By Bailey Robbins
So, what’s next?
A smile stretched across the face of agriscience education professor Cliff Ricketts, which suggested it wasn’t the first time he has been asked that question.
“I thought I did pretty good so far,” he laughed.
The article taped to the outside of his office door is one of many that highlights the cross-country journey without gasoline that he made with a team of alumni and students in March 2013.
“I reached my goal of going coast-to-coast from [Tybee Island, Ga. to Long Beach, Calif.] on nothing but sun and water,” Ricketts said about the voyage that took 25 years of alternative fuel projects. “Everything produced here, on the MTSU campus.”
Ricketts admits the trip was not to show off a perfected model of a hydrogen-powered vehicle but to serve as evidence that it can be done.
“I’m an adventurer,” he said. “I’m a trailblazer, and once I do a fuel — and I know it can be done — I leave it up to the experts to perfect it.”
No milk, no discoveries
Ricketts’ life with alternative fuels started in 1982 when he presented a truck that ran more than 25,000 miles on pure ethanol to the World’s Fair and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s 50th Anniversary Barge Tours. After that, he went on to work with methane, biodiesel, hydrogen and solar hydrogen. Each time, he said that someone was always asking about his next big idea. And like his hydrogen-powered vehicles, Ricketts wasn’t running out of gas.
“I’m not afraid to fail,” he said without hesitation. “No goals, no glory.”
Raised on a dairy farm, the professor is familiar with moving from one challenge to the next.
“There’s not many things you don’t have to do when you’re raised on a dairy farm,” he noted. “You’re with animals. You’re with plants. You raise crops. You do it all.”
Ricketts’ farmer mentality has translated into how he has accomplished his life goals. His parents never graduated high school, so he became the first Ricketts to finish college. He wanted to teach agriscience education, so he created the first program at the university. No one had driven across the country using sun and water, so he implemented a plan.
“I’ve had a motto all my life: There’s no excuse, the cows have to be milked,” he said with a firmness in his voice. “That’s really the way it is if you’re on a dairy farm. I don’t care if you’ve got a 104-degree temperature. I don’t care if the lights go out. The cows got to be milked.”
His “no excuse” policy fuels his drive as a professor and engineer of alternative fuels.
When we run into a challenge [at the university], and the students say they ‘can’t do that,’ I say, “Figure it out, cows got to be milked,’” Ricketts said. “‘Cause there’s usually a way, you can do it.”
Not on empty
Bookshelves filled with handwritten files labeled “alternative fuels” and “research” line the back wall of Ricketts’ office. Though last March checked off a huge accomplishment on Ricketts’ list of major goals, he hesitated to say that he is entirely done working with new alternatives and proving to the world impossible is possible.
“If it’s perceived as impossible, I’ll try it,” he said. “If it’s perceived as it can be done, I’ll let someone else do it. Now, that’s just kind of a silly mentality, but in reality, that’s who I am.”
A new challenge appeared in an article about the potentials of green algae. He discussed how the organism doesn’t need farmland and could raise enough biodiesel to replace the dependency of foreign oil by flooding approximately 100 square miles of desert.
“If I wasn’t 65, I’d probably be researching green algae so I can grow [it] and go across country,” he paused for a moment and chuckled softly. “And, I’m still almost — it’s tempt on the drawing board that I may have to do that.”
No dead ends
While a coast-to-coast, green algae voyage gradually inks onto a new checklist, retirement hasn’t quite found its way there.
“I got to thinking, I don’t know of any entertainers that retire,” he said with a youthful smile that hardly tells his age. “Why? They’re just having fun. I’m having fun.”
Luckily for him, he can still call his vocation a vacation.
“I love my students, I love my job, and, as long as I’m making a difference and creating new knowledge, I’m fine,” he said happily.
This spring semester he is teaching “Introduction to Agriscience Education,” “Methods of Teaching” and “Greenhouse Management.” By instructing these courses and sharing his knowledge with students, Ricketts continues to leave behind a legacy others can add to.
Whether it’s by the open road or through personal achievements, it’s clear that the 65-year-old still has a destination, and it doesn’t seem like a pit stop is coming any time soon.
“I don’t want to have any regrets of anything I didn’t try — anything I didn’t attempt,” he said about how he wants to feel when he finally does decide to retire from it all. “I want that feeling that I give it my best shot.”