The Black Family
If not for another University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences alumnus, Agriculture Commissioner of Georgia Gary Black’s (BSA – Agricultural Education, ’80) career would look different today.
In fall 1979, Randy Nuckolls (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’74) asked Black what he was doing next quarter. Black planned to student teach, but Nuckolls offered him a Washington, D.C., internship.
Nuckolls was the legislative director for then-Sen. Herman Talmadge and persuaded Black to go to Washington to intern for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Talmadge was the chairman of that committee.
“I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., to work for Sen. Talmadge after I finished law school at UGA primarily because of my involvement with South Campus student leadership organizations such as Ag Hill Council, the college 4-H club and AGHON,” Nuckolls said. “I knew how beneficial my experience on Capitol Hill was and I wanted other outstanding students from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to have the same opportunity, so I reached out to Gary about coming to D.C. to intern in our office.”
This internship changed the path of Black’s career.
“There’s no doubt that experience in the winter of 1980 changed my course toward policy and politics more, so that’s one of the reasons I never taught ag,” Black said.
Black tried to glean as much as he could from professors and administrators.
“I would never be able to put a value on or express enough appreciation for literally the hundreds of hours that I spent with Dick Knowles (the CAES associate dean for instruction), Tom Frasier (an assistant in the academic affairs office) and Bob Wheeler (later the associate dean for instruction),” he said. “They took interest in every student that came their way. They were active in Ag Hill Council. It was just the benefit of being around wise people and, if we were wise, we would listen. In my view, they were Rhodes scholars when it came to life skills.”
After college, Black began his career in 1980 with Georgia Farm Bureau, where he supervised the Young Farmer Program for leadership development, then was assistant director of field services.
Toward the beginning of his time at Farm Bureau, he dated and later married Lydia Black, née Beavers. “We were buddies and fortunate to run in the same pack in FFA and 4-H,” Gary Black said. “We had a strong group of friends. But it wasn’t until after we both left campus that we started dating.”
Lydia Black was a UGA Cooperative Extension home economist in Coweta County, Georgia, from 1981 to 1983, after graduating from UGA with a degree in home economics. She then moved to Macon, Georgia, to be the Bibb County home economist for three more years.
She followed in the footsteps of her mother, Louise (Kemp) Beavers, who was an Extension home demonstration agent in Cherokee County, Georgia, for two years after graduating from UGA in 1952.
Louise Beavers was active in Ag Hill Council during her time at the university, as were Lydia Black, Gary Black and their children, Ward Black (BSA – Agricultural and Applied Economics, ’09; MS – Agricultural and Applied Economics, ’11) and Caroline (Black) Lewallen (BSA – Agricultural Education, ’11).
In 1989, Gary Black was selected as the president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. He served in that role for 21 years, until he was elected Georgia’s commissioner of agriculture in 2010.
After leaving Extension, Lydia Black operated a drapery business for 14 years, taught science at Commerce High School for three years, then family and consumer sciences at Jackson County Comprehensive High School for 11 years. They raised their children, as well as beef cattle, on their Commerce, Georgia, 72-acre farm, where they still live now. Gary Black’s father bought the farm in 1969.
“We grew up attending South Campus Tailgate and calling the Dawgs,” Lewallen said.
The event was one Lydia Black helped start in the early ‘90s as a way to connect CAES and UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences alumni with whom they had lost touch. “We only intended to have it for a few years, and it ended up lasting over 20,” she said. “Every time I would go, I would find alumni and friends I hadn’t seen in years.”
“Athens became a special place, but my parents didn’t force UGA on me,” said Lewallen. “When I chose a career path in agriculture, a degree from UGA became very important to me.”
Ward Black attended his first CAES alumni meeting with his father when he was about 6 months old, and commencement at a year old. Growing up, he and Lewallen were part of 4-H and FFA. Each sibling continued their active roles in college, including as CAES Ambassadors.
During college, Ward Black interned in D.C. and worked for the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development (CAED), the economic development and outreach partner of the college’s agricultural and applied economics department, for two years. He used part of that time to work on research for his master’s degree and to gain some insight on how the college helps the food industry.
“The applied stuff I really enjoyed,” he said. “They (CAED) would be the ones to help people trying to get into the food business who needed the expertise of the university to help them figure it out. Seeing stuff like Flavor of Georgia, that’s what opens so many doors for people.”
Those experiences, coupled with a family background in Extension, demonstrated to Ward Black the ways in which the university serves the public.
He now works as a category manager and buyer for Sherwood Foods in Atlanta, dealing with meat sales to grocery stores. His knowledge from meat science classes and 4-H cattle shows and livestock judging immediately came in handy.
“When I first started doing this job, I knew what my fellow employees were talking about,” Ward Black said. “Due to 4-H and classes at UGA, I could put technical agricultural experiences with that business side from the classroom and I felt prepared on day one.”
Lewallen also interned in Washington, like her father and brother. She worked for then-Rep. Jack Kingston, while Ward Black worked for then-Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
“After student teaching, I participated in the (Congressional) Ag Fellowship, which opened my eyes to my passion for educating consumers,” she said.
After graduate school in Texas, where she met her husband, Kyle Lewallen, she became the marketing coordinator for Jaemor Farms.
“I work with consumers on a daily basis, sharing with them Jaemor’s story of sustainability and the important role that fresh produce plays in our diets,” she said.
As for all of the family being a part of UGA and of agriculture, Gary Black says it’s been a blessing.
“I wanted them to be successful in whatever path they chose,” he said. “It’s delightful to see it turn out the way it has.”
Georgian of the Year
Gary Black’s commitment to Georgia agriculture spans nearly four decades of advocating for farmers, businesses and agricultural education across the state. This, plus his leadership in strengthening the state’s largest economic sector and the Georgia Grown marketing program, were why Georgia Trend magazine named him the 2017 Georgian of the Year.
By Josh Paine