By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, March 25, 2014 – All Iowans must have felt the same pride I did Tuesday morning when the new statue of our Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug was unveiled and dedicated in “National Statuary Hall” of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The grand ceremony, which was attended by top federal and state officials, was planned to happen on the 100th birthday of Borlaug, the native of little Cresco in northeast Iowa who died in 2009.
The program, broadcasted live on the Internet, featured one leader after another telling inspiring stories about all Borlaug accomplished. Iowa’s opera great Simon Estes sang two stirring a cappella numbers, “God Bless America” and “Climb Every Mountain.” Closing remarks by Gov. Terry Branstad were particularly good, talking about how the Borlaug statue, like the man himself, will be an Iowa gift to the nation and world.
Then it ended on a fun note, with Estes singing the “Iowa Corn Song” right there in that historic place, with the crowd of dignitaries joining him for an encore of it. When Estes, in his booming bass baritone voice, got to the last line, “That’s where the tall corn grows,” he rolled the “r” in “grow” in a thrilling, over-the-top, final flourish. I figure that must be the all-time high point for our kitschy, unofficial state song.
Most people know that Borlaug’s scientific work in seed genetics enabled vast increases in the production of wheat, rice and other grains in some of the poorest regions of the world. He is credited with saving the lives of millions of people who might have starved otherwise. And the World Food Prize that he founded now has an impressive organization headquartered in Des Moines, with a mission of incenting and recognizing others who continue Borlaug’s fight against hunger.
Norman Borlaug in a wheat field (photo by The Guardian newspaper).
He was probably the most important person that many of us ever met. And yet, he was so humble and genuine that it was easy to visit with him about almost anything.
Like the time in 2004 when I called him up at his laboratory in Mexico – to ask him about his high school sports career back in Cresco in the late 1920s and early 1930s!
Sometimes I think about that, and can hardly believe I was asking a Nobel Peace Winner such questions. But indeed I did.
I was finishing writing a book, “Bernie Saggau & the Iowa Boys: The Centennial History of the Iowa High School Athletic Association,” which was published in 2005. I dedicated one chapter to 15 very special alumni of the programs of the IHSAA – two governors, two congressmen, a best-selling author, two famous musicians, a soldier and a few others – whom I really wanted to include in the book. None were generally recognized later in life for being a former athlete, but rather for the significant achievements they had beyond sports. Borlaug was certainly one of those.
Interestingly, to a man, the 15 told me they believed that their Iowa high school sports experiences had been very important to their success. It was inspiring, sometimes even amazing, to hear many of them talk about what they learned from participating as boys in sports and other school activities.
And now let’s pick-up the story about Borlaug, as I reported it in the book, which is still available from the IHSAA.
Yes, I felt a little foolish telephoning him in that summer of 2004, when he was 90, to talk about his long-ago high school sports participation. But with his enthusiastic response and vivid memories, I was quickly at ease – and completely impressed.
At Cresco High, where he graduated in 1932, Borlaug was mostly known for his wrestling.
He became a wrestler in his sophomore year, he told me. That’s when a group of boys from his rural neighborhood, “Saude,” 14 miles south of Cresco, reached an age at which they could take turns driving the group in for school and home after practice.
He practiced but didn’t get to compete that sophomore year because of “a tremendous case of boils that kept me inactive most of the year. That was a common cure in that era of old cotton mat covers that were seldom ever laundered. There was a lot of impetigo and a lot of boils among wrestlers.”
The high point of his high school career was when he finished fourth in the state at 145 pounds in 1932.
“I got to the semifinals at the state wrestling tournament that senior year, but then I got licked,” he recalled. “And I had to wrestle right away again, maybe an hour later, and I got licked again.”
His coach his last two years of high school was Dave Bartelma, an Iowa State graduate “who came to Cresco when I began my junior year, and who I learned all my wrestling from.”
Borlaug also played football his junior and senior years. He was a guard on the team in his senior year, and “it was one of the poorest teams in years in Cresco. We had several of our best players go down with injuries, and we took a beating that whole year. There were only four of us who were seniors on that team, and the next year, they won all their games, so maybe we helped set the stage.”
He noted that his teammate Robert Smylie, a tackle, went on to earn a law degree after college, moved to Idaho, went into politics and served three consecutive terms as governor of that state from 1954 through 1967. Smylie died in the summer of 2004.
Baseball may have been his best sport, Borlaug said, “but Cresco had no team when I was in school. So I played second base on the Saude village team,” which played teams from other farm neighborhoods.
He and a Cresco classmate Irv Upton went on to the University of Minnesota, and both were leading wrestlers there. After their sophomore year, the Golden Gophers’ coach left.
“The two of us from Cresco were instrumental in getting Dave Bartelma, our old high school coach, hired to become the new Minnesota wrestling coach,” Borlaug said. “When Bartelma came up there, the first thing he did was start high school wrestling programs in Minnesota, and the sport really took off up there after that.”
After getting his advanced degrees, Borlaug moved to Mexico in 1944 to establish an agricultural research and experimental station about 25 miles outside Mexico City, and later it became the headquarters for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. He spent the next 60 years living at least half the year there. At 90 years old, he was still active there in 2004, as well as continuing to teach fall semesters at Texas A&M University as a visiting professor of international agriculture.
He’s always stayed in touch with American sports, too.
In 1955, he and a scientific associate John Niederhauser “organized and introduced the first Little League baseball in Mexico, so that our sons could participate, and I coached Little League teams there for six years,” Borlaug said. The two later organized older age division teams there, too.
He was also a frequent visitor to wrestling tournaments at both the high school and major college levels in the U.S.
How does he look back now on his high school involvement in athletics?
“Well, first of all, I enjoyed it, but it was the confidence it gave me that was most important,” Borlaug said. “Many times all down through life, I have used that. In tough debates, with bankers and agricultural and policy experts from many nations, I drew on an inner strength. And I think a lot of that came from what I learned in athletics.
“Many times, I’ve found myself in situations around the world in which I was really all alone, trying to implement new research or new procedures, and it was very difficult. Often it reminded me of being alone in a wrestling match, that I had to remember what I had been taught, and then put it into action. Of course, it was different because the lives of millions of people might be on the line. But it was still a matter of having confidence that I could do something about the situation.”
Of course, all of the above is only a small part of the greater Norman Borlaug story. But it’s a nice part, too.
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