Thep Phongparnich slinks into the conference room on Maejo University in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, and the phones come out. In a land so obsessed with photographs that the government has issued warnings against selfies, it’s little surprise that both the young and old, the students and administrators are whipping out their phones to mark the post-Thai New Year celebration.
Phongparnich stands at the head of the room, surrounded by gifts ranging from coffee to flowers and confections. He offers a Buddhist blessing of good fortune and good health to those before him.
“This is our home. This is our life. May you have prosperity and good fortune for yourself and for your friends and for your family,” he says in Thai before gingerly placing a necklace of jasmine around the necks of a few visitors.
Later, he heads to his office desk to retrieve his cowboy hat. Once donned, the hat transforms him. His back straightens, his shoulders hunch less, his smile widens.
He proceeds with the tour, showing how Maejo University—where his love for agriculture first grew more than four decades ago—changed from a small agricultural college to the home of the Cowboy. “The cowboy is the gentleman of the land,” he says. “A cowboy has the spirit of the land and he has a good relationship with the people around him.”
Maejo University is the oldest agricultural university in Thailand. Located in the San Sai district of Chiang Mai province, an area in northern Thailand known for its rich culture, lush vegetation, and abundance of backpackers, the university serves thousands of students today. It has 14 schools and nearly 70 programs ranging from undergraduate degrees to PhD programs. Though it started out as an agricultural school, it has expanded to include other fields of study, including business administration, arts, technology, and engineering. And, thanks to the enterprising Phongparnich, it’s also home to Pistol Pete, the character familiar to college sports fans as the mascot of Oklahoma State University.
The son of a father and mother who worked in the fishery business in southern Thailand’s Surat Thani Province, Phongparnich earned a certificate in agriculture from what was then called the Maejo Agricultural College at the age of 19 before heading to Central Luzon State University in the Philippines for his Bachelor of Science degree. After earning his master’s degree in horticulture from Mississippi State University in 1974, he found himself in Chicago, where he worked for a year to save money before heading south to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater for his doctorate.
Though Oklahoma may have seemed a strange land with new customs, Phongparnich didn’t seem fazed. One of about 60 Thai students studying agriculture and engineering, he was voted president of the Thai Student Association at OSU. His days, like many students before and after him, were full of classes, studying, football and basketball games, and money worries.
“The international students were very happy and enjoyed themselves,” Phongparnich says.
Upon graduating from OSU, Phongparnich returned to Maejo to lead the plant and animal multiplication division. Over the next three decades, he would hold a variety of positions at the university, including vice president of several departments, dean of two schools, and two terms as university president.
Throughout his time in the U.S.—first at Mississippi State, later at OSU, and throughout his travels across the country—Phongparnich began to notice the importance mascots played in university life. The symbol, he says, was a simple way to represent and unite a group, highlighting positive attributes that would give students pride in themselves and their school. Mississippi State’s Bulldog, for example, is a fighter who will not stop biting, while Louisiana State University’s Tiger shows intelligence and shrewd tenacity. OSU’s Pistol Pete, and the cowboy in general, represent a love and respect for land and the people who work it, Phongparnich says, which is what he wanted for his beloved Maejo. But bringing the cowboy to Thailand and Maejo University wasn’t exactly easy, nor official. Though Maejo students and faculty had long adopted wearing blue jeans, the concept of the cowboy was something many of the students and faculty didn’t understand.
Sitting in a conference room following the ceremony in which he blessed various students and faculty, the former university president looks the part of a relaxed professor exuding a Western flair: his bolo tie hangs inches from the ballpoint pen dutifully perched in the pocket of his plaid button-down shirt worn with Hazelwood slacks.
“The Maejo students, even before, we tried to teach our students to become like a cowboy. We tried to teach our students to work hard and take responsibility, to have unity among students,” he says. “That’s the same concept with the cowboy.”
At the time, however, it was difficult for students, staff, and faculty to grasp the concept, he says, simply because schools in Thailand didn’t have mascots like they do in the U.S. So Phongparnich got creative in his quest to bring the cowboy across the Pacific Ocean. He started small, writing “Home of the Cowboy” at the bottom of documents. As the head of various departments, he was able to involve his faculty and staff in his mission, and later, as vice president of student affairs, he was able to make the Cowboy a part of student life through events featuring square dancing and a campus-wide contest to select a Mr. Cowboy and Ms. Cowgirl to represent the school. Eventually, the mascot caught on, and now it’s seen throughout campus, like at the Cowboy Mall, an open-air area that acts as a sort of student union, a behemoth sign showing a denim-clad cowboy holding on tight with one hand as the bull prepares to buck him affixed on one side.
“Maejo University,” it reads. “The Home of Cowboys.”
Phongparnich was not the first nor only Thai student to study at Oklahoma State and later become a university president back in his home country. OSU counts at least eight alumni as current or former heads of universities throughout the Kingdom of Thailand, and the relationship between OSU and the Southeast Asian country dates back 50 years.
In the 1960s, a professor at OSU named Chris White traveled to Maejo to assist in agricultural education programs. It was White’s early relationship with the people of Thailand that cemented the long-standing relationship, according to Cecil Dugger, professor emeritus at OSU and co-advisor of the OSU-Thai Student Association. A few years later, as part of a World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded effort, OSU sent over educational advisors to help develop Thailand’s vocational training schools across the country.
This early work created a roadmap for the Stillwater-based university in the Kingdom, eventually leading to academic cooperation agreements and memorandum of understandings with universities in Thailand, including Maejo, that allow for students from the schools in Thailand to study at OSU and OSU students to study in Thailand. It’s estimated, according to Dugger, that there are more than 350 former OSU Thai students and graduates living in Thailand.
Over the years, Phongparnich has made regular visits to OSU, always bringing a contingency with him, and throughout the day he would gather them together for a pep talk. His enthusiasm for OSU-Maejo relations was contagious, says David Henneberry, associate vice president for the Division of International Studies and Outreach at OSU.
“Thep has a strong emphasis on morals, ethics, and believes that you can teach those topics and that it improves educational results when you do so,” Henneberry says.
In 2005, Phongparnich was awarded the prestigious International Distinguished Alumni Award for his contributions as president of Maejo and for building the relationship between the two universities. The award, which was presented in front of 45,000 fans during a football game against Texas Tech, was a proud moment for Phongparnich, he says. But like a true (OSU) Cowboy filled with pride for his former alma mater, receiving the award was only a part of the highlight that day.
“OSU at that time was not so good,” he says. “But that day, we beat Texas Tech.”
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015