(06/22/22) BATON ROUGE, La. — In the 1950s, Albert Kirby hitchhiked from his small hometown of Jonesville to Lafayette to study animal science at what was then the Southwestern Louisiana Institute.
No one in his family had ever attended college. But Kirby was determined to break the mold, inspired by a math teacher at Block High School who had encouraged him to pursue higher education.
With his journey from rural northeastern Louisiana to Acadiana, Kirby set off a lifelong passion for learning not just for himself but for his entire family.
Kirby later enrolled in graduate school at LSU, where he met Karen Wilbert — his future wife — in an animal science laboratory class. All three of their children would go on to graduate from LSU: Klein with degrees in industrial and agricultural technology and mechanical engineering, Kathryn in elementary education and Kristin in accounting and law. Three of Kirby’s six grandchildren are also LSU graduates, and the remaining three are currently enrolled at LSU.
Kirby, known as “Big Al” to his family, died in May at the age of 83. To honor his love of education and LSU, his family has created the Albert E. and Karen W. Kirby Professorship in Agriculture.
On June 17, members of the Kirby family presented interim LSU Vice President for Agriculture Luke Laborde with a $100,000 check to endow the professorship, which will be awarded to an LSU AgCenter faculty member and provide support to enhance research.
“This is a big day for us,” said Klein Kirby, Albert Kirby’s son. “We’re so honored.”
Albert Kirby spent his career at Dow Chemical, holding several superintendent roles. In his free time, he indulged in his fascination with agriculture and the outdoors. His obituary describes him as “an avid hunter and a skilled tinkerer” — someone who enjoyed working on his tractors, mowing his yard, caring for his pecan orchard and building contraptions.
His time at SLI — today called the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — and LSU left a profound imprint on him. He wanted others, especially those interested in agriculture, to have similar opportunities.
“Anything he could do to encourage a young man or a young woman to pursue education and learning, he did,” his son recalled.
Klein Kirby is chairman of A. Wilbert’s Sons, a Plaquemine-based land management company. His family and the company are key partners of the AgCenter and College of Agriculture, also funding the A. Wilbert’s Sons Endowed Professorship for Agriculture and Natural Resources. They also support research internships for students and international programs.
In exploring ways they could honor their father, Kirby and his sisters along with their mother quickly determined they wanted set up another professorship to support agricultural research.
“We wanted to leave a legacy for our parents that mean so much to us,” Kirby said. “After a short conversation amongst the family, we all arrived at the same answer — to establish an endowed professorship at LSU in support of the LSU AgCenter, where we know it will be used to generate the most impact.”
Years after his father attended LSU, the younger Kirby worked as a student at the AgCenter Audubon Sugar Institute, where he had a chance to develop his own contraption-building skills. He was able to see firsthand and cultivate an appreciation for the research and education opportunities afforded to students and industry professionals alike by the AgCenter.
Supporting those kinds of endeavors through the new professorship is something Albert Kirby would have been proud of.
“We couldn’t think of a better way to honor him,” Klein Kirby said.
The Albert E. and Karen W. Kirby Professorship in Agriculture has been established to honor the late “Big Al” Kirby, who died in May and was an ardent supporter of LSU and education. On June 17, his family presented a check endowing the professorship. Kirby’s widow, Karen Wilbert Kirby, is at center signing papers to make everything official. Looking on, from left, are daughter Kathryn Kirby Maggio, interim LSU Vice President for Agriculture Luke Laborde, son Klein Kirby, LSU AgCenter Associate Vice President Michael Salassi and daughter Kristin Kirby Bucher. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter