Menu

InterMat Rewind: Norman Borlaug

Norman Ernest Borlaug may be the most accomplished former wrestler of the 20th century.

Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 (Photo/NobelPrize.org)
Borlaug never won an Olympic gold medal, or a national collegiate or conference title, or even a high school state title. His coaching career was brief, serving as a freshman wrestling coach while in college. However, the former high school and college wrestler's accomplishments as an agricultural scientist are nothing short of astonishing … and life-saving.

Borlaug helped develop disease-resistant wheat used to fight famine in poor countries. His "Green Revolution" breakthroughs in developing high yields of wheat saved millions -- if not billions -- of lives from starvation throughout the world. For these accomplishments, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, among his dozens of worldwide honors. He was also named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential minds of the 20th century.

Norman Borlaug died September 12, 2009 in Dallas from complications caused by lymphoma. He was 95.

My "introduction" to Norman Borlaug

In the summer of 2007, I spent a week in Iowa for a wrestling research trip. I planned to visit the archives of the three major state schools -- University of Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa -- for general research, as well as for specific research at the library at Cornell College for a Rewind article to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Mount Vernon, Iowa college becoming the smallest school to ever win an NCAA team title (in 1947).

While in Iowa, I thought it would also make sense to visit the two wrestling museums in the state -- the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in Waterloo, and, about an hour north, the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in Cresco.

I spent an entire day in Cresco, a small farming community in northeast Iowa, about halfway between Waterloo and Rochester, Minnesota (home of world-famous Mayo Clinic). After touring the wrestling hall (which honors amateur wrestlers born in Iowa), I went to the town library to learn more about all the great wrestlers and coaches who had come out of this town of 4,000 just south of the Minnesota border.

In the 70-plus years of the Iowa state wrestling tournament, Cresco High School can claim more individual state champs than any other school in the state, except for the much-larger Waterloo West, Dan Gable's prep alma mater. Among Cresco's most famous mat alums: the man who coached Gable at Iowa State (Harold Nichols)… and the man who hired Gable as an assistant at Iowa (Gary Kurdelmeier). Norman Borlaug is yet another.

Norman Borlaug was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal
The day before I was at the Cresco library, Norman Borlaug had been presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. It was front-page news in all the Iowa newspapers that day, with a photo of a then-93-year-old Borlaug receiving the medal from then-President George W. Bush. I couldn't help but feel a sense of instant time-travel to see news photos of the elderly-yet-still-vigorous Borlaug at the White House, then contrast those to the pictures of him as a young agricultural researcher in the 1940s … and, then, going back to the Cresco High School yearbooks of the early 1930s. But those photos, articles and annuals all helped me gain an understanding of Norman Borlaug the scientist, small-town farm boy, and amateur wrestler.

An Iowa-born farm boy

Norman Borlaug was born on his grandparents' farm in Howard County, Iowa on March 25, 1914 -- two years after the sinking of the Titanic, and before the U.S. became involved in World War I. He was the first child of Henry and Clara Borlaug, whose ancestors had come from Norway to the U.S. in the 1860s, first settling in Wisconsin, then to northeast Iowa.

Norman was the only Borlaug boy; all his siblings were sisters. They grew up on a 100-acre farm just outside Cresco. His first eight years of education were at a rural one-room schoolhouse… then, for high school, he came into town.

"Originally, my ambition was to be a high school science teacher and athletics coach," Borlaug said in a 2004 interview for Minnesota, the University of Minnesota alumni magazine. "I was captain of the high school football team, was on the wrestling team, and played baseball."

According to the 1932 Spartan -- the yearbook at Cresco High -- Norman E. Borlaug was a General Course student, instead of being on a College Prep or Normal School (teacher college) track. In his yearbook bio, baseball is not listed among his sports; it mentions track (junior year), and, in his sophomore through senior years, football and wrestling. Other activities listed: Ag (Agriculture) Club all four years, and Boys' Club his last two years.

A Spartan mat career

By the 1930s, Cresco High was already a wrestling powerhouse in the state of Iowa. That mat legacy was born in 1921, when the high school started its wrestling program. It became a force to be reckoned with in 1925, when Dave Bartelma became head coach. In his first three seasons at the helm, Bartelma's teams were undefeated in dual-meet competition … and Cresco's first state champ was crowned.

Dave Bartelma left Cresco for four years, then returned in 1931. Under his leadership in the early and mid 1930s, the Spartans had seventeen individual state champs, and won two team titles.

Among Norman Borlaug's teammates on the Cresco wrestling team who went on to some fame after high school: Harold and Don Nichols (each winning NCAA titles in the late 1930s at the University of Michigan), and Dale Hanson, who won the 128-pound crown -- and Outstanding Wrestler honors -- at the 1939 NCAAs for the University of Minnesota.

In 1932 -- Norman Borlaug's senior year -- the wrestling program won all eight of its dual meets, beating teams from Waterloo, Dubuque, New Hampton, Carroll, and Eagle Grove, Iowa. However, according to the yearbook, the team was "handicapped during the latter part of the season by a flu epidemic, which kept several of the boys from competing at the District and State meets." Despite that illness, the Spartans won the state district meet, and qualified six wrestlers for the state tournament, including Borlaug.
At the 1932 Iowa high school state championships -- held at Iowa State in Ames -- three Cresco wrestlers placed: Don Maland won the 85-pound title … Davis was third at 115, and Borlaug third at 145. Borlaug was one of sixteen wrestlers to earn a varsity letter.

The road to college

In that 2004 interview for the Minnesota alumni magazine, Norman Borlaug recalled his struggles to get into college after graduating from Cresco High in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression:
After high school, I didn't have enough money for college, so I stayed in Iowa, but there were no jobs except during the peak harvest seasons.

Norman Borlaug on Minnesota cover
In February 1933, I entered a Midwest AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) tournament in Cresco. Most of the other entrants were university wrestlers. I hadn't wrestled for a year but got into the finals and wrestled a person from Iowa State Teachers College [now University of Northern Iowa]. He beat me in overtime. As I was leaving, the coach said, "You should come to Iowa State Teachers College." There were no athletics scholarships at that time, but the coach said he would get me a job.

Shortly before I was to leave for Iowa, George Champlin, a football player for the University of Minnesota who lived in Cresco, drove up. He said, "My dad said you should be at the University of Minnesota. I'm going to early football practice tomorrow. Come and ride along. You can hitchhike back if you don't like it there." I went and never came back.


The Spartan becomes a Gopher

Norman Borlaug's entry into the University of Minnesota wasn't quite as straightforward as the previous statement suggests … as the future Nobel Peace Prize winner is quoted in the 2004 cover story for the school's alumni magazine:

I had a good high school academic record, but when I came to Minnesota they said, "You're short a year of credits." At that time Minnesota didn't count ninth grade as high school, so they said I had to take a special exam. I took it and flunked it and figured, hell, I'm a complete washout. But George took me to see Fred Hovde, dean of the General College, which was just starting. George told him what had happened and Hovde said I should start in General College. I spent fall and winter quarters there and had very good grades, so Hovde said I could transfer to any of the University's colleges. I went to the forestry college.

Borlaug found time to participate in sports at Minnesota, playing baseball and wrestling for the Golden Gophers. However, because of a conflict with afternoon lab classes, he had to quit the baseball team. By contrast, the wrestling team was more flexible about its workout schedules, Borlaug stayed with that sport, competing for three seasons. In 2004, he told the Minnesotan alumni magazine, "At the end of my sophomore year, I had a good record. I think I won nine of 11 bouts."

At least once in his college career, Borlaug wrestled one of his old Cresco High teammates, Harold Nichols. "Nick" had chosen another Big Ten school, the University of Michigan, and was joined by a number of other former Spartan wrestlers. (For a couple seasons in the late 1930s, over half of the Wolverine starting lineup was from Cresco.) Both Borlaug and Nichols wrestled at 145 pounds in the same conference, so it was inevitable that the two former teammates would end up mat rivals in college. According to the 1937 Michiganesian -- the student yearbook at Michigan -- Nichols pinned Borlaug in the dual meet.

Lasting legacies from Minnesota

While at the University of Minnesota, Norman Borlaug did not win a Big Ten or NCAA title; from checking the records at Jay Hammond's WrestlingStats.com website, Borlaug did not place at any of the conference or national championships, either. However, he accomplished some things while at the Twin Cities school that have had an enduring, positive impact.

For starters, while at Minnesota, Norman Borlaug met Margaret Gibson at a coffee shop where they both worked in the Dinkytown neighborhood near campus. The two were married in September 1937 … and the marriage lasted nearly 70 years. (She passed away from complications from a fall in March 2007, at age 95.) Margaret and Norman had two children, Norma Jean "Jeanie" Laube and William Borlaug, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Norman Borlaug
He also is credited with helping to bring Dave Bartelma -- his coach at Cresco -- to the University of Minnesota to become the Golden Gophers' first full-time wrestling coach. That had implications far beyond the campus or the Big Ten. As Borlaug told the Minnesota alumni magazine in 2004, "He would put me and another wrestler on a bus and send us to parent/teacher meetings at Minnesota schools to demonstrate wrestling. Eventually the sport caught on in high schools." In fact, "Bart" is often referred to as "The father of wrestling in Minnesota" for his efforts to launch high school wrestling programs throughout the state, and for being instrumental in establishing the Minnesota State High School Wrestling Tournament in 1938. One of the referees at that first state championship was none other than Norman Borlaug. (Borlaug also served as a freshman wrestling coach while in grad school at Minnesota.)

Of course, Borlaug's most profound accomplishment at the University of Minnesota involves his education in forestry and agriculture. It was a challenge, as he told his alma mater's magazine five years ago: "I didn't have money, so occasionally I dropped out of school to work. There were all sorts of emergency programs under President Franklin Roosevelt. I worked for the U.S. Forestry Service off and on from 1935 to 1938. The University gave me a good, broad foundation."

Borlaug earned his bachelor's degree in forestry from Minnesota in 1937. As an undergrad, he had listened to a presentation by University plant pathologist E.C. Stakman. As he told the Minnesota, "I went and was very impressed and said, If I ever have a chance to go to graduate school, I would like to study under him.' When I heard him speak, it changed my life, my whole career."

A life of science

Norman Borlaug had been scheduled to join the U.S. Forestry Service on January 1, 1938 … but received a letter, seeking a delay until June. In the meantime, he studied under Professor Stakman, earning a master's degree in plant pathology in 1939 and my doctorate in 1942.

Norman Borlaug (Photo/Borlaug Foundation)
After completing his studies at Minnesota, Borlaug was hired by duPont as a microbiologist, leading research on industrial and agricultural bacteriocides, fungicides and preservatives. He tried to enlist in the military to serve in World War II, but was told his work at duPont was too important for the war effort. One of his achievements at duPont: developing a glue for packages that would withstand saltwater, so that cartons of food and other critical supplies could safely get to U.S. troops in the Pacific.

In July 1944, Borlaug was selected to head up the newly the newly established Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico, which was a joint venture by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture. The goal: to boost wheat production in Mexico, which at the time was importing a large portion of its grain. He spent the first decade working on cultivating wheat that was resistant to disease. By 1963, his breakthroughs had ensured that the Mexican wheat harvest was six times what it had been twenty years earlier.

By the 1960s, Borlaug's success in Mexico was being exported to other nations of the world -- including India and Pakistan -- in what became known as the "Green Revolution" to provide food to feed millions.

In 1964, Borlaug was made the director of the International Wheat Improvement Program, as part of the newly established International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maz y Trigo, or CIMMYT), an autonomous international research training institute developed from the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program. He worked with this organization for most of the rest of his life, officially retiring from CIMMYT in 1979… but continuing to serve as a senior consultant for years after. In 1984, Borlaug started teaching at Texas A&M University, where he was the Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, and the holder of the Eugene Butler Endowed Chair in Agricultural Biotechnology. Reports indicate he was going to work just about every day at the university until early summer 2009.

The Nobel Peace Prize

For a lifetime of agricultural research that fed millions of the world's hungry, Norman Ernest Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The story goes, that the Nobel Committee, based in Norway, called the Borlaug residence to share the good news at 4 a.m. Mexico City time… but the man who grew up on a farm in Iowa had already left for work, traveling to the test fields west of the city. Margaret Borlaug had a driver take her to the fields so she could tell her husband about the Nobel. Apparently Norman Borlaug's first reaction was that it was a hoax. He finally came to accept the good news, and, in December 1970, traveled to Oslo, Norway to accept the prize. In his Nobel Lecture, Borlaug said, "When the Nobel Peace Prize Committee designated me the recipient of the 1970 award for my contribution to the 'green revolution', they were in effect, I believe, selecting an individual to symbolize the vital role of agriculture and food production in a world that is hungry, both for bread and for peace."

In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug was honored with dozens of honors and awards. In the mid 1980s, the University of Minnesota named a wing in the new science building Borlaug Hall. In July 2007, he was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor. Less than two weeks prior to his death, the Borlaug Learning Center at the Northeast Iowa Research and Demonstration Farm was dedicated in Nashua, Iowa, about 40 miles from Cresco.

Wrestling's influence on Borlaug

Look up Norman Borlaug's biography at the Nobel Committee's website, and the opening paragraph hints at his wrestling background: "A vigorous man who can perform prodigies of manual labor in the fields, he brings to his work the body and competitive spirit of the trained athlete, which indeed he was in his high school and college days."

The IowaHawk blog mentioned wrestling in its assessment of what made Borlaug special: "In many respects Norman Borlaug was the quintessential Iowan -- the tough, humble Norwegian Lutheran kid who grew up splitting time between farm chores and small town playing fields. At Cresco High he played baseball, football and wrestled. His skills as a grappler earned him a spot on the University of Minnesota varsity team and eventual induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. We Iowa fans would have preferred he stayed home and wrestled for the Hawkeyes rather than the archrival Gophers, but we'll forgive him that minor transgression."

Norman Borlaug (Photo/Nobel Peace Center)
No less a wrestling expert than former University of Iowa head coach Dan Gable weighed in on the mat aspect of Borlaug's makeup. In a speech to the Davenport (Iowa) Grid Club just days after Borlaug's passing, the legendary wrestler and coach said of his fellow Iowan (who he knew through their common bond of wrestling): "He was a tremendously competitive individual, and he channeled that competitiveness into his research," Gable said. "His work saved lives, but the intensity of that work was born in the approach he used as he competed."

Norman Borlaug seemed to agree. "Wrestling taught me some valuable lessons," he told the University of Minnesota in 2005. "I always figured I could hold my own against the best in the world. It made me tough. Many times, I drew on that strength. It's an inappropriate crutch perhaps, but that's the way I'm made."

In addition to his honors regarding his lifesaving agricultural work, Norman Borlaug had been acknowledged by the wrestling community as well. He received the Outstanding American award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992, and was welcomed into the University of Minnesota's National M Club Lifetime Achievement Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2002, Borlaug was inducted into the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum Hall of Fame … and, two years later, earned a place in the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in his hometown in 2004.

Comments

Login or Register to post a comment