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Borlaug and the University of Minnesota
Stakman and Borlaug 1972 - Stakman and Borlaug, 1972
Stakman and Borlaug, 1972
At the University of Minnesota, Borlaug was the scholar and the athlete. But it almost wasn't so. One wonders how many people's lives were changed the September day in 1933 when George Champlin's Chevy came rattling down the dirt roads of Cresco, Iowa, 15 miles from the Minnesota border.

Champlin was a running back on Bernie Bierman's University of Minnesota football squad and intent on recruiting a hometown friend, one Norman Borlaug. He drove up to the Borlaug's 110-acre farm and practiced the sales skills that would eventually take him to the vice presidency of Campbell-Mithun advertising. Borlaug grew up working on the farm and had a strong interest in athletics, yet wasn't sure that just showing up at Minnesota was the right thing to do. He had a scholarship waiting for him at Iowa State Teachers College, where he intended to prepare for a career as a high school science teacher and coach. Champlin finally said he'd drive Borlaug to the Twin Cities, find him lodging and a job, and if Borlaug didn't like the University he could hitchhike back to Iowa in time for school.

It all worked out except for the football - Borlaug took one look at the behemoths on the practice field and wanted no part of it.

Then there was a slight problem with the entrance exam. "I proceeded to flunk it beautifully," says Borlaug, who still speaks with the slight Norwegian accent of his native community. Iowa schools didn't provide as much math and science training as Minnesota schools. Borlaug spent two quarters in the General College before transferring to forestry.

He had to work to pay his room, board, and $25 quarterly tuition. While waiting tables at a Dinkytown coffee shop he met coworker Margaret Gibson, his wife-to-be. They hit it off immediately, but it took awhile to find time for dating. Borlaug was juggling a full class schedule, a couple jobs and another love of his life - wrestling. Cresco High School was a "hot bed" of high school wrestling and Norman Borlaug was one if many outstanding wrestlers from that school. He wrestled on the varsity squad at the University and helped introduce the sport to Minnesota high schools. Dispatched with a bus ticket and 35 cents for meals, he and another U wrestler put on exhibition matches around the state.

"Wrestling taught me some valuable lessons," he says. "I always figured I could hold my own against the best in the world. It made me tough. Many times I drew on that strength. It's an inappropriate crutch perhaps, but that's the way I'm made." Today, Borlaug is a member of the Collegiate Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Forestry seemed to be Borlaug's career, especially after he spent a summer alone on Cold Mountain, above Idaho's Salmon River, the U.S. Forest Service's most remote outpost. (Since the notoriety of receiving the Nobel Prize, he sometimes thinks fondly of that summer of complete isolation.) By the end of his senior year, Borlaug had married and accepted a job with the Forest Service.

Then Borlaug attended a lecture that changed his life. The subject was rust disease of cereal crops. The speaker was Elvin Charles Stakman, head of plant pathology at the University. Stakman discovered that there are thousands of strains of rust, a parasitic fungus that sucks the nutrient juices from plants. Strategies of plant breeding offered ways to create rust-resistant plants, keeping ahead of the evolving strains of rust. The lecture brought together evolution, human history, and issues of life or death.

Borlaug was enthralled by the ideas he'd heard, but his days at the University were numbered. Two
Stakman in Mexico - Stakman in Mexico
Stakman in Mexico
weeks later the Forest Service notified Borlaug that a budget cut had eliminated his job. He visited Stakman and asked to study forest pathology. "Forest pathologists starve to death," Borlaug recalls Stakman telling him. "You should go into plant pathology." Borlaug entered the interview thinking of taking a few courses; he left committed to studying for a doctorate.

Stakman had a reputation for instilling commitment. "That man lit the skies. He made me reach for things I thought I'd never grasp," Borlaug told a packed lecture hall the day Borlaug Hall was dedicated. Borlaug was but one of a long line of Stakman's students whose successes were astonishing. Stakman's standards and expectations were high but were coupled with human warmth and concern.  Stakman's students succeeded because they were treated as if they were what they ought to be; thus many became all they were capable of being. Stakman's courageous and visionary graduates used their education and rose to greatness through their actions.

"Stake," as he was affectionately known around campus, played a crucial role in the world's battle against hunger - and not just for his momentous influence on Borlaug. Early in the century he established the techniques of wheat rust research. Traveling 600 miles by horse and buggy, sleeping in farmers' haystacks, he surveyed rust-ravaged wheat from Minnesota to the West Coast. He did it with no funding - he was a high school teacher on summer vacation. He joined the University's faculty in 1909 and received his first Ph.D. in plant pathology in 1913. Until shortly before he died in 1979 at age 93, he kept regular office hours in Stakman Hall.

In 1941 Stakman and two other scientists, Dr. Paul Mangelsdorf from Harvard University and Dr. Richard Bradfield from Cornell University, spent the summer touring the agricultural lands of Mexico. Their mission was to plot a strategy for enabling Mexico to feed its people. Mexico had undergone a revolution beginning in 1910.  The Mexican Constitution of 1917 legalized redistribution of lands and made more than 1.7 million landless individuals into small farmers with about 12 acres of "cropland" each.  But farming practices were primitive and if the agrarian revolution was to succeed these small farms needed to succeed.  In 1941 Mexican officials realized that a revolution in agriculture was needed, if their political and humanitarian goals were to be met.   For assistance they approached the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation established a "Survey Commission" to go to Mexico and do an in-depth survey of agricultural practices. 

Stakman saw field after field ravaged by wheat rust. Much of the soil was so worn out after being farmed for centuries that yields were miserable, even if the crops didn't suffer from disease. Mexico was forced to import more than half the wheat it needed. Furthermore, there were only two Mexican agronomists in the entire country; Mexico needed training and education programs in agriculture.

J. George Harrar, a protégé and former graduate student of Stakman's at the University of Minnesota, was chosen to head the project. A staff of three scientists was to work on the corn, wheat, and soil problems. Harrar further assembled 21 U.S. scientists and 100 young Mexican associates to complete the program's team. Stakman recommended another of his protégés for the wheat project. "He has great depth of courage and determination," Stakman wrote. "He will not be defeated by difficulty and he burns with a missionary zeal." He was describing Borlaug.

Last modified on 1/12/2005 1:50:55 PM

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