A great man’s journey: Trip home reminds Yeutter of his great Nebraska roots

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A great man’s journey: Trip home reminds Yeutter of his great Nebraska roots

Gift from UNL graduate and his wife will help students change the world, too.

Clayton Yeutter changed the world.

He served two presidents in three Cabinet-level posts – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Trade Representative, and Counselor to the President – a feat no other Nebraskan has ever achieved.

With an unusually strong grip (once the “strongest grip” ever recorded in the White House gym), he shook hands with world leaders and helped shape historic trade agreements. He pried open world markets for U.S. beef, which helped farmers and others back home.

So in a way you could say his hands changed the world, too.

Several years back, his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, dedicated a statue to him on East Campus. He stands, in bronze, with one hand in his pocket and one hand reaching out.

“Ambassador Yeutter.”

That’s how people greet him now.

He smiles and extends a strong hand.

“Call me Clayton.”

He went home this past August. His oldest son drove. They headed across the state from Lincoln to Eustis, in southwest Nebraska, to visit the old Yeutter homestead.

Clayton has struggled with cancer the past few years, so it had been awhile since he’d made the trip. But his latest round of drugs has helped him feel better. He’s 85, and that drive home was a time to think about the people who helped him along the way.

He thought about his father …

Reinhold Yeutter was 230 pounds of muscle, a bull of a man. His hands could lift a car by its bumper. He was a fabulous cattleman and encouraged Clayton to join 4-H. But his father expected him to do it on his own – pick the calves to buy, feed them, learn the ropes of showmanship. Clayton was around 10 when he first entered the beef showmanship competition at the Dawson County Fair.

He finished dead last.

He cried the whole way home as his father drove, but Clayton never lost in showmanship again.

He thought about his mother…

Laura Yeutter could milk cows better than either of them. Her hands worked hard in her garden, too, and helped keep the family fed during the Depression. She taught Sunday School for 60 years straight. With her hands folded, she taught her only child how to pray.

She taught him humility.

The day President Reagan asked him to become the U.S. Trade Representative, his first Cabinet-level post, Clayton phoned her with the big news (his father had died by that point).

He told his mother that he was calling from the White House.

He waited for her praise.

Instead, there was just silence.

Dead silence.

For 10 seconds or so.

Then she finally spoke.

How long do you have to do that job?

That was also the day when Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Don Regan, while escorting  Clayton out of the White House, told him something that he really took to heart:

Your job is to change the world.

He did. Looking back at his career in the rear-view mirror he knows it. But he knows he did it only with the help of the people at his side, starting with those in Eustis. He knows he did it with the Nebraska values he had that he never let go: work hard, treat people with respect, always extend a hand.

On that trip home last August, Clayton thought about all the old neighbors and the threshing crews and how they helped one another, often in hundred-degree heat.

Six miles north of Eustis, Clayton’s son turned the car down the familiar dirt lane. The bungalow still looked good. That made Clayton happy. A few years back, he sold the home place to the son of an old high school friend whose young family live there now.

They have lunch waiting.

He sees the spot in the kitchen where his mom’s wood-burning stove used to be, where he used to lay baby calves to keep them alive in the winters.

He can almost taste again smoked sausage his dad and his uncle would hang in the basement, 400 rings or so, all made by hand – the tastiest sausages you could think of. It was hand to mouth in those days, and those sausages kept them fed in the winters.

He walked around the rooms. The wooden floors looked the same. He walked into his old bedroom and was surprised by its size. It seemed so much smaller than he’d remembered it, now more like a closet.

He thought about his first wife …

Jeanne Yeutter was the mother of his four oldest children, an incredible mate.

He met her at the university. Everything about her stood out. Her smile. Her mind. Her laughter. He brought her back to Eustis. She was a Lincoln girl, so it was a culture shock. There were tears shed in the bungalow – some he saw, some he didn’t.

He might have stayed on the farm his whole life if not for Jeanne, who persuaded him go back to the university, where he earned a law degree and a Ph.D. in ag economics and eventually became a faculty member, one who got noticed by Chancellor Cliff Hardin. (Hardin later became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He has a statue on campus, too.)

Clayton tells people that Jeanne was one of the finest people the university ever produced. She could have been an ambassador or a member of the Cabinet. She could have a statue. But instead, she sacrificed to lift him. Everyone loved her big heart. She headed up many philanthropic causes. She became the unofficial president of the Cabinet wives club and a great friend of Barbara Bush’s.

Jeanne died in her sleep one night in 1993, out of the blue. She was just 62.

The university named a flower garden for her.

It surrounds the base of Clayton’s statue.

Two years after she died, Clayton married his second wife, Cristy, another brilliant woman who also could have gone onward and upward.  She already held one of the top positions on President Reagan’s staff when she was in her twenties.  But she, too, chose to support her husband.

They’d actually first met in the White House gym years earlier when he was U.S. Trade Representative and she was a special assistant to President Reagan for intergovernmental affairs. Without her love and support during the cancer challenges, he knows he would not be alive today. They have three girls who were adopted as babies in Russia, Kazakhstan and Guatemala. One of them earned a black belt in taekwando at age 11. Their home is outside of Washington, D.C.

Nebraska will always be his home, too.

So will the University of Nebraska.

This past year, UNL announced its plans to create the Clayton K. Yeutter International Trade Institute. Its goal is to endow faculty positions in business, agriculture and law that are committed to building a strong international dimension into their teaching and research programs. The secondary goal is to give University of Nebraska students the international orientation and background they’ll need in preparing for the jobs of the future.

Clayton and Cristy made a $2.5 million leadership gift commitment toward the initiative.

“You only spend so many years on this Earth,” he said last August, one day after making that trip home. “The question is: What do you do with them? Can you do something that will help the next generation coming along?

“The university is a great place to do that.”

It felt good to give back to his home state, he said, and it felt good to go home.

And it reminded him how much Nebraska changed his world.

“I called Cristy last night and said, ‘This was one of the most pleasant experiences that I’ve had in a long time.’”

“Our Students, Our Future,” the University of Nebraska’s $200 million fundraising initiative that runs through 2017, will provide direct support for university students through scholarships that will make their college education more affordable; support for programs that improve student outcomes, particularly among traditionally underrepresented students; improvements to facilities that will enhance the learning experience; and other student-focused priorities.

If you, like the Yeutters, would like to help our students, please contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216.

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