by Vicki Hamende,
Office of Communications and Technology
Others may someday be able to continue Tom Whitson’s nationally recognized weed research, but his admirers say that earning the kind of respect he has garnered from the individuals and organizations he has served through extension work may be a much more difficult task.
For his development of one of the top Cooperative Extension Service (CES) weed science programs in the United States, for his leadership as a professional educator, and for his dedication to the people he has helped, the professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Sciences has been selected a College of Agriculture outstanding alumnus for 2003.
"Dr. Whitson showed great pride to be a part of the College of Agriculture and the university and was perhaps one of our greatest ambassadors,” says Robert Heil, professor emeritus and former dean of the college.
“In all the presentations I ever heard him make, I was impressed with his professionalism and his show of respect for the university,” Heil continues. “He loved his work, the people of Wyoming, and exhibited in a humble way his appreciation for having been given the opportunity to serve. His service can be described in only one way, that being a service of excellence.”
Wyoming’s rangelands, pasturelands, parks, forests, yards, and gardens are better for the work that Whitson has performed on behalf of CES, notes Teton County Educator Mary Martin. “We who have known and worked with Tom have been gifted for the opportunity to have walked for awhile alongside a bright, intelligent visionary and truly great humanbeing,” she adds.
The editor of the renowned Weeds of the West and the author and editor of a dozen other books and hundreds of refereed articles and research progress reports, the 23-year UW faculty member began his career in extension and research in Texas after earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and a master’s degree in plant and animal science there.
Whitson worked for a time in Natrona County and later at the Laramie campus, where he also earned a doctorate in weed science.
From 1985 until his retirement in 2002, Whitson served as an extension weed specialist and coordinator of Wyoming’s Integrated Pest Management program, initiating hundreds of weed management
trials. He taught statewide, national, and international educational programs for farmers, ranchers, CES educators, pesticide users, small acreage owners, Master Gardeners, government agencies, and private industries. Whitson, who has won many awards for his accomplishments, continues to work on special projects throughout the state and region.
He credits others for helping him with his career. “I really enjoyed the extension part because the people were always so nice to me,” Whitson says. “They were willing to cooperate in so many ways and to help as much as they could. Thatwas a real highlight for me.” Whitson adds, “From an extension standpoint, the good agents I knew allowed me to do four to five times as much work as I would have been able to do without their help.”
One particular research project Whitson points to with satisfaction is his discovery that the herbicide Spike 20P successfully thins big sagebrush to improve wildlife habitat and double the amount of forage for livestock. “It created a winwin opportunity between livestock and wildlife operators,” he says. Various state and federal agencies now follow Whitson’s guidelines.
He also recalls a project involving the use of chemicals in perennial weed control that eventually led him to the realization that established plants can become competitive with particular weeds. As a result, an expensive treatment operation has been replaced by nature’s own systems.
In both of these areas of research, Whitson notes that simply paying careful attention to experimental plots led to new discoveries. In the case of the sagebrush thinning, he originally thought that the treatment was a failure. “Sometimes being a close observer is one of the most important things we can do as researchers,” he says.
Whitson has been active and has served leadership roles in such organizations as the Weed Science Society of America, the Society of Range Management, the Western Society of Weed Science, the Crop Science Society of America, Gamma Sigma Delta, and Epsilon Sigma Phi.
“He exemplifies, more than anyone I encountered in my 30-plus years of association with the land-grant system, a faculty member who was truly fulfilling the teaching, research, and extension mission of a land-grant university,” Heil says of Whitson.“It seems to me that he was an ideal role model for others in the way that he carried out his responsibilities.”
Heil adds, “The impact of his contributions will be felt for many years to come in benefiting agriculture not only in Wyoming but also in the western region and nationally.”