The World Food Prize Foundation

The Borlaug Blog

Seek What They Sought

By Paxton WIlliams
WFP Reserve Corp Member

On Oct. 15, 2002, Dr. Norman Borlaug delivered the Inaugural Borlaug Lecture at Iowa State University.  I was one of hundreds in the room that evening.  His words inspired us, educated us, chastised us, and caused us—or at least I can speak for myself, caused me—some discomfort.  There was still so much to do, he intoned.  This was a man who was lauded the world over for his accomplishments, and yet here he was talking about all of the other things he wished he had accomplished.  Importantly, he wasn’t wishing he had achieved more for his own benefit; he was wishing he had achieved more for the benefit of other people—most of whom he would never know and many of whom would never know of him.  

When I think of Borlaug that evening and his subsequent passing some 6+ years later, I’m moved to paraphrase the words of Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man: “He was old and he was a leader, and when he fell there appeared to be holes in the bottom of his feet, so that when stretched out, he was not as tall as when he stood.”  The only time Borlaug got emotional in his lecture that evening was when he talked about what Henry A. Wallace had meant to his life.  This was especially meaningful to me because though I don’t work in agriculture or science, from time to time I portray someone who did—George Washington Carver—and I know what Carver had meant to Henry A. Wallace.  Wallace called Carver “the kindliest, most patient teacher [he] ever knew,” and said it was Carver “who first introduced [him] to the mysteries of plant fertilization.”  That Borlaug’s gratitude to Wallace would be so clear some 60+ years from the time of their first meeting in Mexico told me much about Borlaug, and also much about the impact a person can have without even knowing it.  I left that evening inspired.  While I wasn’t sure how I might be engaged in the cause Borlaug spoke of, I knew I wanted to do something.  

Two years prior to Dr. Borlaug’s lecture, I wrote a one-person play on the life and works of Carver as part of my honors project at ISU.  I had occasionally portrayed Carver during those two years.  Since that time I have portrayed Carver over 400 times in 24 U.S. States and in England.  Over the years, in part because of things I’ve seen and learned as a volunteer for the Borlaug Dialogue and other World Food Prize activities, I’ve been inspired to adapt my Carver portrayal.  I decided to more earnestly highlight important themes that can be seen in the work of Carver, Borlaug, and many of the individuals and organizations recognized by the World Food Prize—themes such as how a person can use science and research to benefit mankind and how there is virtue in looking beyond superficial differences and recognizing common challenges and goals.  I realized in my portrayal I could encourage people to consider that just as Carver used the peanut in his effort to combat poverty, poor nutrition, and prejudice, other innovative tools and techniques can be used to fight these and other societal ills as well.  

I have also been inspired to share more stories that speak to the virtue of reaching out to others and the sometimes surprising outcomes that can come as a result of that.  For example, I enjoy sharing the story of Carver’s relationship with Mahatma Gandhi.  Word had gotten to India of Carver’s work, and through the efforts of a number of Gandhi’s associates, Carver would end up corresponding with Gandhi and sharing with him ideas regarding nutrition and many of the bulletins Carver created.  The World Food Prize, and Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn in particular, have been invaluable in also helping share this little known connection.  Amb. Quinn and I first spoke about the Carver-Gandhi connection in 2005, and since that time Amb. Quinn has commissioned the superb Carver-Gandhi mural that hangs in the Iowa Room at the Hall of Laureates and shared the story with many, including on a visit to Gandhi’s hometown.

In 2017, as associate producer for a documentary on Carver for Iowa Public Television, I interviewed Amb. Quinn, a personal hero and a man whose life and work would also make a spellbinding and impactful documentary.  In speaking about Carver, Amb. Quinn said that the facet of Carver’s life that might be the most underappreciated was his day-in, day-out work as a professor and teacher, where he influenced young men and women for nearly 50 years at the Tuskegee Institute.  Amb. Quinn’s comments showed his and the World Food Prize’s understanding of the important roles teachers and mentors play.  I personally think this is so fitting given Borlaug’s own words that October evening at ISU.

I believe the World Food Prize honors this understanding through its work with the State and Global Youth Institutes.  I have seen the impact of the Youth Institutes first-hand.  In 2018, I portrayed Carver at the Alabama Youth Institute at Tuskegee University.  Though I’ve portrayed Carver annually at Tuskegee for over a decade, this performance was special to me.  When Carver went to Tuskegee in 1896, he only planned to stay for a few years before leaving to study art.  Instead, he stayed for the remainder of life.  Carver could not have imagined that a young boy who he inspired in Iowa would someday inspire a young researcher in Mexico who would go on to be recognized as “the man who fed over a billion people.”  And Carver could not have imagined that the organization the young researcher would one day work to build with another philanthropic Iowan born the same year would someday take its programming to Tuskegee, where young students from across the nation would be given the tools and inspiration to help them continue the work that each of these men thought so important.  

In addition to performing at the Youth Institute, I served as an expert judge for the student problem-solving exercise, and suffice it to say, the students were top-notch.  I was especially impressed by their inquisitiveness and their deep understanding of nuanced issues.  Whatever they choose to do later in life, I have no doubt the experience and knowledge the students gained at the Youth Institute will hold them—and the rest of us—in good stead.

In thinking about what I’d like the takeaway from this blog to be, I’m reminded of the words of Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644–1694), who wrote—in at least one translation—“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”  Many of the individuals who are associated with the World Food Prize do both to some degree.  While I and many others do not seek to follow in the footsteps of these great people in terms of engaging in scientific and agricultural research and work, we can and do seek what they sought—to explore our interests and talents, to use them for good, and to make the world a better place.  Dr. Borlaug told us, “You can't build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”  Regardless of how we spend the majority of our waking hours, we can all do something to fight against empty stomachs and human misery and we can all do something to encourage and support those who do so directly.

I was empowered when I realized that even if I don’t have my own Jessup Wagon or can’t “take it to the farmer” myself, I can still engage and participate in this effort.  I can help tell the stories of agricultural giants and of lesser-known individuals, like Mariah Watkins, Thankful Robbins, and Etta Budd, who each paid attention, cared, and did something.

And fortunately for me, each year when the world comes to Des Moines for the Borlaug Dialogue, I get to volunteer as a member of the Reserve Corps.  In addition to learning so much during that week, I’ve often gotten the chance to open doors (literally, open doors—car doors at the Capitol, banquet hall doors at the Marriott, etc.) for the likes of Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Former Malawian President Joyce Banda, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Sir Gordon Conway, H.E. Gerda Verburg and Prof. Ruth Oniang’o, who have each, figuratively, opened so many doors for so many people across the globe.  It is mind-broadening and life-affirming to be in the room with these individuals, many of whom have shared their own stories of being inspired by teachers and mentors the world over.  On more than one occasion I’ve noted in their faces the same look of gratitude I saw on Norman Borlaug’s face as he tearfully remembered a man who saw potential in him and whose encouragement at the dawn of his career meant so much.

03/18/2019 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (1)
Wonderful blog Paxton. Great story about Dr.Borlaug and Dr Carver.

Jim Nelson | | 03/20/2019 10:43 PM
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