Sunbelt Expo loses legend with death of Darrell Williams

When the concept for a large agricultural exposition in the Southeast was formed in 1977, I was on the Auburn University ag faculty and remember driving back to Auburn from Tifton with a colleague, friend and mentor.

We had just heard a presentation on the Sun Belt Agricultural Exposition by the University of Georgia and other cooperators. I remember my friend saying, “They will never get 10,000 people to come to a farm show in October — too much to do on the farm.” It was one of the few things in our 20 or so years together he ever got wrong.

Ag Expo didn’t get 10,000 people to come to that first show — they got over 100,000 and now they get several hundred thousand annually to attend the show.

A minor part of the original Expo plan included a research field to test new varieties and new production techniques. When Sunbelt Expo opened in 1978, few people even knew there was a research farm adjacent to Spence Field, site of the Expo.

As best I remember, I attended every Expo for the first 10 years, and I never visited the research farm. Then, I met Darrell Williams.

Darrell was hired in 1987 to run the Ag Expo Research Farm. He not only ran it efficiently, he built it into one of the finest agricultural research programs in the country. If you came to Sunbelt Ag Expo and Darrell knew it, you came to the farm.

In his humble, south Georgia country boy way, he was proud of his work and promoted the Expo and subsequently the annual Expo Field Day in a way that made people want to come and to feel a part of the program when they came.

The annual Ag Expo Field Day is now an integral part of the over-all Sunbelt Expo experience. It has become a must-see for area farmers and a place for companies big and small to showcase their products.

In the late 1980s and 1990s I made my annual trek over to Moultrie, Ga. to attend Sunbelt Expo, and I always went with Darrell to look at the farm. Sometime in the mid 1990s I quit going to Expo — no good reason — I was busy running a communications program and found it easier to send other people to Moultrie.

After I retired from Auburn and joined the Farm Press staff I made my first visit in nearly a decade to Sunbelt Expo. One of the first people I met was Darrell Williams and one of the first things he said to me was, “let’s go look at the farm.” That’s the way he was, no dwelling on the past, always optimistic about the next crop.

I’m not exactly sure when Darrell was first diagnosed with cancer. I called Darrell not long after I got the news from Chip Blaylock and Gina McDonald that he had undergone successful surgery for the cancer.

In his typical style, he downplayed the significance of having cancer. He knew it was bad and he knew the outlook wasn’t good, but he didn’t dwell on it. He mostly tried to out-work the cancer, and did it longer than most medical experts thought he could.

Sadly, Darrell passed away on Feb. 6. He will be missed, but more importantly, he will be remembered. As current Sunbelt Expo Executive Director Chip Blaylock so poignantly stated, “Darrell is no doubt already plowing up in heaven.”

My last conversation with Darrell was back in October at the 2008 Sunbelt Expo. He was by then having some memory and speech problems related to his cancer, but he told me how proud he was of the work he had done at Sunbelt Expo. He was particularly proud that his son, Michael, had been selected to run the farm.

Michael and his sister, Michelle, grew up on the farm. Darrell ran the farm just as if it was his farm — maybe that’s what made it so successful. I am sure Darrell died proud that his life’s work will be continued by his son.

Bobby Darrell Williams was one of a kind. He was hard-working, funny, dedicated and humble all in one package. He will leave some big footprints in the sandy south Georgia soil and those of us who knew him are better off for it.

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