Norman Borlaug: Innovator Was Once a Wrestler
I spent last Friday in Borlaug's hometown of Cresco, Iowa, gathering information on famous wrestlers from that small northern Iowa community. Some may have achieved more on the mat as wrestlers or as coaches... but one saved millions of lives through his innovations. His name is Norman Borlaug...
Norman Borlaug: The unassuming innovator
08:15 AM CDT on Sunday, July 22, 2007
By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News
He's the answer to Dallas' best trivia question: What local resident has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, most recently, the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award?
LAWRENCE JENKINS/Special Contributor
Norman Borlaug, 93, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to the agricultural community. He's Norman Borlaug. But don't be upset if you don't know of him. Most people don't, although fame might be finally catching up to him. He is credited with saving more than a billion lives from starvation through his development of a high-yield, disease-resistant variety of wheat, in what has been called the Green Revolution.
Recently, Dr. Borlaug, 93, sat in a blue recliner in the living room of his unpretentious, single-story home in a North Dallas neighborhood, as congratulations poured in from all over the world. The prime minister of India signed one formal card that arrived that morning. A phone call came from a producer at the The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Stephen Colbert, it turns out, is a big fan and is interested in booking Dr. Borlaug on his mock-news TV show.
Dr. Borlaug looked a little puzzled by all the hoopla. He grew up a Midwestern farm boy of Norwegian stock, and his character was formed by the gnawing hunger he witnessed during the Great Depression. He has never been at ease in the limelight. He once said that receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was a disaster, because he started getting so much attention he couldn't get any work done.
Asked to give a short talk during the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington last Tuesday, he said later that he didn't know where to begin. "Your memory brings back all the things up to the culmination of the Green Revolution, when everybody said India was a hopeless case, and we didn't know at that time China was worse than India," he said. "When you reflect on all this, what can you say in three or four minutes?"
Indeed. How does one sum up the life of a man from a tiny Iowa town, who went on to become a pioneering scientist and an internationally renowned agricultural diplomat? An avid wrestler from the University of Minnesota, elected to his alma mater's athletic Hall of Fame, who could out-grapple the toughest bureaucrat?
Passing on his wisdom
His life is a lesson in making the best of opportunities. And so for the last 20 years, as a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, he has continued to plant new seeds ? these in the form of guidance to countless students looking to make their way in this world.
His advice, fertilized with tales of his own experience, includes a warning to students who believe success comes to those who decide on a specialty early in life. "By doing so, you narrow your choices," he said.
Get a broad education, he said, especially in the first two years of college. "Because as you go down through the highway of your life, many doors won't open to you if you're highly specialized in only one thing," he said. "So your opportunities are more limited."
If anyone's opportunities seemed limited early on, it was Dr. Borlaug's.
He was born on March 25, 1914, on his grandparents' farm near Cresco, Iowa, near Minnesota. He grew up working on his family's farm, planting crops and raising livestock. He attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse. In high school, he played football and baseball. But over the years, he's given his wrestling coach the most credit for teaching him to persevere and give "105 percent."
Dogged persistence ? that's another life lesson he dispenses to young people.
Dr. Borlaug failed his entrance examination to the University of Minnesota. So he enrolled in the college's two-year program and then transferred into the university's agriculture department. By then, in the mid-'30s, the Depression was in full force.
"You'd see young people asking for a nickel to buy bread and older people sleeping in the park," he said. "We were a pretty sick nation at that time. It made me tough. I was angry that this kind of condition could exist and persist in our own society."
To pay for school and living expenses, Dr. Borlaug took time off from school to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government work program where he met many malnourished men. Initially interested in forestry management, he settled on plant pathology and received his doctorate in 1942. He joined a new program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to assist poor farmers in Mexico. Over the next 20 years, he and a team of young scientists he'd recruited from all over the world developed the disease-resistant wheat distinguished by their higher yields and greater adaptability.
And that work led to another opportunity.
In the mid-'60s, doomsayers predicted that, because of war and overpopulation, millions of people in India and Pakistan would die of starvation ? and nothing could be done to prevent it. Dr. Borlaug thought otherwise. He wanted to see if his new wheat seeds could help prevent the looming catastrophe in South Asia. Bureaucrats initially thwarted him. But as the famine grew worse, he was finally permitted to move forward.
Within a year, wheat yields more than doubled. Over the next eight years, the two countries became self-sufficient in wheat production. For his work, Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. In his acceptance speech, Dr. Borlaug quoted the creator of the prize, Alfred Nobel: "I would rather take care of the stomachs of the living than the glory of the departed in the form of monuments."
Cutting the red tape
The danger of bureaucracy is another life lesson. Whether in government, private industry or universities, bureaucracies inhibit new ideas and approaches, he said. That's why, when he started on the wheat project in Mexico, he recruited young scientists, who had not been damaged by bureaucratic thinking.
As Dr. Borlaug talked, the Congressional Gold Medal sat on an end table next to him. Set in a green felt case, the gold medal is engraved with a sketch of him standing in a wheat field in Mexico, hat on head, busy writing notes. The drawing is based on a photo that sits in his home office, which is also jammed floor-to-ceiling with books and mementos ? including photos of him with presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush.
His granddaughter, Julie Borlaug, who works for Texas A&M, acts as a personal assistant, helping him sort through his vast collection of papers. Dr. Borlaug and his wife, Margaret, moved to Dallas in the mid-'80s to be close to their children. In 1984, Dr. Borlaug was recruited to Texas A&M, where he still teaches part-time.
In the past year, he has cut back on his travel. Margaret, his wife of 69 years, whom he met in college, died in March after a fall from which she never recovered. She was 95. He's also been battling lymphoma over the past year, he said.
He attributes his long life to keeping fit and not smoking. He learned self-discipline through wrestling. When the subject turned to his favorite sport, Dr. Borlaug beamed. Long before he was busy saving the world, he helped give life to the wrestling program at the University of Minnesota. His coach asked him to barnstorm the state high schools to help promote the sport to parents and kids. At the time, few high schools had wrestling programs. His coach hoped to eventually reap the benefits.
Well, it took a little longer than they hoped. But since 2001, the Golden Gophers have won the NCAA championship three times and finished second twice.
"You have to plant the seeds," he said, with a hearty laugh. "Then you have to cultivate them."