College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Institute of Applied Agriculture

Farewell to Kevin Mathias, a “Jewel at Jull Hall”

Rob Ballenger
Dr. Kevin Mathias is retiring after 38 years of teaching and advising IAA students.

Kevin Mathias’s first day at his new job at the Institute of Applied Agriculture came shortly after New Year’s Day in 1979. This auspicious beginning for the young lecturer was initially met with cynicism from an industry colleague: “How long will you be there?” Mathias says IAA faculty turnover in his field – turfgrass instruction – was considered high back then, which made turf specialists hesitant to recommend it to prospective students. Mathias predicted he would be at the IAA for no longer than the length of the Ph.D. program he had just begun at the University of Maryland.

That doctoral program in entomology wound up lasting longer than expected, as did his IAA career. Mathias is retiring after 38 years of teaching and advising IAA students. “The longer I was here,” Mathias says, “the more I enjoyed the [golf/turf] program and wanted to stay – the more I wanted to strengthen the program.”

And strengthen it he did. IAA Director Glori Hyman credits Mathias “for single-handedly elevating the reputation of the IAA's golf/turf program. His success is due to his deep commitment to the students – academically, professionally and personally. Once you take a class with Kevin, he considers you a student for life.” His commitment to students is reflected in large part by the student scholarships he’s helped make possible.

Mathias is especially proud of helping raise money through the Shields Memorial Golf Tournament in coordination with IAA alumnus R. John Shields, Jr. (class of 1975). Inaugurated in 1980, the annual event has funded 113 scholarships for IAA Golf Course, Turfgrass, and Sports Turf Management students. Mathias is particularly happy that more scholarships will be awarded long after he retires. “Since the tournament began here, we’ve raised $200,000 for an endowment,” he says. In addition to scholarships, the fund has helped send IAA students to national competitions, such as GCSAA’s Collegiate Turf Bowl.

^ This 1983 photo shows John Shields (left) presenting the first Shields Memorial Golf Tournament check to then-Director of the IAA Dr. Ronald Seibel and Dr. Kevin Mathias.

Mathias also helped launch TESCO’s endowed scholarship fund, which has been supporting IAA students’ education since 2003.

Under Mathias’ leadership, several IAA Turf Bowl teams have made their mark – including a first-place finish in 2014. That success elevated the IAA golf/turf program’s reputation, Mathias says, as shown by the many congratulatory letters that soon arrived from industry professionals and proud alumni.

The IAA’s rise to Collegiate Turf Bowl fame began nearly two decades ago thanks to Mathias’ ambition for his students to compete and succeed. Mathias’s first team consisted of only two UMD students, including Steve Evans (class of 2001). As Evans recalls, “we had no idea what we were doing” at that first competition in New Orleans in 2000. Nonetheless, under Mathias’ leadership they finished in 7th place out of 45 teams. “That was a success,” Evans says. “Our next year at the Turf Bowl, we had a four-man team and finished 5th.” Over the years, Mathias’ teams have consistently placed in the top ten.

^ Dr. Mathias with his first-place Turf Bowl team in 2014. The "Turf Terps" consistently rank in the top ten at national turf quiz bowl competitions.

Around the time of the IAA’s first Turf Bowl, Mathias planted another seed that would grow into an annual event for his students. Evans remembers Mathias saying that he’d always wanted a golf tournament with a turf program rival, much like Penn State has with Michigan State. When Mathias told Evans that he wanted UMD to compete against Virginia Tech, Evans told him about a contact he had in that school’s program. “So I said let’s do it,” according to Evans, “and this became the Mid-Atlantic Challenge Cup.”

“I want to emphasize,” Evans adds, “that through the Turf Bowl & Mid-Atlantic Challenge Cup, I got to compare my education with other people’s. I came to find out that my education on insects was superior to every other program. Most other [programs’] courses might spend a couple of weeks on insects, whereas Kevin gave you the whole semester and a thorough working knowledge of turfgrass insects. That’s one of the things that set our IAA program apart.” 

Mathias brought his expertise to students in his Insects of Ornamentals & Turfgrass course, as well as other courses including Business Management Practices for Turf Facilities and Irrigation & Drainage Practices for Turf. Mathias’ curriculum at the IAA benefits his students the moment they enter their professions. “You can tell that he cares about teaching students things that they will apply in the field,” according to former student Michael Bostian (class of 2003), “and everything is relevant during his program.” Bostian, the course superintendent at Waverly Woods Golf Club, says Mathias “stays on top of research and new techniques in the field being applied by current superintendents, and he makes sure his students can put their best foot forward when they land their first job out of school.”

^ Dr. Mathias' commitment to researching industry trends is often acknowledged. His IAA curriculum benefits students the moment they join the workforce.

After so many years of preparing IAA students for a variety of turf jobs, Mathias heads into retirement with bittersweet anticipation. “I’ll miss the interaction with students, which I’ve always enjoyed,” he says. “Teaching is like performing in theater: when something goes well, you get a great sense of satisfaction – everything connects. You can say, ‘I hit a home run on that one’.” Despite retirement, Mathias isn’t completely done taking some home run swings. “I would still like to do some part-time teaching,” he says – “I’ve got to keep busy for the next four to five years.” With a lighter teaching role, though, “I will have time to smell the roses,” Mathias says with a smile.

While he enjoys retirement at his newly built home in central Virginia, Mathias’ legacy will endure at the IAA. It continues through the scholarship endowments, the golf tournaments, and the careers of hundreds of IAA graduates. As alumnus Steve Evans observes, “the professionalism that the IAA is turning out is very unique. There are lots of things Kevin has done for the turf industry as whole and the golf industry specifically. He’s a jewel at Jull Hall.”

>>Donate to the Dr. J. Kevin Mathias Scholarship Fund

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