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Noel Vietmeyer - Farewell Old Friend

NORMAN BORLAUG

By Noel Vietmeyer*

The day before this book** went to press Norman Borlaug died. Having spent more than a decade assessing him and his contributions, I sadly append these few last-minute thoughts.

Norman Borlaug’s life is amazing mostly for its myriad dimensions:

More than a man of peace, he was a man of the people. His frank, straightforward attitude of comradeship made everyone his friend. His style and personality matched his frame—lean, active, unassuming, unpretentious. People not only responded, they bonded.

Though otherwise a nice guy, he was a fierce, take-no-quarter, Hunger Fighter. His field was action science, not academic science. Among the wheat he was so intense people got hot just watching him work.

He embodied the dictum that a little action beats a lot of argument. In wheat breeding he was a ringmaster who, with professional dispassion, forfeited millions of plants with no second thought. Genes, he knew, are as predictable as forked lightning, and can produce success or distress.

He was a master at managing mayhem and had an innate ability to transcend anxiety. Though often treated like a heretic in heaven, he never took offense, never abandoned his convictions, seldom lost composure. When it looked as if the Rockies had crumbled, he went on exploring the mysteries of the wheat world with his normal intensity . . . waiting for just the right gene to surface like a fish in a pool.

He was a rare and special soul who not only accepted years of delay but focused on the present while closely watching the future. He often dubbed himself a quarterback and his great capacity was reading the defense and spotting a way to the goal line.

He had courage and was willing to go out on a limb to do what needed doing, no matter the size of the limb or whether anyone followed. In that regard, he was never afraid to fall and make a fool of himself.

He was not a man of inspiring words, just inspiring wheats. But those spoke volumes.
He was never one to look in life’s rear-view mirror; being too busy driving hard into the future for anything so wasteful of time.

The only burden to never afflict him was the burden of extreme wealth. He worked his whole life without personal gain and was happy, nay eager, to let everyone else reap the rewards.

While others dreamed and dithered, he proved his worth through deeds. He chose to fight hunger not to write about it. And he chose to fight it full-frontal, full-scale, and in the places that needed food most. Moreover, he was an all-round Hunger Fighter—a source of all the necessary ammunition.


In the age of the specialist, he demonstrated the vital need for generalists. No combination of specialists could accomplish what he did. His great gift was to share his exuberance and conviction. His spirits were usually as high as the Sonora Desert thermometer at harvest time.

With his associates—many of them disadvantaged youths—he developed an extraordinary esprit de corps. They trusted one another, and that provided a key to their success. He taught us what to do when the diktats of dogma block humanitarian needs. “Fight,” he’d often say; “Fight, fight, fight!”

He admired horizon-filling miles of his own wheats but never gloated. He took yields to galactic heights but saw it only as his job and always felt unfulfilled.

His ultimate legacy resulted less from science than from his power to reach farmers and excite them into action. He fed the hungry but also created the right environment for a robust rural private sector. Every Borlaug seed enriched its grower and was its own excitement machine. Millions thereby got a hand up; none a handout.

He showed that a conscientious scientist with no agenda can solve problems that befuddle activists with their special agendas. While others were trapped in partisan views based on the past, he was discovering new pathways and following them straight to the future. He was Peace and Plenty’s pathfinder.

When he had to shift the shape of the world’s top crop, he embraced the unprecedented challenge. And for decades he and wheat were wrapped in their own private world, swirling in a sort of creative frenzy.

Finally, no one better epitomizes the notion that the 20th century was above all the century of the common man.

Farewell old friend. You came from nowhere. You reached for your stars and caught plenty of stardust. The waving fields of foodstuffs are your legacy. Among the members of the Greatest Generation, you were the greatest!


*Author of the biography “BORLAUG-The maild mannered Maeverick who fed a billion people” -** 2nd.Volume being printed - 9.15.2009
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