Only five people in history have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, National Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal: Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela , Elie Wiesel and Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug, who died of lymphoma in his Dallas home Saturday night at the age of 95, was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential minds of the twentieth century for his solutions to help solve world hunger, and has been credited for saving a billion lives in countries around the world through his innovations.
From the farm to the ‘U’
Borlaug came to the University of Minnesota in 1937 from a farm in northern Iowa. Initially intent on attending a small teaching college, a friend convinced him to give the University a shot, Borlaug’s daughter Jeanie Laube, 65, said.
“He bombed the entrance exam,” Laube said. “However, he retook the test, and got in.
“He always would go back to the [University] and say to the admissions people: ‘You cannot judge people by one test they take’,” she said.
Borlaug was a wrestler for the University — an experience he would often say taught him to work hard and live life with resilience.
“While I’ve been coach, [Borlaug] has spoken to the team about four times,” Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson said. “He talked about being persistent and never giving up as a wrestler, an athlete and a person.”
Borlaug graduated from Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in forestry, and went on to receive a doctorate degree in plant pathology after hearing a lecture by then-professor E.C. Stakman on plant rust, a disease that can destroy species of plants.
“He loved Minnesota,” Laube said. “My parents met there. He did all his work there. He was scheduled to be the Grand Marshal in this year’s Homecoming parade.”
From Mexico to the world
In 1941, the Rockefeller Foundation established a "survey commission" to go to the rust-ravaged fields of Mexico to conduct an in-depth survey of agricultural practices, headed by Borlaug’s mentor, Stakman. Borlaug joined the project in 1944.
Moving to and growing up in Mexico City, his wife and two children would see him three months out of the year, Laube said. Even so, there was no resentment.
“We had a wonderful mother that was able to keep the family together,” Laube said. “We didn’t know he was changing the world. We thought he was just working.”
By 1956 his innovations had helped Mexico double its wheat production. By 1963 it had quadrupled.
“Normal wheat would just get taller and fall over,” University Regents professor and personal friend Ronald Phillips said. “But he bred genes that give it a stiffer stalk and could make use of better nutrient qualities of the soil.”
Additional innovations would drastically improve wheat genetics, which he took to Pakistan and India — the “green revolution.” His political diplomacy in the region would help solve a starvation crisis, gain him respect and eventually win him the 1970 Nobel Prize.
“The increase in crop production is just unparalleled,” said Ed Runge, professor of soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University . Runge, who was good friends with Borlaug, played an instrumental role in bringing Borlaug to Texas A&M in 1984. “The crop production in India is three to four times what it was.”
During a visit with Borlaug to India, Laube witnessed the extent of her father’s popularity.
“My husband and I went to India with him 13 years ago … I realized that this man is like God over there,” Laube said. “They would actually roll out a red carpet for him when he would get off a plane. I’ve seen that in Mexico, too.”
A humble passing
Although his accomplishments were great, most of his colleagues remember Borlaug for his humble personality.
“He was such a modest man, you know,” Runge said. “He had no air about himself and he demanded no protocol. He was a citizen of the world, really.”
Ed Price, director of the Borlaug Institute at Oklahoma State , echoed Runge’s sentiment.
“[He was] very firm in his convictions,” Price said. “[He was] very studious and hardworking, indefatigable and humble at the same time.”
“He never mentioned any of his awards,” Phillips said. “He has over 100 honorary doctorates. He has buildings named after him around the world. You would never know.”
Borlaug held a vision of ending world hunger, and passed this philosophy on to his children, Laube said. Laube, who works as a community service director and Spanish teacher for two schools in Dallas, said philanthropy is in her blood.
“He was very kind. It didn’t matter who it was,” Laube said. “Whether it was a king, queen … president of a country, or a local garbage man,” she said, “people are people, he told us.”
Borlaug is survived by his two children, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren — all of whom were with him when he passed away. His youngest great grandchild sat on his lap as he died.
Even on his deathbed, Laube said, Borlaug remained humble and committed to helping farmers increase their yields: Borlaug had been mentoring a Ph.D. student from Oklahoma State University on a portable device to help measure nitrogen levels in crops.
“Farmer. Get it to the Farmer,” were his last words, Laube said.
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