He grew up in the Nebraska town his great-grandfather founded, but it was in the badlands of Iraq that Dillard Gates built his namesake.
The middle child in a family of 16 siblings, Dillard was raised on his parents’ farm in Gates — the town he warmly called nothing more than a “crossroads” in Nebraska. At 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard — and that military service is really just the beginning of his story as a world traveler.
“I spent the last 19 months of World War II in the South Pacific on an atoll,” Gates said, adding that he served as a diesel mechanic. “We ran LORAN, long range navigation. At that time, it was highly secret. We sent out signals that surface craft and aircraft could hone in on for navigational purposes.
“Canton Island also had a naval base there, the Naval Air Transport Service, landed flying boats in the lagoon. The Army Air Forces had a base on the other side of the island, and they flew fighter and bomber planes out of the lagoon.”
Though he felt fortunate to be stationed apart from the war zones during the end of his tour, Gates said the remote location and nature of their duties led to an isolating experience. Still, he was proud to serve.
“I don’t know how I could get better duty than service in the military,” the Vancouver, Washington resident said candidly.
Back home in November 1945, Gates embarked on his next mission: Marrying his high school sweetheart, Anastasia Mohatt. Which he did, in less than three months.
Gates then joined the U.S. Geological Survey, and the couple lived like gypsies the next three years. Winters in Texas. Summers in North Dakota: “An interesting crew, interesting travel.” Eventually, they decided to make a pit stop, landing back in Nebraska to put his GI Bill education funds to good use.
While Anastasia worked, Dillard went to school, first at University of Nebraska Kearney, then University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he finished his bachelor’s and master’s, then onto Utah State University for his Ph.D. in rangeland resource management.
It was during that first year at Kearney when Gates decided his career should honor his agricultural roots, inspired from his studies in a plant ecology course taught by a prominent American botanist, John Ernest Weaver. Gates realized that he wasn’t passionate about farming or ranching, but he was fascinated by the science behind it all.
“Range management is largely plant ecology,” Gates said. “You have to understand the relationship between plants and the environment.”
Gates resumed the gypsy life for a time, relocating to Woodward, Oklahoma to work at the Southern Plains Research Station, then onto Washington State University in Pullman, Washington for a spell.
He recalled his next assignment was with the United Nations in 1969, which took him to Baghdad, Iraq to review range management research for the Iraqi government.
Finally growing some roots, Gates returned to the U.S. and settled in at Oregon State University in Vancouver, where he has taught rangeland management courses since 1983 and is now an emeritus professor.
Still, despite his long career at Oregon State, Gates’ extensive knowledge of rangeland management continued to propel him around the world for weeks and months at a time throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Doubling as a private international consultant, the veteran traveled extensively to the Middle East and China, advising local governments and producers on range management practices and livestock production. “There were a lot of organizations doing (rangeland) development work in other countries,” Gates explained. “And they have people contracted to do that work, for the most part. So I went over to review these organizations’ projects.
“I would take the contract and go over (to the country) to see if they were carrying out what the contract required them to do. I spent a lot of time in the field, but I also worked with administrations of agriculture, and ranchers and farmers.”
In the badlands of Iraq, Gates helped local ranchers learn better ways to manage their livestock through grazing techniques, and his expertise was instrumental as they joined forces to develop an improved breeding program for the region.
The other focus of his work in the badlands was documenting each project’s progress and outcomes. He spent countless hours checking efficiencies of the new rangeland programs, which he then drafted into copious reports for review.
“I wrote a lot of reports,” he said with a wry chuckle.
Though his work kept him busy, Gates also carved out time to observe and appreciate the greater picture of agriculture abroad.
He ate the best fruit he’s ever tasted in Somalia. And he still remembers wandering over to the Iraqi women sitting around their campfire, watching as they baked wads of dough on makeshift griddles. “Desert bread,” he called it.
“They would have a pan with a big wad of dough, and the women would peel off a little of that and roll it into a ball, then spread it out thin like pizza and lay it on the iron to cook it,” Gates began. “But there was donkey dung around the fire, so they were mixing manure into the dough every time.”
After a genial laugh, “Professor Gates” took the helm briefly for a lecture on how manure was a vital source of fuel to the Iraqi people. He added that they were just one country among many that depend on manure for fuel to this day.
Eventually, his work in Iraq and other countries wrapped up. As his gypsy lifestyle finally slowed down, Gates made the last trek home to the rangelands of America, where the former farmer-veteran dedicated a lifetime to teaching others how to care for the land and its animals. He even wrote a couple of books about it.
“The first one is titled, ‘Hay, Hell, Kids and Cattle’, that’s what my dad said he raised on the farm,” Gates said, the joyful memories ringing in his voice. “If you asked me where my home is, I’d still say Nebraska. I haven’t lived there since ’53. But Nebraska’s still my home. That’s where I’ll be planted someday.”