordon won the House seat and had a long, active career as State Representative to District 88 from 1979 to 1993. His efforts in this position covered a wide array of projects—from introducing a bill to get Drummer Silty Clay Loam declared state soil, to introducing the Pledge of Allegiance as a regular part of every Illinois House session, to improving and promoting the State Fair. He also served on many House Committees, including Appropriations, Higher Education, Agriculture, Executive and Public Utilities.
After his time as a State Representative, Gordon served as the Rural Affairs Liaison to the Secretary of State. It was in this position that he spent his last 10 years before retirement, connecting rural organizations and businesses with the Secretary of State’s Office and speaking before civic groups.
Retiring in 2002, Gordon is still very active in the community. He has worked as a Unit 5 substitute teacher and volunteers his time with a variety of organizations and clubs including: 4-H, The Shriners, Masons, the David Davis Mansion Foundation, Normal Rotary, Timeless Clovers and local Barn Quilters. Additional recognitions include being a member of the Clarence Ropp 4H Family Spirit Award in 2003, 4H Volunteer of the year in 2005 and Illinoisan of the Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2010.
Despite his long and busy career, Gordon was also a family man. In 1955, the day following his graduation from the University of Illinois, he married Roberta L. Cutter, a lifelong grade school teacher. Together they had three children, Diana, Darren and David. Roberta passed away in 1997. These days, Gordon is grandfather to eight grandchildren and great-grandfather to three.