Father's advice proved dependable to professor

Nov. 2, 2004

Boyhood on a dairy farm in Freeport, Ill., was an ideal beginning for Fred Buttel and his career as a rural sociologist. He came to UW-Madison because, quite simply, it was "where my dad told me to go."

Who could have guessed that nearly four decades after that nervous freshman farm boy arrived on the UW campus, he would count among his many honors the 2002 Hilldale Award for his contributions to teaching, research and outreach or that he would one day retire from UW-Madison as the first professor in the Department of Rural Sociology to hold a named professorship?

Buttel, William H. Sewell professor of rural sociology in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, will continue to contribute to the improvement of his department through his gift of a portion of his retirement fund to establish the Frederick Buttel Fund.

"I wanted to set up the fund to give the department a choice of two purposes," he explains. "This way the money can be allocated where it will be most useful. They can set up a student fund for undergraduate scholarships or graduate travel to conferences, or they can create a named professorship in rural sociology."

Buttel received his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. from UW-Madison. His career in teaching and research took him to Michigan State University, Ohio State University and eventually to Cornell University, where he spent 14 years. He joined the UW-Madison faculty nearly 13 years ago, preferring Madison over Ithaca.

"Fred Buttel is the foremost scholar, both in the United States and abroad, in the fields of the sociology of agro-food systems, sociology of agricultural science and technology, and environmental sociology," says Elton Aberle, CALS dean. "His outstanding and original integrative work has identified important linkages between technology discovery and adoption, agriculture and the environment."

While he is a recognized and respected researcher on issues related to the interconnection of environment, agriculture, economics and technology, it also is easy to understand Buttel's popularity and effectiveness as a teacher. He explains complex global issues in a straightforward, thoughtful manner that challenges the listener to think harder and take the ideas further.

When asked about rewarding moments in his career, he recalls the fun he had teaching "Agriculture, Technology and Society." The course attracted a mixed audience of sociology students.

"I like to think it generated interest among a diverse group," he says. "Field trips to labs and farms gave the students a chance to talk to scientists on the front line. Usually about 40 percent of the students had never been on a real working farm."

UW-Madison and the Department of Rural Sociology have benefited from Buttel's intellect, talent, commitment and generosity. Certainly his students, colleagues and friends are happy that when his dad spoke, he listened.

This series of profiles highlights people whose lives have been transformed by UW-Madison. To learn more about Create the Future: The Wisconsin Campaign, contact the UW Foundation at 263-4545 or http://www.uwfoundation.wisc.edu.