Auburn agronomy alum leads agricultural college in Georgia
All great leaders are driven. They’re either driven by something—an ideal or cause that’s dear to them—or they’re driven to something—some specific rank or position they hope to attain. It could be argued that the truly great leaders are the ones who are driven by, rather than to, a special something.
Auburn College of Agriculture alumnus David Bridges is one such leader.
As the head of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, for the past decade, the farm boy–turned–college president tells everyone who will listen that he’s driven by his bucket list. Only, his isn’t the kind of bucket list you may be imagining; there’s no mountain climbing, skydiving or exotic travel on his itinerary. Bridges’ extraordinary drive is fueled by his love for the three institutions that have made the greatest impact on his own life: rural communities, agriculture and education.
The child of a farmer and a teacher, Bridges grew up in Georgia’s Terrell County, working first on the family farm and then, in high school, for a farm equipment dealer. His parents’ “firm expectation” that he’d attend college was accompanied by an equally emphatic belief in hard work.
“Failure wasn’t an option for me,” Bridges says, “because I sure didn’t want to have to go home and tell Mom and Dad I had made bad grades.”
Fortunately for the star student, he never had to. Knowing that he was expected to earn a college degree but not at all sure what to study, Bridges headed off to one of the three colleges he had heard of as a kid, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and studied the only subject that had ever really interested him: agriculture.
At ABAC, his academic advisor, J.P. Rowe, convinced the freshman that a solid foundation in science and math would prepare him for whatever he might choose to do after college. Bridges went on to complete—and excel in—just about every science and math class in the catalogue. At the time, ABAC offered only two-year degrees, and when he finished his degree in agricultural science in 1978, it just made sense to keep learning.
WELCOME TO AUBURN
A friend, Dewey Lee, was a student in Auburn’s College of Agriculture and invited Bridges to The Plains to “look around.” Bridges fell in love.
“When I left campus that day, I had a class schedule, a scholarship and a job,” he says. And he never looked back.
Recognizing his potential, Auburn faculty mentors such as Carl Hoveland, Gale Buchanan, Joseph Hood, Harold Walker and Ben Hajek took Bridges under their wings and, just as his ABAC advisor had done before, pointed him in the right direction. When all was said and done, he had earned a bachelor’s and master’s in agronomy at Auburn. But his professors pushed for more.
‘When I left campus that day, I had a class schedule, a scholarship and a job.’
So earn a Ph.D. he did, but this time he would study at Texas A&M University. With Buchanan’s help, he landed a fellowship there, teaching to pay his way through school.
After 11 straight years of higher education and with a terminal degree under his belt, Bridges left College Station in 1986, bound for his home state and a faculty position at the University of Georgia. Over the next two decades at UGA, he would author more than 200 publications and become known as a foremost expert in herbicide chemistry.
John Beasley, now head of Auburn’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, was an agronomy student at Auburn at the same time as Bridges and went on to serve on the UGA faculty alongside him.
“David is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” Beasley says, adding that it’s no stretch to describe his former classmate and cohort as one of the most knowledgeable and highly respected herbicide chemists in the world.
“The really outstanding thing about him, though, is his skill as a communicator. David is as effective a communicator in a room full of scientists as he is in the halls of Congress, on a college campus or on his farm in Terrell County.”
The ability to communicate effectively has, no doubt, benefited him during his years as an administrator at Georgia, where he served for five years as assistant dean of the UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.
In 2006, he was tapped to serve another University System of Georgia entity—his first college alma mater, ABAC—as the school’s 10th president.
During a decade under Bridges’ leadership, the college has seen many changes. Perhaps tied for most monumental are the school’s transition to state college status in 2006 and the rehabilitation of the school’s historic “front campus,” completed in 2013.
RETURN TO GLORY
The former meant that, for the first time in the school’s then 98-year history, ABAC could begin offering four-year degrees. The latter, begun in the school’s 100th year, cost $15 million and took five years to complete, but it returned the entrance to the historic campus to its picturesque, former glory—a stunning collection of structures and landscaping that speak more than words can about the drive behind the man who’s behind the wheel.
As if those projects weren’t enough to exhaust any human, Bridges has also steered ABAC to extraordinary enrollment growth, the implementation of stricter admissions standards, the addition of several new degree programs, the construction of three additional buildings and the complete restructuring of the school’s academic units. And something new appears on the horizon every day.
Ask him what’s next, or what he’s most passionate about among all of this, and he goes back to the bucket list.
“I’m as committed as ever to educating the next generation of agriculturalists, to ensuring that agriculture can survive as a viable economic enterprise and Georgia’s number one industry and to preserving and enhancing rural communities like the one where I grew up.”
The community where, one day, he hopes to retire and, finally try his hand at farming. Don’t look for that to happen any time soon, he says. He’s got a whole lot more driving to do.
Like father, like son
You don’t have to talk to Rees Bridges for long to figure out that this apple didn’t fall too far from the family tree. Like his dad, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College President David, the younger Bridges is a natural at math and science and has a deep love for agriculture—and for Auburn.
The similarities don’t end there. When it came time to choose a college major, Bridges followed his dad’s example and figured out a way to combine what he’s good at with what he loves, creating a career that he enjoys immensely.
Though one might wonder if the son was steered down an ag-related professional path by his dad, the younger Bridges says absolutely not.
“While my father always encouraged my sister and me to challenge ourselves in the field that we chose to study, he knew that a career requires loving what you do,” he says. “The decision as to what we would major in was always solely ours.”
After a year studying forestry at ABAC, Bridges, the son, arrived on Auburn’s Ag Hill as a biosystems engineering major with a forestry emphasis. In 2005, with bachelor’s degree in hand, he went to work in the manufacturing industry—first with G.R. Manufacturing, a John Deere custom outfitter in Trussville, Alabama, and then with Briggs & Stratton in Auburn—before returning to school to pursue a master’s degree.
He received his second Auburn diploma in May, and this time, he and wife Lindsay and children Sims and Miller are staying put. Based in Auburn, Bridges now works as a consulting engineer specializing in precision agriculture technologies and equipment.
While he may not be headed for a career in higher education like his dad, Bridges loves that the path he’s on allows him to do something he’s good at while keeping him connected to agriculture. It’s a satisfaction shared by both men.
“Dad has always had a very clear love of agriculture and the culture and community that support it,” Bridges says. “I did not understand this when I was very young, but as I got older I came to understand not only his love for farming but also my own love for it.
“The draw to agriculture that is present in my life without question came from watching him through the years.”