Opportunity knocked: My dad’s incredible life

Listen to this article

My father turns 95 this week. We were talking over lunch yesterday and he said it was really incredible to him to think about all the things he has done and the places he has been in his life, and how much he enjoyed all of it. He had been to 90 countries by the time he was 90 and still dreams about going to South Africa.

Twenty-five years ago he received the Distinguished Achievement Citation from Iowa State University, his alma mater. Soon afterwards, he returned to his hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa, and gave a speech to the Kiwanis Club about his life. Here are some excerpts.

“I have been fortunate throughout my life and have also had lots of opportunities. So, if I can take any credit for my career, it really comes down to seizing the opportunities as they presented themselves. Tonight, I would like to tell you a little about some of the opportunities that my wife and I have seized over the past 40-some years which led to my being honored at Iowa State University 

Forty-two years ago we were living in Shenandoah. The War was over. I had a good job teaching vocational agriculture at the high school. The world was full of opportunities. 

Somewhere along the way, I had been bitten by the bug to get into international work. And then Harry Truman presented his Point Four Program to the country, on January 20, 1949, and it was as if he were talking directly to me. He said: 

‘We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.’ 

So, my wife, Virginia, and I embarked on the journey. By 1952 I had the job I wanted with the US Department of Agriculture and started our international career.


My family and Virginia’s family must have thought we were a bit out of our minds to want to go to the other side of the world, to Burma, with two boys aged 6 and 4. Burma in the early 1950s was jus starting to recover from the War and it had suffered a great deal. It was also just starting on its path as an independent country from its past as a part of the British Empire.

Burma was different from anything we had ever known. The language, the religion with 95% having strong Buddhist beliefs, the standard of living and many things were completely new to us. But, we soon learned the many good things about Burma and especially the Burmese people who were kind, respected one another, were generous and a great desire for education.

The country was starting on an education and development program to establish a national system of vocational agriculture in its secondary and high schools. This program fit my training and experience and I was able to work closely with Burmese colleagues to develop both of these programs.

One of the things I learned very early in Burma was that you do not transfer Iowa or US agriculture to it or any other country. This is a misconception that one often hears … “we’ll go over there and teach them how to farm since we have such productive farms here in America …” But, those other places aren’t America and a whole set of agricultural problems — supplies, roads, transport, size of farms, ability to take economic risk and many others – are very different 

Farmers, as you all know, are very smart people and are good economist here in Iowa. The same is true in Burma or in any of the countries in which I worked. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the agricultural and economic conditions under which the farmers in another country must operate before trying to transfer any agricultural practice.

After two years in Burma I accepted a position with the Ford Foundation to help develop a National Agricultural Junior College to train agricultural teachers and extension agents. We moved up country to Pyinmana. In those days, the Burmese government only controlled the country during the day, and not always even then. Insurgents were always blowing up railroad bridges, and extension work in outer villages was doubly challenging as you really did have to make it home by dark or you might not make it home at all 

For the first two years in Pyinmana we had permanent army outposts surrounding the college to keep the insurgents from stealing our livestock. Running gun battles were a regular form of entertainment. Virginia and I wondered what we had let ourselves into with gunfire about us almost every night, but the boys thought they were in heaven, with a real live cowboy movie being played out all around them.

When we first arrived, we were the only foreigners in the town. Electricity was only available at night and often not even then. They always “rested” the local diesel generator on Monday.

I was able to speak and understand enough of the Burmese language to talk to farmers. I was never able to teach in Burmese but I worked out a system where I taught in English and the students could respond either in Burmese or English. I could understand Burmese sufficiently for this and the Burmese students could understand English but often had difficulty expressing themselves. The system worked very well.

After seven years in Burma we returned to the US where I received my PhD from Cornell University in New York. From there we returned to Burma but the winds of change were blowing. The great expectations of independence were not achieved because of internal troubles between some of the tribes and the Burmese and a slower economic growth than desired. So, in 1962, General Ne Win and the army took over in a military coup. General Ne Win was quite xenophobic and with the army take-over all foreigners were asked to leave. General Ne Win did invite me personally to his office to tell me there was nothing personal in this but he just wanted the country to go it alone. 

In spite of being asked to leave, Burma still holds a special place in our family’s memories.

Latin America

In 1963 I was asked by the Ford Foundation to go to Mexico. It was a great opportunity for me. Mexico was a county with a very old culture, not as old as Burma, but with a proud history. It was a country of great contrasts with the very highly educated and sophisticated elite, a growing middle class and a great mass of poor.

My first responsibility in Mexico was to determine what programs the Foundation should support in agriculture. In order to do this it was necessary to travel throughout the country, learn the language, meet with the most prominent Mexicans in leadership position in agriculture and to meet and talk to farmers. I spent my first year really educating myself on Mexican agriculture and gaining the confidence of the Mexican leaders. 

As a result of my observations and recommendations, the Ford Foundation entered into a long term program to support the development of a strong post graduate college of agriculture with excellent library, good research facilities and many fellowships for outstanding young Mexicans to study for their PhD degrees in the United States. The agricultural graduate program has become of the foremost in Latin America today.

We also assisted in developing the now world-famous International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) which the Mexican Government, the Ford Foundation and the Rockerfeller Foundation created in 1965. It was for his work at this Center that Dr. Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize.

After seven years in Mexico, we continued our Latin American adventure with a move to Bogota, Colombia, for two more years where the Ford Foundation helped establish the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), another research center which worked on the development of improved food crops for the tropical part of South America.


From there we moved to Lagos, Nigeria where I assumed responsibility for programs in support of agriculture, education, social sciences, family planning and management in 14 West African countries from Senegal to Zaire. This was a real change from the Latin culture. Living in Africa as a white person, one learns what it is like to be in a minority group. It was a good experience for me and my family. We had it reaffirmed that basically all people are good and an understanding of race, religion and culture is just part of what we need in order to appreciate and respect one another.

After three years in Lagos, I was invited to become the Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) with headquarters in Ibadan, Nigeria. IITA was built on 2,500 acres with cooperating research programs in countries in West and East Africa and in Brazil with cooperating varietal trials in about 50 different countries. About 150 scientists from 25 countries were on staff with a total of 1200 employees. Support for the Institute came from the US, Canada, Great Britain, West Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, Japan as well as some agencies from these and other countries.

In Nigeria, during the years we were there, we could never depend on the power or water supply from public sources, nor were supplies available or facilities to maintain equipment. Therefore, we had to be able to generate our own electricity, provide our water and sewer system, repair shops for all the scientific equipment, maintain a fleet of about 400 cars and trucks, and purchase our supplies and equipment abroad. It was like operating a small but highly technical city that was very well maintained at the best international standard.

We always had about 30 post-graduate students in residence each year doing research for work with our senior scientist toward their MSc. or PhDs at universities in the US, Europe or Africa. We had many short courses and international conferences each year that we organized and conducted with simultaneous translation in English and French.

We had many visitors and one I remember well was President Michael, former President of Mozambique who was killed some years ago in an airplane crash. He was one of the most charismatic persons I have known. Much to the dismay of his security guards, he got into my car and just the two of us drove around the research station and visited the laboratories. His language was Portuguese and he spoke no English but Portuguese and Spanish are close enough that I could speak to him in Spanish and he to me in Portuguese and we got along fine. We both enjoyed his visit and we arranged for continued contact and scientific cooperation. 


After five years at IITA, I was presented with another opportunity. A new International Institute, the 13th in the international network, was just being established in The Haag, Netherlands, with a mandate to assist developing countries, on their request, in agricultural research and management. I was invited to be the founding Director. It was too challenging an assignment to pass up.

Again, we moved to a new culture, but fortunately the Dutch are outstanding linguists and almost everyone speaks English. Our work has little to do with Holland as it was only a convenient headquarters location but the Dutch were always most helpful to us. It was in the developing countries where we had our responsibility. In the first year as head of the Institute I travelled the world and met with the Directors of Agricultural Research from 40 different countries to discuss our potential support to them and to better understand their problems. It all went well and over the next four years our staff had real success in helping about 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to evaluate their research programs and initiate improvements in their research organization and management.

When I was young and riding my pony to the one room country school, I dreamed about a lot of things but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine such and interesting career and life as I have had. As you can see I had many opportunities and though I was recognized at Iowa State for my achievement, it has been through the excellent work of others that I have had these achievements. My role, for the most part has been to provide leadership and to take the opportunities that have arisen.”