Transcript/Biography

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Question: "I want to take you back. I want to start in your childhood in Iowa. What do you remember growing up on the farm? What was it like?"
     "Well, I was born in 1914. For the first eight years of my life, I lived under the grandparental roof. My dad was the second eldest son who was running Granddad's farm. We lived with Granddad and Grandmother. This was about a 220-acre farm."
     Question: "That was a pretty big size [farm] for that time."
     "Sure. It was all horsepower and human muscle power."
     Question: "So, what were your chores? What did you have to do on the farm?"
     "Well, Granddad had semi-retired. He always worked during the busy season of haying and harvest. But, during the rest of the year, for example during my memory, he never was involved in milking and cows. He liked to handle the chickens, feeding them and collecting the eggs. And I guess I was his shadow since I was the eldest grandchild."
     Question: "So, you learned how to work with horses and all of that."
     "Of course. I used to know horses and cattle, milking cows, feeding chickens, separating – The cattle we had were used for milk production. They were not dairy cattle, but we sold cream. Separated the milk. The cream went to a farmers' co-op in a little town by the name of Saude which was a Norwegian settlement. It's disappeared now. There's nothing left except a Lutheran church. That's the only thing that marks the place where it was.
     Question: "So, your background was Norwegian? What's your ethnic or family background?"
     "Norwegian."
     Question: "So, your uncle was a Norwegian bachelor farmer, as Garrison Keillor says."
     "Yes. [He laughs.] I think they were refugees out of the potato famine in Europe, also…"
Great Depression. Question: "When the Depression hit, you would have just been – "
     "I would have been 15 years old. I remember all of those days vividly. Granddad – Or I shouldn't say Granddad. Dad, when they built the new buildings, didn't have enough money to build a barn. So they built a long stable. And for the first six years, it would have been, the hay was stacked outside, and you had to carry it in during the winter. [Laughs.] That was miserable… I think that Depression of the 30s, the scars, the misery that I saw, the banks going broke, the best farmers – The damn farmers were foreclosed on, some of the best farmers… I saw this. And then what I saw in Minneapolis which was worse! People, hundreds, yes I'm sure thousands, asking for a nickel to buy bread. That's what I think made me go into international agriculture."
Baseball. "Granddad had one of the early crystal radio sets."
     Question: "What was your favorite radio show? Or what was your memory of a radio show that you heard when you were growing up?"
     "WGN Chicago. I got hooked on baseball because, you see, as country kids, that's the only sport we had. In winter, it might be ice skating but most of the rivers and streams would get covered with snow. So there was only a few days when you had clean ice. There wasn't much to do except hunting in winter and some fishing. Playing baseball – we had country teams. They got to be pretty good."
     Question: "Did you play?"
     "Yes."
     Question: "What did you play?"
     "I was pretty certain that I was going to be – until I was well into college – second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. That was my objective."
Wrestling at U of Minnesota. "It looked like I was going to Iowa State Teachers. That was my life ambition, to be a high school science teacher and athletic coach. And just a matter of three weeks or so before [I was going] – And the way I got oriented in that direction was that the year after I graduated from high school, I didn't have enough money (this was '32) to go to college. So, I stayed home for a year. The farm wasn't big enough for both Dad and I. We weren't employed fully. So, I had a trap line in winter [trapping wild animals for furs]. Hunted. These sorts of things. Cresco [Iowa], the railroad town where I went to high school, was a hot bed of high school wrestling. It had had many high school famous wrestlers. One on the Olympic team in 1928, Bob Hess. So, this became my sport… One Friday afternoon in early September, George Champlin came out, the son of the county recorder. He said, 'I missed you. I graduated a year before you started.' I knew, of course, about him. He was a halfback at Minnesota, a little short, speedy [runner]. I think he probably weighed 145 pounds dripping wet. [Laughs.] But he could run. He was a scat back. So he insisted, 'Come on, ride along,' in his old Model-T to Minneapolis. He said, 'If you don't like it, you can hitchhike back and go to Iowa State Teachers.' So, I went up. Of course, he was an operator besides being a good athlete. He got me a job for my board and one so I could make part of it to pay my rent in two days. So, I stayed."
     Question: "Wow."
     "That changed everything."
     Question: "And he wanted you to come up because of the wrestling? Is that right?"
     "At that time there was no really decent wrestling in Minnesota. There was a wrestling team and a wonderful person who was a coach. He was a lawyer, and he did this. He had been a wrestler himself, but not in a modern sense. So, he was a part-time coach. During freshman years, of course, no one could compete in athletics at that time. So, there were tournaments like the Northwest AAU. I competed in that and won the 145 [pound class]. But in the universities, because the freshmen couldn't compete, they had what they called the all-university athletic…
     Question: "Tournament?"
     "… sports week. All non-varsity. The varsity in the individual sports from others could compete. Most of them didn't. But some did. So, I wrestled in the all university tournament as a freshman both at 145 and at the heavy weight. And I won both of them because I could move fast [laughs]…"
     "After the second term, my grades were excellent. I asked whether I could transfer. Hovde, who later became president of the University of Purdue, said, 'You can transfer to any college you want to.' And so, I chose forestry."
     Question: "Why? Why forestry?"
     "I guess because the outdoor life, hunting and fishing, and I liked the woods, the forest. Then, of course, this became very much a project that was important. Including the dust storms, the shelterbelts, soil conservation, all of these programs. The CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. There was a growing demand. That was part of the reason. But, underneath it all I think I just liked the outdoors."
     Question: "So, that's what you chose."
     "And as a result – There was a shortage of foresters during those times. So, I could drop out of school and make enough money so I could to back and live a little better. I always worked for my board. Originally – Just to show you how things were even in the cities at that time, the first job I got was as a waiter in the university coffee shop. And it went broke about three or four months after I started. Apparently, it couldn't pay its meal bills. They were foreclosed on. You had to scrounge around and find another place. I finally got established as a waiter in the A O Pi sorority house where 'Mother Nichols' took care of me like I was her son – probably in some ways better than she took care of the girls in the sorority. [Laughs.] Two of us that were classmates in forestry worked there with her for several years."
Jobs with the Forest Service & CCC. "Halfway through my junior year, I got the first job with the [U.S.] Forest Service in New England. This was under the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station which was headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. And I mapped, took the vegetative ground cover, classifying all the plants and the trees. But, there was forest only along the streams and rivers, with few exceptions. There were a few woodlots. But mostly this was 20 farms that were reverting. They couldn't pay taxes on them. They were not economic units. So, they were being made into the Hopkins Experimental Forest. I mapped that, took the inventories. Dr. Schriener began making his studies on fast-growing poplar [trees] for fiber production.
     "Curiously, about six years ago, I got a call from Professor Art from Williams College. He said, 'You know, the Hopkins Experimental Forest that you mapped and took the inventory on? My class in ecology has been using those notes for a couple of years. Your own handwriting, and Dickerman['s handwriting]' who later joined my group.
     "And they [the students] said, 'When did these old fossils die?'
     "And he said, 'No, they're both still alive.' [He laughs.]"
     Question: "One of your other jobs was with the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps]?"
     "The CCC. Well, on that survey, I had, part of those were CCC boys. I lived part of the time on the CCC base, you know. They messed, and the barracks were run by the Army, a second lieutenant or first lieutenant. And we people in Forestry were sometimes depending on the CCC camp, soil conservation – And then another time when I went back to get some money again, when I was working on my masters, back to Massachusetts in 1939 to the salvage operation after that big hurricane that flattened everything. I had WPA, Works Project, elderly people. And of course in between the last year – I had one quarter left in school – I worked for the Forest Service out in Idaho, the middle fork of the Salmon River, the biggest primitive area without roads in the 48 states at that time. That's where I learned to know myself."
     Question: "Know yourself? How do you mean that?"
     "We were all alone. It was up to you to survive, of course. The only time you saw people, of course, when there was a bad fire. [He laughs.]"
Graduation & a Switch from Forestry to Cereals. Question: "So how long did it take to you to get your degrees?"
     "It took me – even dropping out like that and missing several quarters – I got it in four-and-a-quarter years. We had quarters there, three-and-a-half-month terms. So, I took, when I was there, a heavy schedule. And I had a good academic record…
     "it was funny how I come back into cereal [the study of cereal grains]. That last quarter of school, just two weeks before final exams – and I had passed my civil service exam – and when I left the Idaho National Forest to come back for that last semester, the superintendent up at the National Forest in Idaho said, 'We got a job for you when you finish.'
     "So, two weeks before graduation, this was fall semester, about this time of the year, a little earlier, early December. I noticed on the bulletin board this Dr. E. C. Stakman – a famous cereal plant pathologist, especially on the rust that caused epidemics to destroy our wheat and oat crops especially – was giving this lecture on these shifty little enemies that destroy our cereal crops. So, I went to hear it. And he was a fascinating, old-type professor. He would weave in his stories of different things. I was fascinated. And as I left that lecture hall, I said, 'You know, if I ever have a chance to study under this man, I would like to do so.' The chance came faster than I had thought because I was due to go back the middle of January to this job. And I had just been married to the girl I had met. She was in the university, and she had just dropped out. She was working as a proofreader in a publishing company.
     "And then in the earlier days of January, I got a letter from the supervisor of the Idaho National Forest. And he said, 'Can you delay your arrival until the first of June because we got some budget problems.' And so I started graduate school. Never went back, except that one emergency thing on fire after the hurricane. Getting more money to help me through graduate school."
     Question: "And you studied with…"
     "And so, when I started graduate school, I worked under this same Dr. Stakman, first on – As a forest pathologist, I wanted to study diseases of our forest because I had seen the chestnut blight, [chestnut trees] being destroyed in New England. Also, it was the beginning of the period when the Dutch Elm disease was killing our elm trees. So, I wanted to study forest pathology, diseases of trees, which I did for my masters. Then Stakman said, 'Look, there's only a couple, three jobs that are decent paying for pathology. You'll starve to death if you don't get one of those. You better study cereal pathology, the diseases of cereals, and take genetics and plant breeding to go with it.' And that's what I did for my doctorate. So, I came back to agriculture by a roundabout way through forestry. But that forestry background has served me very well in understanding best use of our land and water resources."
Norman's Family. "Yes, I was married before we went to du Pont. The last quarter in school when I had this job assurance to go the Forest Service on the 15th of January and then they said, 'Wait until June.'"
     Question: "I'm not sure you mentioned your wife's name."
     "Margaret Gibson." [She died March 8, 2007, at the age of 95.]
     Question: "Did you wife come down to Mexico with you?"
     "Oh, yes. She came. We had – Our daughter was born in Wilmington, Jeannie, and she was about a year, a little more than a year, and Margaret was pregnant when I left. And so, we decided she'd stay until the baby was born. Unfortunately, that baby, Scottie, was born with spina bifida, and that was pretty bad. He lived in the hospital all of his life, for about a year in Wilmington. Finally, she came and Jeannie came. And our son Bill was born in Mexico. And both of them grew up [in Mexico]. Jeannie left to spend one year in a prep school before university. She graduated from Kansas University in education. She's a top-notch teacher. Bill was born there, and he made an omelet out of both languages. We were afraid he would never get into the university [laughs] on either side. So we sent him to Shaddock Academy at Fairview Minnesota for all four years to separate out the two languages. They and their families and my wife – who has lost her vision, can't travel anymore and she's had some other problems including a stroke – they all live in Dallas."
Doctorate & War Work at Dupont. "I got my doctorate [or] I finished my coursework in fall of 1941. A few months before Pearl Harbor [in December 1941] I joined Dupont Chemical Company who had decided to expand greatly their agricultural chemicals. So, I had hardly sat down when Pearl Harbor came. And this laboratory was converted to a service laboratory for the armed forces for all kinds of testing [of] materials that would deteriorate in environmental places like the tropics. Everything from camouflage paints to all sorts of things. Among other things I remember vividly one especially – Somebody came in from the Quartermaster [Corps] with these cardboard cartons that you put canned food in, and said, 'Look at it. It looks nice, doesn't it.' But he said, 'We've been trying to feed the Marines out on Guadalcanal, and the Japanese control both the air and the sea during the daylight. But at night, with our speedboats, we pitch these things out into the surf and hope they wash up. But the bonding agent on the bottom opens up in 20 minutes.' It was still water soluble sodium silicate. He said, 'Do something about it! Yesterday! Do it yesterday.'
     "All kinds problems like that. And this was the time of new plastics. And working with the chemists, we had pretty good bonding agents where they could float out there as long as the cardboard itself would hold, not the bonding agent. There were all kinds biological problems that came up. Hard to imagine. There were only two laboratories like this, so far as I know, at that time – one in Dupont and one at Dow [Chemical]. And I think each company got a dollar a year from the government. You know, you have to have some kind of a contract. [Laughs.] And the services, of course, these were classified as essential to the military.
     "And I stayed there until I was offered the job to go to Mexico in September of 1943."
The Role of Serendipity. Question: "If you hadn't met Stakman – ?"
     "Yeah. The lady – I call her the lady of serendipity. Warpole said it was a grinch, but I say it was a princess. And when she smiled you have to take advantage of that situation because the windows of opportunity close very rapidly."

Dr. Norman Borlaug – An Autobiography

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Other Excerpts from Norman Borlaug’s Interview:

The Population Bomb
The Mexican Program
India & Pakistan
Working in Africa
Organic Farming