You are here

They Flunked Retirement

They Flunked Retirement header image
Lots of OSU faculty are so passionate about their work they continue it after they retire.

When late October chills the plains of eastern Oregon, Chuck Rohde and his wife, Edith, travel to Arizona to spend the winter in a retirement community. Rohde, 79, rides his bicycle 12 miles a day. He plays golf several afternoons a week.

"If I don’t exercise, I put on weight," he said. "I have no willpower, and I have a wife who’s an awful good cook."

When April winds again blow warm off the eastern slopes of the Cascades Range, Rohde retires from his retirement. He returns to work at the job he did for 35 years, improving wheat breeds as a crop scientist at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center.

Rohde has officially been retired from that job since 1987. However, he is among the researchers and other former employees of Oregon State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station and related organizations, such as the OSU Extension Service, for whom fulltime retirement just wasn’t working.

Man cutting grain.

Chuck Rohde harvesting grain in Pendleton test plots in 1970. Photo: Bob Birdsall

Some continue to work on a limited-appointment basis. Others have grant funding or book contracts to complete. Most are like Rohde: They’ve returned to work just for the satisfaction it brings.

"Chuck continues to work in the field out here at CBARC literally five or six times a week during the summer," said Steven Petrie, the superintendent of the research center outside Pendleton. "He has no formal appointment." That means wheat farmers, OSU, and the citizens of Oregon are getting the services of a world-class wheat expert, free of charge.

Thayne Dutson, dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and the director of the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station, said such work is greatly appreciated.

"It’s pretty hard to calculate in dollars and cents the value of such work," Dutson said. "But we know it is an ongoing contribution because some of these folks are still experts and world leaders in their professions. We are happy to have them."

The arrangement suits Rohde, who continues to derive satisfaction from helping wheat farmers be successful by offering them improved wheat varieties. For him, it’s personal.

As the son of a Montana wheat farmer and a child of the Great Depression, Rohde has seen what happens when a wheat crop fails due to bad weather or a pest infestation.

"Two years in a row, my father didn’t harvest any wheat at all, between the grasshoppers and the drought."

Thanks to Rohde’s work, however, generations of Northwest wheat farmers have been able to plant hardier wheat varieties that can stand up to extremes of weather and resist pest infestations.

At the time of his retirement, Rohde was hard at work on a wheat variety that was resistant to stripe rust and had a higher yield than the varieties it replaces.

"The lady that replaced me when I retired carried that (research) on," he said. "She gave it the name ‘Rohde.’"

Man standing next to a bicycle.

"Retired" OSU cereals breeder Chuck Rohde enjoys winter in Arizona. Each summer he returns to Oregon and works, without pay, at the Pendleton experiment station. Photo: Joanne West

Ten years before he retired, Chuck Rohde developed a wheat variety that he considers his own tribute to the wheat farmer who most inspired him.

"I called it FARO, for Frank August Rohde, my father," Rohde said.

In his post-retirement career, Rohde continues to help wheat farmers battle the threat to their livelihood from a new source, global competition.

"Now I work mostly to improve the milling and baking properties of existing breeds of wheat," Rohde said. Even small innovations in the quality of wheat give Oregon wheat farmers a much-needed edge in a global market glutted by wheat from Canada, Australia and regions of the former Soviet Union.

On the eve of his ninth decade, Rohde considers himself a lucky man.

"I still look forward to going to work."

The love of his job is also what keeps Rohde’s long-time colleague, Vance Pumphrey, busy continuing his own research.

Pumphrey went to work in crop production and soils research in eastern Oregon in 1957.

"I started with OSU from the Union Experiment Station," Pumphrey said. It is now known as the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. "I had basically Wallowa, Union, Baker and Grant counties to work in."

Split photo: one of a man looking for a gopher and one of a man kneeling in a field with small machine.

A gopher has Vance Pumphrey's attention in the left, 1980 photo. In the right one the agronomist, who retired in 1988, is holding a neutron probe. It's used to measure soil moisture content. Photo: Dave King/Don Wysocki

In 1970, Pumphrey moved to Pendleton and began exploring new ways to irrigate the arid fields in the Hermiston area to make the most of scarce rainfall and water resources. Ultimately, he and his fellow researchers purchased a relatively new instrument called a neutron probe. The device accurately measures soil moisture content, vital to determining the water requirements of various crops.

The neutron probe helped them to devise more efficient irrigation methods that better regulated the amount, timing and duration of irrigation based on the crop and field conditions.

Pumphrey is proud that the Experiment Station at Union initiated the first instruction for agricultural courses in the early 1960s, giving a boost to what became Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande.

"The first course taught was crop production, and the Union station taught the beginning animal husbandry course, too," Pumphrey said.

Since his retirement in 1988, Pumphrey has occasionally continued his pioneering work in irrigation methods, but he also is focused on recording history, not making it.

Pumphrey is one of three authors of 100 Years of Agricultural Research, the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center. More than a history of the research center, it also is an affectionate account of the region and its people.

He also has updated the history of the Pendleton Agricultural Research Center—as the Columbia Basin center was known from 1967 to 1992—and in 1995, he published that as a special report from the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station.

"It was never a hardship for me, going to work," Pumphrey said.

Marty Vavra, the superintendent of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, said he’s known and respected Pumphrey for 30 years. Now that Vavra’s own retirement draws closer, Pumphrey is something of a role model in his career planning.

"I could have retired last October, but I’m going to work three more years as superintendent. After that, I fully intend to remain active in research on the effects of grazing animals on ecosystems, whether they be cattle, elk or deer."

Like Pumphrey, Vavra said the trick to being happy at work is to find a career that doesn’t feel like work. That has worked for him.

"If I could crank back the clock, I would put in another 30 years at this," he said. "I’ve been fortunate to have a career that’s been fun."

Or perhaps it is just something in the air of Eastern Oregon that inspires such dedication.

Split photo: one of a man looking at wheat and one of a man standing next to plants in greenhouse.

Left: Retired OSU crop scientist Arnold Appleby in 1982, and, right, recently. Appleby worked on weed control for decades. Now he's capturing some of the history of his field. Photo: Dave King/Bob Rost

It was there that young Arnold Appleby put his new Ph.D. in crop science to work in 1962.

However, it wasn’t long before the lure of teaching drew him back to the OSU campus in Corvallis. For 30 years, he taught the use of chemical weed control on crops such as peppermint, wheat and ryegrass.

At the same time, he headed up a project to help growers maintain access to the pesticides they needed for the smaller, high-value "niche" crops grown in the Willamette Valley.

"Oregon is a state of small crops … not like the large (single-crop) markets like in Illinois and Iowa, so the university fills the gap in developing these things for the growers," he said. Appleby’s work involved adapting the rates, dates and amount of application for use in Oregon.

He retired in 1992, but his many years of working with the chemical companies that manufactured these compounds led Appleby to an interesting post-retirement project.

"I’m getting a lot of attention now because I have developed what I call a genealogy of the history of these herbicide companies over the past 50 years," Appleby said. "It looks like a pedigree chart because of all of the mergers and acquisitions. Now instead of the 90 or so we had in the past, we are down to nine."

Two publications—Farm Journal and Western Farm Service—have articles in the works on his chart and its implications.

Appleby is doing some writing himself, compiling the history of OSU’s crop sciences department.

"I tell people that old guys are interested in history because we have more history to look back on than we have future to look forward to," said Appleby, who is 66.

At 73, James Baggett still is looking forward. The internationally respected vegetable breeder remains actively involved in his research—developing new produce varieties, although he has been officially retired and off the OSU payroll since 1995.

"I’m continuing my tomato-breeding project, but I am just about ready to hand that one over to Jim Myers," Baggett said. "He took over the Baggett-Frazier Vegetable Breeder Professorship for me. I’ve just kept working because it is an unfinished project."

That unfinished project is a luscious home-gardener tomato variety called "Legend." Not only will it set fruit without fertilization; it is well adapted to the Pacific Northwest’s relatively chilly summers and short growing season.

"This is the best in the series so far," Myers said enthusiastically. "It’s a large fruit—about half a pound—so you get big, juicy slices out of it. It’s the earliest thing I’ve ever seen, and that in itself is enough to get it released. But it also has late-blight resistance."

Myers said his work with Baggett on "Legend" continues an OSU vegetable-breeding tradition of achievement that dates back before he was born.

"I’m not sure when Baggett took over for (Tex) Frazier," Myers said. "But I was born in 1954, and I think that was the year that Jim Baggett joined this program. He’s been at it all my life."

Split photo: one of a man raking soil and one of two men looking at plants in greenhouse.

If you garden in Oregon, you've probably grown vegetables OSU's Jim Baggett developed. The photo on the right was taken in 1977. In the photo on the left he's conferring with Jim Myers, his replacement. Photo: Dave King/Lynn Ketchum

Baggett’s many new vegetable variety developments include the Oregon Sugar Pod II, a pea variety that Myers said is probably the most widely grown in the world.

Baggett’s lettuce variety, Summertime, is in great demand among Oregon home gardeners. The same is true of his winter squash varieties, Sugarloaf and Honeyboat.

"If there is an underlying theme to (Baggett’s) material, it is that he has an uncanny knack for identifying things that are very high quality and generally well adapted to the area," Myers said.

Northwest green bean farmers have a particular reason to be thankful for Baggett’s innovation and talent.

"Farmers used to grow green beans up on poles in the 1950s," Myers said. "Then Midwest breeders developed machine-harvested bush beans. So the mid-Willamette Valley had to convert, and Tex Frazier and Jim Baggett were instrumental in making that switch possible."

How did they do it? The two developed a green bean suitable to Oregon’s climate that grew on a bush and thus could be machine-harvested, keeping Oregon’s farmers competitive.

"Their work was essential to keeping the green bean industry viable in Oregon," Myers said.

Charles Boyer, the head of OSU’s Department of Horticulture, said Baggett’s ongoing involvement with the university’s vegetable breeding program brings valued continuity.

"It’s great to have him sharing his expertise with a new generation of plant breeders," Boyer said. "Plant breeding itself is such a long-term project that it’s wonderful to have his 30 years’ experience to draw upon."

Baggett said his true retirement would begin after "Legend" is on the market—maybe.

Some still-working OSU retirees said they might also join the ranks of the leisure set, if only their colleagues would quit inviting them to work.

It was because he accepted such an invitation that Ian Tinsley found himself the head of OSU’s Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology—for free—after his official retirement.

Tinsley’s career at OSU began when he arrived from Sydney, Australia, in 1953 to complete his post-graduate work. He earned his Ph.D. in food science in 1958, then accepted a position on the OSU faculty.

Split photo: one of a young man working on a machine and one of a man reading a book.

Ian Tinsley served as the chair of OSU's Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology after his official retirement in 1996. He no longer has that job, but he still works on projects of his own choosing. In the 1954 photo on the left, he's an OSU graduate student. Photo: Bob Birdsall/Dennis Wolverton

Tinsley’s career included the publication 20 years ago of a textbook—Chemical Behavior in the Environment—that is still in use today.

Although he retired in 1996, Tinsley accepted the invitation to return as head of the Environmental and Molecular Toxicology Department until a replacement could be found.

He held the post for three years, finally making his retirement official in 1999. Sort of. He continues to work on projects of his own choosing.

"I just enjoy doing the work in my own time," Tinsley said. "It’s a good transition. I also enjoy reading and golf and church matters. I’m not just whittling in the basement."

Split photo: one of a man sitting at a desk and one of a man reading a book at a desk.

Agricultural economist Emery Castle in 1965, left, and today. Castle has continued working—mornings, mostly—since retiring in 1993, including serving as director of OSU's new Rural Studies Program. Photo: Bob Birdsall/Dennis Wolverton

People meeting Emery Castle now might first be impressed by the melon-sized prize roses growing in his Corvallis garden. He may not even tell them that—almost nine years after his retirement—he remains active in researching agricultural economics issues through OSU.

Castle’s career with Oregon State began in 1954 when he went to work for the College of Agricultural Sciences as an agricultural economist.

He and a graduate student used a relatively new technique to place market values of hay production and animal grazing on mountain meadows in eastern Oregon. This work, in turned contributed to a new way of measuring the value of a public natural resource, establishing the then-new concept of weighing the economic value of the resource against its value to the public.

This concept led him and colleague William Brown in the 1960s to research that established the economic value of Oregon’s salmon-steelhead sport fishery. Through the 1970s, he led research teams that examined the water quality in Yaquina Bay.

Castle became the head of OSU’s Department of Agricultural Economics in 1966 and dean of the OSU Graduate School in 1972, then left OSU for 10 years, starting in 1975, to head a think tank in Washington, D.C., called Resources for the Future.

He returned to OSU in 1986 as chair of the University Faculty of Graduate Economics and became a professor emeritus in 1993. During that period, he merged the graduate divisions of his former department (by then called the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics) with OSU’s Department of Economics and Department of Forest Resources.

"It was a merger of the graduate programs of three departments in three colleges," Castle said. "Prior to this (merger), OSU had lost some outstanding economists from all three departments."

Castle, 78, has continued to work at OSU ever since. He maintains an office on campus and works mornings, teaching and producing "white papers."

"My wife says I have flunked retirement."

For 10 years, 1987–1998, Castle chaired a national committee on rural studies. He now serves as director of OSU’s new Rural Studies Program. He is passionate about the subject, as it brings him full circle.

"I grew up in two small places in Kansas," Castle said, "and I started out working in farm management …. Rural places in America are in such sad shape …. I took some time and really looked at some major problems there."

With more time to focus on his interests, Castle is hoping that his post-retirement career will lead to a better understand of the economic plight of rural communities.

In his youth, Benno Warkentin was a crop scientist specializing in soils developed on volcanic parent materials—the newest land on the planet. He studied their nutrient properties, and how that related to agricultural use of these productive soils.

Arriving at OSU in 1978, Warkentin assumed an administrative role as head of the Department of Soil Science.

As the date for his retirement drew within a decade, he found himself ready to change his career’s direction in anticipation of his 1998 retirement.

"I realized I didn’t want to retire from an administrative position," Warkentin said. "You aren’t good for very much else. So in the last couple of years, I got back into teaching. I designed a course in water resource science that eventually attracted 70 students."

Split photo: one of a man standing behind a sign and one of a man sitting at a desk.

After he retired in 1998, Benno Warkentin designed a course in water resource science. In the left photo, taken in 1990, he was director of OSU's Water Resources Research Institute. Photo: Lynn Ketchum/Dennis Wolverton

Now his interest has broadened into the history and cultural importance of soil.

"I’ve become interested in where our ideas in soil science come from," he said. He also is focused on where it is going. "Soil science has shifted in the past 20 years from crop production to environmental quality, watershed and soil health."

Warkentin now teaches an honors course on water issues. He also is collaborating with an international writing team on a book whose working title is Roots of Civilization: Soils and Society.

Warkentin too has flunked retirement. Fortunately, he said, he still meets the basic test for continued work.

"The criteria used to be that as long as the professor can find his way to the lecture room unaided, then he can continue," Warkentin said. "When he needs help, then you might want to rethink the situation."

Published in: People