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Dairyman's death stuns agriculture students

September 16, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

At 61, Max Corbett had taught thousands of high school students about handling dairy cattle and built a reputation as one of California's most seasoned agricultural educators.

So when he was killed by a bull from his school district's own herd, the shock reverberated throughout the farm community of Tulare, where he taught for 33 years.

"That's the hardest part for kids to figure out: How could this happen to someone who's so knowledgeable about animals?" said Julie Locke, one of Corbett's former students who owns a Tulare dairy supply company.

Early Sunday, Corbett and his wife, Mary, went to do chores at the Tulare Joint Unified High School District's 98-acre farm. Corbett, the farm's manager for the last 25 years, was herding cows toward the milking barn when the bull, for unknown reasons, attacked.

After a frantic call from Mary Corbett, who was in the milking barn during the attack, police held the bull at bay in order to extract Corbett. After the animal made an aggressive move, they shot him with a Taser and had him trucked away for slaughter, a Tulare police spokesman said.

Within hours, more than 200 grieving students, parents and alumni converged on the farm.

"It's amazing the effect this man had on the whole community," said Alfonoso Gamino, the district's assistant superintendent. "He taught generations of students."

About 900 students take agriculture courses at Tulare high schools. Tulare County produces more milk than any other U.S. county. The farm managed by Corbett runs the only high school dairy operation in America, according to district officials.

For Locke, who started high school in 1979, Corbett was an inspiration and a "teddy bear," despite his sometimes gruff manner.

"He was just passionate about dairy cows," she said. "He empowered you to work hard and get things done."

Corbett, the father of three grown children, was credited with building Tulare County's Future Farmers of America into one the state's most active chapters. Raised on a dairy farm in the Central Valley, he was a key player at the Tulare County Fair. His funeral is set for Saturday at Tulare's International Agri-Center.

Police have tentatively attributed Corbett's death to "blunt-force trauma" from the bull's head. A coroner's report is to be released today.

Just why the incident occurred may never be known. School district officials said that an employee at the farm told Corbett on Saturday night that the bull, not ordinarily aggressive, had charged him hours earlier.

Still, dairy farmers know that cattle are unpredictable.

"A bull you trust can turn around and hit you before you know it," said Tony Souza, a Tulare dairyman who attended Cal State Fresno with Corbett.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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