A.J. Powell was one of the true gentlemen in the turf business.
Andrew Jackson Powell Jr. was the turfgrass world's version of Andy Griffith. A longtime extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, Powell was folksy and funny, and enjoyed taking good-natured jabs at friends and colleagues. And like Griffith, whose sense of fair play and kindness to others earned him a spot on Parade's list of the best TV dads of all time, Powell had another side - the side that was kind, caring and generous; the side, that despite his down-home good nature made you realize he usually was the smartest man in the room.
Powell died Oct. 30 of cardiac arrest in a Lexington, Ky. hospital. He was 74.
During a conference in which he was asked to speak on changing climate and the future of turf management Powell quipped with his Kentucky drawl: "We don't know nothin' no how about what's going to happen."
A native of Lacie, Ky., Powell earned bachelor's and master's degrees at UK before going on to Virginia Tech to earn his Ph.D. in agronomy in 1967. He served two years in the U.S. Army, and for about a year-and-a-half managed the golf course at Fort Bliss, Texas.
After leaving the Army in 1969 as a captain, Powell took teaching positions at the University of Maryland (1969-71) and Virginia Tech (1971-76) before returning to his beloved UK where he remained beyond his retirement in 2010.
As professor emeritus, Powell was retired in name only. Until his death he remained active as an extension specialist and consultant, and was a regular fixture at national and regional trade shows and educational events.
I was visiting with Marcus Dean, head groundskeeper in charge of managing UK's athletic fields, in August 2012 when Powell pulled up in his truck in a driving rain to check on the status of the renovation of the school's softball complex. Doing whatever he could to help was his nature. And it didn't matter whether it was a golf course, football field, soccer field, thoroughbred race track or polo field, or whether the grass covering them was cool-season or warm, he could tell you how to make it better.
Through his own firm, Turf Doc, Powell was the consultant of record on at least four Lexington polo fields, three at Mount Brilliant Farm and another at the nearby Kentucky Horse Park.
"Dr. Powell's thoughtful suggestions and advice were instrumental in the success of the polo fields at Mount Brilliant Farm and at the Kentucky Horse Park," said Gay Bredin, chief operating officer at Mount Brilliant. "He always made himself available for a review of the fields and was mild-mannered in taking a stance on how he felt about a situation. His stories about various projects from croquet pitches to putting greens and the characters along the way were always enjoyed."
His dedication to the university and the industry he loved did not go unnoticed. In 2011, the University of Kentucky renamed its turfgrass farm the A.J. Powell Jr. Turfgrass Research Center and erected a stone edifice in his honor.
Despite years of service to the turf industry, Powell remained humble and true to his Kentucky roots. When talking with him by phone to set up a meeting, I suggested meeting at the Powell Center.
"Where?" he asked.
"You know, the place with your name on the sign," I replied.
Ohio State University professor John Street, Ph.D., was Powell's close friend, and the two enjoyed skewering each other in front of a crowd.
During a Sports Turf Managers Association Conference, Street talked to attendees about the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center Web site that tracks climate and soil conditions throughout Ohio. He asked Powell, who had addressed the group previously, whether Kentucky had such a tool. When Powell replied that he checks the weather by "going outside and opening my eyes" Street fired back with a quick-witted jab. "I know what you do," Street said. "When you go out to the outhouse, you stick your finger in the ground and say 'nope, not warm enough yet.' "
The room erupted in laughter, and no one laughed more than Powell.
It should be added that Street's presentation began by him telling the crowd how fortunate they were to have Powell at the conference, calling him "one of the most prestigious turfgrass men in the country, no, the world."
Perhaps the UK turf Web site put it best the morning after Powell's death: "He made a difference."
Survivors include wife Janie; sisters Joan Rains, Sue Hoagland, Ann Cravens and Gene Kirkpatrick; daughter Julie Powell; son Jeff Powell; and granddaughter Lily Jane Powell.
Services are scheduled for 10 a.m., Nov. 2 at Anchor Baptist Church in Lexington.