Earl Wayne Sears, a national leader in the cotton industry known for his keen intellect, humble demeanor, long-standing friendships, and devotion to family, community and church, passed away April 3 in Memphis, Tennessee, surrounded by his beloved wife of 69 years, Gwendolyn Moon Sears, and family. Sears died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, which he handled with his characteristic grace. He was 90 and had lived in Memphis for the past 47 years.
Sears served two tenures spanning more than 30 years with the Memphis-based National Cotton Council of America (NCC). He was the NCC’s executive vice president from 1978 to 1989. Throughout his career, Sears moved the U.S. cotton industry forward, including expansion of international markets - particularly in Asia.
The NCC serves as the unifying forum for cotton producers, ginners, warehousemen, cottonseed processors and merchandisers, marketing cooperatives, merchants and textile manufacturers, promoting cotton’s interests at home and abroad.
No matter the many awards Sears received throughout his lifetime, he emphasized the achievements of his colleagues and his core belief that “devotion to service is fundamental to success.”
His 1952 Dawson County Outstanding Citizen Award set the tone for accolades in the years to come, including the National Outstanding Agricultural Award for Public Service from his alma mater, Texas Tech University; the NCC’s Harry S. Baker Distinguished Service Award; and the National Cotton Industry Hall of Fame
Award for Agricultural Excellence from the National Agriculture Marketing Association – in part, for leading the way in advocating innovative Congressional farm legislation. He was inducted into the Cotton Industry Hall of Fame as well.
A native of Brownfield in West Texas, Sears was born and raised on his family’s farm, one of four brothers.
His desire for higher education and service was spurred by a bevy of aunts and uncles with PhDs, and his mother, Era, who filled the farmhouse with books. He graduated from Texas Tech University in 1948 with a teaching degree in agriculture, and with a fiancée – Gwendolyn, a Texas Tech nursing student with whom he would spend the rest of his life. He taught at Lamesa (Texas) High School, where he founded the school’s vocational agriculture program with the Future Farmers of America (FFA), a program that continues to this day.
Seeing that his growing family would require more than a teacher’s salary, Sears joined the NCC’s field services in 1952 and was appointed Southwest area supervisor. He transferred to Memphis and later Dallas and was heavily involved in the formation of the Cotton Producers Institute, out of which grew today’s Cotton Incorporated.
Career of Accomplishments
In the mid-60s, now with a family of six, Sears took a hiatus from the NCC’s heavy travel schedule. The family settled in Newton, Kansas, where Sears became product manager and then marketing director for Hesston Corporation, a manufacturer of farm equipment. In 1971, the NCC wooed him back; Sears returned to the Memphis headquarters and embarked on a campaign of extensive international travel. During his 11-year tenure as the NCC’s executive vice president, Sears’ major accomplishments included a marketing loan for U.S. cotton; improved bale packaging as a part of a quality assurance program; advancement of the National Boll Weevil Eradication Program; and major growth in the Cotton Foundation’s research, education and communications programs. As the executive vice president, he also oversaw major growth at the NCC, with dues revenues doubling; with offices in Washington, London and Hong Kong; and significant expansion in the overseas promotion programs of Cotton Council International (CCI). With his retirement in 1989, Sears remained a consultant, coordinating the fund-raising effort for the Cotton Foundation to purchase a Washington office building to house the NCC and CCI.
Wherever Sears and wife Gwen have settled, the church has been a central focus in their lives. Together they built a Southern Baptist Church community from the ground up in Newton, Kansas, leading the way for construction of a beautiful church house that Sears himself helped design. In Memphis, Sears coauthored a book on retirement for his peers at Second Baptist Church, where he taught Sunday School for decades and served 18 years on the Board of Deacons. A favorite yearly ritual was donning a beard and costume to portray, with Shakespearean gusto, a disciple at the Last Supper as part of the church’s Easter pageant.
With Gwen at his side, they built homes for Habitat for Humanity, served the homeless and generously donated their time and resources to countless projects. Sears also served on the board of directors of Habit for Humanity and chaired the board of Agricenter International. He traveled to Afghanistan as a food and agriculture consultant for an international nonprofit as well.
From the very beginning of his career, Sears maintained longtime friendships including former students from Lamesa High School. He also maintained ties to the Future Farmers of America (FFA). In 2016, he proudly wore his original 1948 FFA jacket at the national conference, where he and Gwen were recognized as 25-year Milestone Supporters to the organization.
Sears never forgot his own academic jumpstart, which began with his $75 university scholarship – inspiring the couple to support generations of students. They recently announced a major endowed FFA scholarship at Texas Tech, adding to their joint endowment at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. The couple have jointly supported many local groups, including the Memphis Botanical Gardens, Hope House and the Memphis Child Advocacy Center.
Strong Family Ties
Sears remained close to his roots in Brownfield, returning for holidays and to help his parents and family members; every gathering featured a fiercely competitive game of dominoes between the Sears brothers. The family farm remained a favorite summer retreat.
Sears is survived by his devoted wife, Gwen, and his four children: Cathy Sears of Irvington, NY; Lt. Col. Robert Sears, USAF Ret., of Olive Branch, Miss.; David Sears and Kristie Sears Goldsmith, both of Memphis, Tennessee. Also surviving him are seven beloved grandchildren: Kelly Mokry, Morgan Goldsmith Melacon, Katrina Sears, Drew Goldsmith, Katherine Sears, Molly Robbins and Matthew Sears, as well as one great-granddaughter, Kaylee Melacon. Sears is survived by one brother, Kelly Mack Sears of New Braunfels, Texas, and sisters-in-law Louise Sears, wife of his late brother Odell, of Brownfield, Texas, and Anna Marie Sears, wife of his late brother Ernest of Snyder, Texas.
Services are to be held at 4 p.m., Sunday, April 8, at the Second Baptist Church in Memphis with visitation beginning at 3 p.m. A second service will be held at 2 p.m. on April 10 at the First Baptist Church in Brownfield, Texas, followed by a private burial at the Sears family cemetery plot.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Texas Tech Foundation for the Earl and Gwen Sears FFA Scholarship Fund, Texas Tech University, P.O. Box 41081, Lubbock, TX 74909-1081, Attention: Steve W. Locke. To donate by phone, call 866 448 3888.