KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For years, I’ve proclaimed that one of the most gratifying aspects of my job for the past 16-plus years has been the opportunity to work with Temple Grandin. I won’t waste time and space listing the many accolades and accomplishments that Grandin has amassed because anyone in the meat and poultry processing industry with a pulse is aware of her life’s work and the difference she’s made in the treatment of livestock, but also in the perception and treatment of people living with autism. Earlier this week I almost burst with pride as an attendee at her 70th birthday celebration on Aug. 29.

Trust me, nobody was more honored to be there than I was and I’m still basking in the glow of the experience of being among a group sharing stories of admiration, inspiration and gratitude for her selfless commitment to her career and causes. Besides being a constant sounding board for MEAT+POULTRY’s animal welfare coverage and an exclusive editorial contributor to the magazine for nearly four decades, she’s had a wide and sweeping influence on me and thousands of others all around the world. But that’s only a very small tip of the enormous iceberg that is Grandin’s impact on education, the livestock industry and the people she’s touched through her ability to literally give a voice to autism around the globe.  

Held on the campus of Colorado State Univ., just steps outside the animal science building where Grandin’s university office is located, the weather and venue were a perfect stage for not only commemorating Grandin’s milestone birthday, but celebrating the impact she’s had on the lives of so many. About 200 invitees were loosely gathered around a large event tent being serenaded by music that was reportedly chosen by the guest of honor to entertain them with tunes from musicians ranging from John Denver to Charlie Daniels and I think I even heard Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” A local brewery, Horse & Dragon Brewing Co., under the direction of Grandin, created a custom craft beer in her honor to be served at the event from pint glasses emblazoned with a logo designed for the brew. “Temple’s Grand Ale” is now available at several bar and grills in the Ft. Collins, Colorado, area.  

Among several presenters paying tribute during the festivities, Dr. Ajay Menon, dean of the college of agriculture, was one of several friends and colleagues who toasted Grandin. Menon referred to her as a researcher, mentor, friend, activist and a change agent, but even bigger, “a giant force for good.” He shared anecdotes of total strangers all over the world asking him if he had met Temple Grandin after they learned he worked at CSU, either because they knew about her work with livestock or her reputation as a hero to the autistic community. He also pointed out the immeasurable impact Grandin has had on the lives of hundreds of students through the years. Many current and past students were among the proud attendees. The idea for the event, in fact, was hatched by Helen Kline, a graduate student currently working under Grandin at CSU, along with Dana Wagner and Miriam Martin, who also are sponsored by Grandin.

Dr. Tony Frank, CSU chancellor, in his remarks commemorating Grandin’s professional and personal accomplishments and 70th birthday acknowledged her as a global asset and categorized her as “someone whose work in life have made this world a better place.” 

I shared a table with Mick Jackson, another speaker at the celebration, who was the director of the 2010 Emmy-award-winning HBO film, “Temple Grandin.”  Jackson told of how he wasn’t aware of Grandin when first presented the script for the movie, but the more he learned and read her writing, and later visited with her, it became clear they shared a bond and his interest in the project grew. Grandin, he pointed out, is a visual thinker and shares her view of the world through pictures, not unlike Jackson and other filmmakers. He said her story captivated him and the entire crew and cast. “I’ve never worked on a movie, before or since, where everybody felt such passion,” he said.

“It started out as something really small and grew into something really big,” Grandin told attendees as she expressed her appreciation. And what may have started as a birthday bash evolved into a celebration of Temple Grandin’s global impact, which brought together a group of some of the most influential, interesting and impressive people to one event I’ve ever seen.

I found myself almost forgetting this was a celebration based on a milestone birthday and got caught up in hearing the many stories about the professional and personal achievements of Grandin and accounts of the lives she has enriched (mine included). It’s humbling to see and hear about her far-reaching impact and her diverse accomplishments, the most important of which has been the bonds she has created with people. Mingling with this group, which was equally diverse, it occurred to me that perhaps Grandin’s greatest contribution of all is her ability to bring so many people together who perhaps have little in common overall, but share an overwhelming admiration for someone who embraces and personifies difference and uniqueness among people.  

This was an evening dedicated to celebrating one of Grandin’s most refreshing attributes and the reason so many people are drawn to her: Her unique perspective on work and life and the fact that she is starkly different in a proud and unabashed way when compared to most people. How refreshing is that?  

As Jackson said he learned during the filming of the movie, autism is not an affliction, but rather a gift. “You are not like other people, Temple Grandin, and for that we all are joyously grateful,” he said. 

I was honored to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime event and I thank Helen Kline for her work to make it happen and to Temple Grandin for being an inspirational hero to me and so many others.  Happy 70th and thank you for all you do for so many.