This month in IRRI history: September

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

Bob Chandler and Ron Cantrell, 1st and 7th DGs both arrive in September—39 years apart

Robert Chandler and Ronald Cantrell, past IRRI DGsOn 7 September 1959, Robert F. Chandler, Jr. (left), arrived as IRRI’s first director general. 

On 1 September 1998, Ronald P. Cantrell (right) arrived as IRRI’s 7th DG.


One of IRRI’s co-founders: Robert Chandler

Chandler's 1959 Ford station wagon
Chandler's 1959 Ford station wagon

Bob Chandler received worldwide recognition as a field commander in the "Green Revolution" and the leader of IRRI that helped feed populations in poor countries. From 1959 to 1972, he directed IRRI with the objective to develop richer rice harvests to keep up with population growth.

To get the ball rolling, Bob came in late 1959 well ahead of IRRI’s official start in 1960. He and his wife Sunny arrived in Manila on the SS President Cleveland out of San Francisco. On board was the famous 1959 Ford station wagon purchased in San Francisco seen in early photos.

201509 chandler montageOn the ship, between Honolulu and Manila, Bob received a message informing him that on 16 September (1959), President Carlos Garcia issued an executive order giving IRRI full tax exemption and other privileges that had been requested. He and Sunny arrived in Manila Sunday, 27 September, and were met by Undersecretary Dalisay, who quickly cleared them through immigration and customs. The following day, the automobile cleared customs, and by Tuesday they had their Philippine driver’s licenses and the car was registered. Indeed, IRRI received a genuine welcome in the Philippines and full cooperation was extended from the outset. And the rest, of course, is history.

According to Ben and Lina Vergara in the proceedings of the symposium devoted to Bob, Rice research and production in the 21st century, “He was a man in a hurry. Within 3 years after his arrival at IRRI, the buildings and grounds of IRRI were ready and a team of outstanding and experienced scientists plus ambitious and promising young scientists were hard at work. Less than 3 years later, IRRI was formally dedicated on 7 February 1962 to alleviating the hunger of the ever-burgeoning population of the rice-eating countries of the world.”

Rice Research and Production in the 21st CenturyIn this same book, Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, wrote. “One of Bob Chandler’s outstanding leadership qualities was his attention to careful staffing. The way he combined very experienced rice researchers, like Hank Beachell, Akira Tanaka, and S.H. Ou in the early years, to mentorounger scientists such as Peter Jennings and later, Gurdev Khush, was brilliant. An anecdote from Colin McClung captures Bob’s philosophy on staffing: “Find the person who has the background and wants to do the job and give him an environment in which he can excel. The person had to be well qualified in the basics of his field but prior knowledge of rice was far less important under Chandler management than a desire to take the ball and run with it.

"In retrospect, it may be hard to believe but there was a concern when Gurdev Khush was being considered for employment at IRRI. Did he really want to be a rice breeder or would he prefer to be a geneticist who worked out in search of 7 principles for research entrepreneurship and left the job of developing varieties to others? Gurdev’s response was unequivocal and the rest is history." Gurdev Khush today is the world’s most successful rice breeder."

Gene and Bob Chandler during the signing of Bob's book "An Adventure in Applied Science: A History of the International Rice Research Institute"
Gene and Bob Chandler during the signing of Bob's book "An Adventure in Applied Science: A History of the International Rice Research Institute"

Although I met Bob at IRRI during his 1983 book signing of his classic An Adventure in Applied Science: A History of the International Rice Research Institute, I’m sorry that I had not started to do the Pioneer Interviews before he passed away in 1999—the only DG, other than the short-tenured Robert Cummings Sr., I have not had a session with. (Stand by, Bob Zeigler!) However, I’m told by Mary Ann Quinn, archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center, that the Foundation has 94 pages of oral history by Dr. Chandler, of which I could get a copy. However, it will cost USD 72—oh well, it can be part of a retirement project.

In any event, many of the questions I would have asked IRRI’s first DG in a standard Pioneer Interview were asked by none other than Borlaug himself in a recorded 1994 conversation they had, which makes for interesting listening in a 6-video playlist that I put on YouTube.

I have also had some interesting comments about Bob from former IRRI old-timers whom I have interviewed in the past.

Peter Jennings, IRRI’s first breeder, stated, “…he was well named: Robert "Flint" Chandler. He was "flinty." He was a stereotypical New England Yankee, very direct, hyper-enthusiastic. He maintained a profound barrier between himself and his staff; he was nobody’s pal. But with all of that, he was, by far, the best director of an institution I’ve seen in 50 years.

201509 chandler jennings“I think Bob left two legacies to IRRI. The first was that he defined precisely what the objectives of the institution were, and to Bob it was very clear, it was singular—[to give rice] higher yield and better quality. We look back at that and it just seems obvious to us now, but 50 years ago in Asia, [and] Latin America, researchers didn’t talk in those terms. They would talk in the specifics of whatever they were doing, but you never heard [them say] get production up and improve the quality.

“The second legacy that sticks in my mind is that Bob expected everyone at IRRI—be they laborers, cooks, research assistants, secretaries, or senior staff—to be the very best; he demanded excellence from each and every staff member. If everyone were to do their jobs well, the probability of the Institute being successful would be greater. He could not abide sloppiness. It would drive him hysterical if he saw paper scraps floating about some place. He wanted jobs done well to the best of one’s capabilities. Again, I think that this ethic infused throughout the entire institution and brought us all together. Our standards were set high from the very beginning.”

Kwanchai GomezKwanchai Gomez, IRRI’s first statistician, stated, “Bob, my first director, was very intelligent and had an excellent management style. I always remember his open-door policy. Whenever we would like to talk to him—whether it was to report to him about our work accomplishments, to tell him of our personal problems (such as the car repair not being done on time), or to talk about anything at all—we could always see him in his office and he would listen. He valued senior staff time, and always made sure that all the needed services were provided in an efficient manner—to help unload the burdens of the senior staff. We often heard him say, ‘You guys are supposed to concentrate on your work, which is rice and rice research, and nothing else. So, you should leave all the other problems to us.’ He made us feel truly special.

“In fact, this tradition is what had made IRRI standards the best in the world. He saw to it that all the provided services were really excellent such that no one needed to complain. If there was any problem, a senior staff could knock on his door and say, ‘I need a plumber in my house or my wife would not stop complaining.’ He would listen because he felt that anything that bothered his senior staff, if not solved quickly, would surely detract the scientist from getting research done. So, I think Chandler’s management style, in which he made us all feel great—like someone special—is one of the reasons why we all felt committed to making IRRI great as well. This was a very good practice, especially for the first director of IRRI.”

201509 chandler moomawCarolyn Moomaw-Wilhelm, widow of IRRI’s first agronomist Jim Moomaw, stated: “We had a lot of little children growing up [in the staff housing compound]. My son [Martin] was the first to be born of [international] IRRI staff, but after that, there were quite a few being born and also more staff members were coming in with young children. So, we had a lot of traffic [on the road] as well as children and their nannies going up to the swimming pool and playground and going to school and just going across the street to play with each other.

“Now, the director and his wife [Bob and Sunny] were really fast drivers. They would come zooming down that hill [from their residence] and so we young mothers at the bottom of the hill decided that the speeding cars were dangerous. So, I initiated a petition [to install speed bumps] and I got all the young mothers to sign it and I gave it to Bob. Because of this, we got the speed bumps in staff housing. Those are my speed bumps, which were really directed at Bob and Sunny because they were the busy ones who kept zooming down the road. That slowed people down and I was famous for that.

Bob and Sunny ChandlerBob and Sunny Chandler were incredible people—inspiring, energetic, devoted, and generous. Bob had very little patience with trivia, however. He wanted everybody—all the scientists—to get their boots dirty right away, be out in the field. In fact, the story was he would go around and look at the boots. If a staff member hadn’t been in the field that day, there would be questions. Of course, Jim had no problem with that. Agronomy is the field. We admired both of them greatly. I learned a lot from Sunny. Apart from my mother, Sunny Chandler had more influence on me as a developing, maturing young woman than anyone else in my life and that holds true today.

Yes, we [the spouses of the early IRRI international staff] were rice widows. I think Bob Chandler coined phrase. That’s what we called ourselves. He was an empathetic man and recognized our plight, but IRRI scientists, often away from home for long periods, had a job to do and we appreciated that.”

Robert Chandler
Robert Chandler through the years

Other achievements. Before he became the institute's founding director, Bob had a distinguished career in academia. A native of my home state of Ohio, he graduated with a degree in horticulture from the University of Maine in 1929 and received a Ph.D. in pomology, the science of fruit cultivation, from the University of Maryland in 1934.

Chandler winning the World Food PrizeHe taught about forest soils at Cornell University and rose to the rank of professor. From 1947 until 1954, he was dean of the University of New Hampshire College of Agriculture and then president of the university. Dr. Chandler was decorated by the governments of the Philippines, I ndonesia, India, Pakistan and Kenya and the Presidential End Hunger Award in 1986. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He received the second World Food Prize in 1988 –only after M.S. Swaminathan won the first one in 1987. An 8-minute video, made on the occasion of his winning the 1988 WFP, epitomizes what he was all about!

A distinguished agronomist and administrator:
Ronald P. Cantrell

Ronald Cantrell montageRon Cantrell, an excellent agronomist, particularly in the area of plant breeding and genetics, devoted most of his career to improving the lives of less advantaged people worldwide by making their food supplies more secure. I first met Ron at CIMMYT in 1986 when he was there as director of the Maize Program and I was the new editor and writer for the Wheat Program. So, I socialized with him at various CIMMYT events, but never actually worked for or with him at the time.

That all changed when he came to IRRI as DG in 1998. I drafted many of his speeches (and slides before there was PowerPoint—for a while in the late 1990s, I prepared both traditional slides and PowerPoint files because Ron never trusted that there would be a decent computer handy at the venue that could handle PowerPoints during that transition period!) over the six-year period that Ron was DG.

I always appreciated Ron giving me plenty of lead time—sometimes up to six months—and always valued the co-byline that he often included in his published presentations.

Cantrell's souvenir program
Cantrell's despedida program

When figuring out what materials to produce for his departure despedida on 13 December 2004, I came up with the idea of publishing some of his more popular speech-bytes since I had them all handy in my files!

"Where are my slides?"
"Where are my slides?"
We also had some fun. See the very beginning of this video clip, where Ron complains about not getting his slides on time.

Ron’s deputy director general for Partnerships, Willy Padolina, said, "Taking the reins of IRRI at the threshold of the new millennium was a challenge he accepted. IRRI had to cross that bridge in the knowledge age where science was undergoing rapid and significant changes, where new tools for unloading the secrets of nature were becoming more precise, and volumes of data could be processed at speeds unimaginable to us just a decade ago."

Gene's pioneer interview with Ron Cantrell

In my Pioneer Interview with Ron during the summer of 2009 at his place in Bastrop, Texas, among many other things, he talked about challenges for IRRI and the hybrid rice and private sector. Listening to the challenge clip awhile back, I thought his comments on the funding issue was a bit behind the times—but then with the recent developments in IRRI’s 2015 downsizing, I guess not.

201509 cantrell hells Angel
Ron's Hell's Angel

Ron told me one morning during my family’s Texas visit as he hopped on his Harley for a spin, “Gene, there is nothing like retirement. I recommend it.” Well, I guess I will be finding out soon enough!

Read about the handover ceremony from Bob Havener to Ron in my August blog. Also, there is excellent coverage of the 1998-2004 Cantrell era in 46 issues of Sandiwa that I have put online. Also watch video highlights of the 13 Dec. 2004 Despedida program for Ron and Pam.

All in one photo: who’s who of rice & agricultural science in the early 1970s

6Sept1971 Rice Breeding Symposium 71

On 6 September 1971, a 5-day rice breeding symposium kicked off at IRRI, which was billed as providing the most comprehensive treatment of rice breeding activities in major rice-producing countries of the world. The photo of the participants shows a group of very distinguished scientists of the time—click on it to enlarge for their IDs. Among the luminaries are: Akira Tanaka, Peter Jennings, Hank Beachell, Norman Borlaug, Colin McClung, T.T. Chang, Eva Loresto, Gurdev Khush, San Virmani, S.H. Ou, E.A. Siddiq, Wayne Freeman, Ben Juliano, S.V.S. Shastry, and H.E. Kauffman, among many others.

IRRI birds in September

Located 50 kilometers south of Manila on the slopes of the dormant volcano Mt. Makiling in Los Baños, Laguna, IRRI has spent more than 50 years developing new rice varieties for poor farmers and studying different environmentally friendly and relatively pesticide-free methods of rice field management that farmers can use. The 209 hectares of rice fields on IRRI’s experiment farm form a mosaic patchwork of different crop stages and varying degrees of wetland habitats, which make them a bird paradise.

Keeping a healthy rice ecosystem is a target for IRRI on the farm. For example, the Institute uses integrated pest management (IPM), which reduced pesticide application by 96% between 1993 and 2008, and encourages richer natural biodiversity. Although there is no direct evidence on the impact of the reduced pesticide use, it is certainly a contributor to richer bird life in and around the farm.

Soon, IRRI will be releasing a Guide to the birds of Philippine rice fields, featuring 93 species that frequent the IRRI farm. It is based on more than five years of observations by Paul Bourdin, a Zambian birder. His observations are superbly illustrated largely by the photography of Tirso Paris, retired professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, and Fred Serrano, undersecretary for policy and planning at the Philippine Department of Agriculture. Paul recorded his IRRI farm observations on a monthly basis.

A few species that can be readily seen in September, but rarely during the rest of year include the Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Plaintive Cuckoo. Black Bittern, Ruff, White-winged Tern, Red-necked Phalarope, Brahminy Kite, Pacific Golden Plover, Temminck’s Stint, Red-necked Stint, and Marsh Sandpiper.

I’ll be announcing the availability of the Guide soon—hopefully in October—so that you can read the descriptions of these birds along with the others.

For more about the Birds of IRRI, see A human-eye view of birds.


About the Author

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel is an IRRI historian and editor-in-chief of Rice Today.

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