It’s safe to say that no one celebrates 90th birthdays quite like the Cmarik family.
To honor George Cmarik, former University of Illinois assistant professor in animal sciences, his daughter organized a student internship gift to commemorate his special day.
“My dad didn’t really ‘need’ anything for his birthday,” said Joan Cmarik Nelson, George’s daughter. “Our family (me, my aunt, and cousins) wanted to do something unique by helping someone in his name and settled upon providing a student with an internship experience at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. My dad worked for the U of I for 41 years. He’s supported a lot of charities, but his real dedication was serving the people of the region through his work at Dixon Springs.”
Whether her father was pulling a calf or breeding cows, Joan learned a lot about life by accompanying him to Dixon Springs.
“You can learn so much from hands-on experience,” Nelson said. “We wanted to provide students with this opportunity outside of the classroom to help them make informed decisions about their future career path.”
Kim Meenen, U of I College of ACES Director of Development, was excited to help the Cmarik family make their dream of a four-week student internship a reality. Perhaps one of the best rewards for Meenen was watching the successful match of the family with 22-year-old U of I student Hilary Levitin.
Levitin and Cmarik both grew up in Chicago and entered into the field of animal science with little to no hands-on experience working with production animals, Meenen said.
Cmarik grew up in the city, but he spent a few summers with family friends on an Iowa farm where he realized his passion for animal agriculture. He began attending the U of I in 1940 before serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He later returned to finish his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Levitin said, “I grew up in the city with a dog and lots of frogs. I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian, and my high school anatomy and physiology class made me even more confident I was on the right track. I’m definitely the black sheep of the family – no one in my family shares my passion for animal science.”
She received her bachelor’s degree in animal science in May 2010 and is now working at a vet clinic preparing to apply to veterinary school. To gain more experience working with animals, Levitin eagerly accepted the Cmarik internship at Dixon Springs.
“Working at Dixon Springs was an eye-opening experience,” Levitin said. “For four weeks, I had no TV, no internet, and no cell phone. One morning an area farmer knocked on my door at 4:30 a.m. just to see if I was o.k. I wasn’t used to that kind of an atmosphere, but I really liked it.”
A typical internship day began at 6 a.m. feeding and providing daily care for Dixon Springs’ 1,000-cow herd. From processing baby calves to monitoring health, Levitin quickly learned how to do all of the daily chores on her own. She also helped move cattle from pasture to pasture and learned how to take blood samples.
“I remember the first day I had to lift feed buckets,” Levitin said. “I knew right away I had to toughen up. Frank Ireland, my supervisor, and the farm workers were excellent teachers. They encouraged me, made me do the same chores they did, and showed me I could do more than I thought I could. They have hard jobs and I respect them greatly.”
Ireland, research animal scientist at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center, said Levitin was not only a hard worker but also helped motivate his staff.
“Seeing the excitement of students like Hilary who want to pursue a future in animal agriculture stimulates our staff to do an even better job,” Ireland said. “I admire her diligence in finding ways to gain experience with animals that she had not worked with before.”
Ireland introduced Levitin and Cmarik over lunch in Cmarik’s hometown of Paducah, Ky., during the internship and pointed out their similar Chicago roots.
“It was not a requirement but a bonus that she was from Chicago too,” Cmarik said. “I hope this internship experience benefits Hilary in the future. It was a pleasure to meet her and be a small part of her future in animal science.”
Levitin said it was inspiring to meet Cmarik and listen to his stories.
“This was an extremely unique and genuinely kind gift,” Levitin said. “I’m a struggling student and simply can’t afford to take a non-paid internship. I will always be appreciative that they found the means to make it happen. I hope I can give back someday to something I’m that passionate about.”
Nelson said one of the most rewarding aspects of her father’s career was helping students succeed.
“Benefiting a U of I student’s life is the perfect way to celebrate my father’s life,” she said.