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Board Spotlight: Willard Jenkins

June 7, 2011

To provide a better understanding of the “backbone” of IRIS and our programming, we’re featuring a special series of Board Spotlights. If you have additional or follow-up questions, please leave them in the comments!


Willard Jenkins
 has served on the IRIS board since 2007, currently holding the position of treasurer. A Waterloo, Iowa resident, Jenkins was an engineer for John Deere for 35 years and worked in product engineering, product planning and international standards. While with Deere, he worked in Moline, IL; Heidelberg, Germany and Waterloo, IA. Following retirement, Jenkins became a State Representative from Waterloo. He served ten years in the Iowa legislature and retired from public service in 2006. Jenkins chaired the House Commerce Committee and the International Relations Committee. He also served on the Appropriations and Economic Growth Committees. .

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Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up on a farm in northwest Missouri, near Rosendale. I went to a one room school for the first grade (we had no kindergarten), and they closed it. When I entered second grade in the consolidated school, I met this neat girl who became my wife 15 years later. Both of our parents were successful farmers and community leaders (school boards, Lions Clubs, PTA’s, church, etc). I went to a community college for one year after high school and then to the Missouri School of Science and Technology, where I graduated in Engineering in 1959. I worked for John Deere in Moline for a summer in 1958 and then joined them for a 35 year career following graduation. While working at Deere, I got an MBA from the University of Iowa in the 1960’s through their off-campus moonlight program.

After retiring from Deere, I did seminars on financial planning, and then I was elected to the Iowa Legislature as a State Representative. I was honored to serve for 10 years in the Iowa House, retiring in 2006.

How did you become involved with international programs?

In 1970, when I was with Deere, our family transferred to Germany for three years. After returning to the USA, I traveled a lot internationally with Deere. For example, I was in Beijing in 1976 – just 5 years after the famous ping-pong games that opened the way for President Nixon to visit China. These opportunities opened my ideas, and hopefully attitudes, to a whole new world out there.

After I retired from Deere, I was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. I chaired the International Relations Committee, and Bob Anderson [IRIS’s president and founder] was one of our regular attendees. We had common interests and became friends. He then invited me to go to Nigeria with a group of legislators in 2005.

What has been your most enriching travel experience, personally or professionally? 

It is not so much any one thing, but rather it is the whole. Living in Germany as a family — learning the language, buying groceries, the kids going to a German school, getting the car fixed — was the one that started it, and thus, would likely be the most significant.

Going to Nigeria with IRIS and again last year with Rotary is high on my list of enriching experiences. Learning what the Inca Indians did in Peru was another, and it was far more than Machu Picchu! Going to USSR long before they thought about the Berlin Wall coming down was meaningful. Did you ever watch a sophisticated Frenchman skillfully eat a fish by carving off every bit with a knife and fork?  I don’t know where to stop.

How many countries/continents have you visited? 

Multiple times in every continent except Antarctica — and it is on my bucket list.

Tell us a little about what prompted you to become engaged with IRIS.

Going to Nigeria with Bob Anderson and other Iowa legislators. I thought that IRIS was on the right track by networking people, young and old.

What is an international issue that is particularly important to you? 

Networking and understanding that connecting people will lead to peace between nations, or groups within nations, and a better standard of living for all.

Why is it important to “connect Iowans to communities worldwide,” as IRIS’s mission states?

While this answer may surprise some, international economic and business interests are very important to Iowans and others in the world. On a per capita basis, we are one of the leading, if not the top, exporter of products. Many people around the world want our agricultural products — from tractors to soybeans.

So, we have a situation where our economic future depends largely on countries on the other side of our planet. From a physical standpoint: better nutrition for them, a better economy for us. When people see that their “lot in life” is better than it was last year, they will be less tempted to get out a gun. This cooperation and interdependency will create relationships that will benefit us all.

I see a snowball growing in a positive direction — improved economy, nutrition and relationships.

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