John Weihing – Distinguished Administrator, Extension Plant Pathologist and Nebraska Citizen

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist Panhandle REC

Author’s note:  This is an article in the continuing series celebrating the Panhandle Research and Extension Center’s centennial anniversary in 2010.  Dr. John L. Weihing was an extension plant pathologist with the University of Nebraska from 1950-1971.  He served as the superintendent of the Scotts Bluff Station [later director of the Panhandle Station – still later known as the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC)].  He was the 4th person to hold this administrative appointment in Scottsbluff, and served in this capacity from 1971 until his retirement in 1984.  The information in this article was obtained primarily from an oral history that Dr. Weihing gave to Ag Communications Specialist Stan Haas in September, 1983, shortly before his retirement.

Dr. John Lawson Weihing was born on February 26, 1921 on a farm near Rocky Ford Co., and was one of eight children (6 boys and 2 girls).  He attended a country school through the 8th grade, and then graduated from Rocky Ford High School in 1938.  He then attended the Colorado State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts (later known as Colorado Sate University) and majored in agronomy.  Throughout his time in Ft. Collins, he had participated in ROTC, thus on the day of his graduation from college in 1942, he was commissioned as an officer in the field artillery. 

John’s time in the service was very eventful. He additionally became a paratrooper and was involved with a special mission with the 101st Airborne division to parachute into France prior to the Normandy invasion on June 6th 1944.  The night of June 5th, he was on the first plane in and was the first man to jump as his plane was shot down.  He recalled that he never knew what became of the 22 other people on the plane as he never heard from them again.  His objective that night was to adjust shore bombardment and to direct artillery fire from navy ships to help incoming troops and paratroopers landing on the beach the next day.

After two campaigns in Europe, he was sent back to the United States to reform an antiaircraft battalion into the first field artillery rocket battalion.  After this was accomplished, they were sent to fight in the Okinawa campaign.

After the war was over, he was honorably discharged from the service and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Nebraska.  He initially chose Nebraska in order to take courses from the famous ecological botanist, John E. Weaver.  He spent his first summer maintaining small grain plots at the North Platte Station before beginning classes in Lincoln in fall 1946 working on a Master’s degree as the last student of Theodore A. Kiesselbach, an agronomist known as “Mr. Corn”.

During the course of studies for the M.S., he took courses in and became interested in plant pathology.   After he completed the M. S., he then decided to pursue the Ph.D. in plant pathology.  In 1950, he was hired by the University of Nebraska as the first full time extension plant pathologist in the state, although he was still in the process of completing the doctoral degree. 

During this time, he was asked to become one of the original panelists on the Backyard Farmer program when it started in 1952.  This program is still being aired and is the longest continuous program on public television in the United States.  He also began working on the Nebraska Plant Disease Handbook during this period.  It was competed in 1954, and was distributed to extension educators throughout the state.  He additionally awarded the Ph.D. in spring 1954.

John was also the first extension agent to become a research and graduate professor.  This occurred when he was assigned the leadership of the Outstate Testing Program. This program was set up through legislature funding and began in 1949.  It permitted both demonstration and exploratory field tests under diverse environmental conditions across the state.  Supervision of the program was delegated to the extension specialist however he needed an appointment with the experiment station in order to do so.  Thus this experience enabled him to conduct both research and extension simultaneously, the concept of which was revisited later when he moved to Scottsbluff.

In 1964, John moved with his family to Erzurum Turkey and helped start a new land grant university for western Turkey, called Ataturk University, as part of the UN Technical Assistance Program.  He served as the chair of the plant science department, thus he was involved with many other related disciplines, including agronomy, range management, plant pathology, and entomology.

John and his family returned to Nebraska in 1966, and he resumed his duties as extension plant pathologist.  One of the impacts of his time in Turkey was in recognizing certain needs in areas that were lacking.  He developed an idea as a result of this overseas experience that eventually resulted in the Disease Compendium series.  Therefore he began working on a compilation of plant diseases for the U.S., which was sorely needed.  The first volume produced was a disease compendium of corn in 1975, and was presented to the American Phytopathological Society (APS).  They had no means for publishing at that time, so the USDA provided the seed money for this project and led to the eventual establishment of the APS Press and the development of many other disease compendia.  John was instrumental in writing the initial proposal to the USDA, and the compendium was modeled on his format for the Nebraska Plant Disease Handbook.

In June 1971, John accepted the position as superintendent of the Scotts Bluff Station, where he was responsible for supervising both research and extension faculty. Thus one of the major charges he took on was promoting the joining of extension and research programs in the Panhandle. Furthermore, he noticed that there were several important discipline areas that were not receiving attention.  During his tenure as superintendent and later director of the Panhandle Station, many new permanent faculty positions were created to address those areas of need, including range management, weed science, irrigation engineering, machinery engineering, ag meteorology, veterinary science, forestry, and a position in ag communications meant serve as a liason between University personnel and the public.

Another critical idea that he developed was the concept of addressing production problems through a team approach consisting of various disciplines within a crop commodity. Many of these created positions are still in place today and the still functioning team concept has been credited with the continued success of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC) in research and extension issues related to sugar beet and dry bean production.  In surrounding states (Colorado and Wyoming), growers do not have access to the range of expertise in all these areas and rely to a great extent on PHREC scientists for information concerning these two crops.  

John retired in January 1984, but continued to live in the area and was involved with many community civic activities.  He further served the citizens of Nebraska as a state senator from 1987 to 1991, and was involved with the University of Nebraska Foundation.  John passed away on his birth date in 2003, and is survived by his wife Shirley; and four children, Lawson and Debi Weihing of Papillion, Martin Weihing of Chicago, Adell and Dan Gorney of Cheyenne, Wyo.,Warren Weihing of Boise, sister Joan Call of Grand Forks, ND, two grand children and many nieces and nephews. 

John’s legacy is still alive today through the programs and faculty located at the PHREC that his vision helped to create.  He additionally had the honor, among many others, of having a Great Northern multiple disease resistant dry bean variety “Weihing”, named after him in 2000.  His impact is further being felt with a vibrant and thriving APS Press.  After beginning with the pilot corn disease compendium that was initially funded by the Extension Service, USDA, there are now more than 35 disease compendia focused on different crops, published by APS Press.  John’s team concept has recently highlighted Nebraska’s sugar beet expertise both nationally and internationally through the publication of a new revision of the Beet Compendium of Diseases and Pests.  This volume was edited and authored by many PHREC sugar beet scientists. In addition to biotic and abiotic diseases, it also covered insects, fertility deficiencies, and herbicide damage – thereby integrating the various disciplines of the team concept in which he so strongly believed and envisioned.

Published: December, 2014