BOOK BEAT 17 – Leon Hesser

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   November 8-14, 2006

by Philip K. Jason

Born in rural Indiana in 1925, Leon F. Hesser had put in a lifetime of U. S. government service, most of it concerned with helping other nations escape poverty through modernizing their food production techniques, before moving to Naples in 2000 and turning author.

During World War II, a teenage Hesser served in the Philippines, then came home to Indiana to marry Florence Ellen Life and try his hand at being a toolmaker before returning to farming. At age thirty, determined to obtain the college education he had missed, he enrolled as a freshman at Purdue University. He eventually earned a Ph.D. from Purdue in agricultural economics and then joined the Foreign Service. By 1973, Hesser was director of the U.S. government’s worldwide programs to increase food production in developing countries. After his retirement, Hesser remained in the forefront of efforts to increase food production around the world. Years before, he had met Norman Borlaug, whose high-yield wheat seeds and production technology were the keys to the Green Revolution in Asia.

Leon F. Hesser’s first book, The Taming of the Wilderness: Indiana’s Transition from Indian Hunting Grounds to Hoosier Farmland, was published in 2002. Animating history by focusing on the lives of his pioneer family and their contemporaries, Hesser relates the harsh story of how settlers pushed Native Americans away from their ancestral lands and then reshaped the wilderness into a farming mecca. This study takes readers through the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution as technology modernizes the agricultural economy.

In his autobiographical Nurture the Heart, Feed the World (2004), Hesser draws upon his own experience and that of his wife to make the point that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. He calls himself and his wife “two vagabonds,” and indeed their colorful stories take them to many fascinating places. Florence entered college even later than Leon. At age thirty-five, she was a freshman. Yet she earned her Ed.D. and served as a professor at George Washington University for twenty years. Through her teaching, the Hessers came to know President Carter and his family.

Soon after he finished the draft of his memoir, for which Norman Borlaug wrote the Foreword, Hesser conceived of writing a biography of Borlaug – who in 1970 had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in alleviating world hunger. He showed Borlaug an outline and sample chapters, quickly winning his cooperation so that the book could be truly an “authorized biography.” The two men had three extended meetings during the course of the book’s eighteen-month composition. 

Norman and Leon

 Hesser believes that readers can take away three main points from the study of Borlaug’s life. The first is that one person can make a difference, even if that difference does not end up with the recognition of a Nobel Prize. Secondly, all readers, especially younger readers, need to become aware of the food situation around the world. The book provides that awareness and suggests the need for more young people to pursue careers as agricultural scientists. Finally, the study of Borlaug’s life presents a model for developing “high-yield people,” the kind of people that make possible such breakthroughs as high-yield wheat.

The Man Who Fed the World is Hesser’s tribute to Norman Borlaug, a child of the Iowa prairie who attended a one-room schoolhouse, flunked his first university entrance exam, and went on to become listed among the one hundred most influential persons of the twentieth century. Published by Durban House with a Foreword by Jimmy Carter, The Man Who Fed the World was launched in Washington, D. C. on September 6 at the Center for Global Development.

What’s next? Hesser is working on his memoir of service in the South Pacific, where he took part in the Battle of ZigZag Pass. Knowing this energetic eighty-one year old, I’m sure it will be out in no more than two years.

Hear Leon F. Hesser talk about his new book and get your signed copy at the Naples Barnes and Noble on November 11 at 2pm.

Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy.  A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club. Send him your book news at pjason@aol.com.

Note: Hesser’s prize-winning  Zig-Zag Pass is reviewed elsewhere on this site.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Book Beat, Florida Authors

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