Monday, October 26, 2015

Ben Vergara (1934-2015): A life of promoting science in the Philippines

By Gene Hettel

It is with deep sadness that the International Rice Research institute (IRRI) announces the passing of Dr. Benito S. Vergara, 81, on Saturday afternoon (24 October). Ben had been ill for some time.

Born on 23 June 1934, Ben had a fruitful 38-year career at IRRI as associate plant physiologist (1 July 1961–31 December 1969); plant physiologist (1 January 1970–31 December 1983); head of the Agronomy, Physiology, and Agroecology Division (1 January 1984–30 November 1991); Director of Administration (1 December 1991–31 January 1996); and Consultant (1 February 1996–30 April 1998 and 1 September 1998–30 August 1999).

Ben received his BS, MS, and PhD degrees, respectively, at the University of the Philippines (1955), University of Hawaii (1959), and University of Chicago (1960). Prior to joining IRRI in 1961, he was a physiologist at the University of the Philippines at Diliman.

He is survived by his wife Lina, two sons, Sunny and Happy, a daughter, Joy, and four grandchildren. He married Lina Manalo at the guest house in IRRI staff housing on 22 September 1968. Lina was IRRI’s first head librarian and served in that post for 33 years (1961-92).

During his long career at IRRI, Ben was a great colleague and friend to many. He was named a Philippine National Scientist by the Agriculture Division of the National Academy of Science and Technology on 4 September 2001. At that time, Ben said, “The first time I really felt that I was on Cloud 9 was when I was nominated as a National Scientist. I blushed. I was not aware. Parang yung aking idea to devote my lucid years to the promotion of Philippine science was reinforced. Maybe it’s God’s will.”

Ben's IRRI publication A Farmer’s Primer on Growing Rice is a classic piece of agricultural literature (photo at left shows Ben going through the publication with a local farmer). Since IRRI first distributed the unique guide in 1982, it has been published in over 50 languages and, to this day, is in use around the world among agriculturists, extension workers, and farmers.

He published his last book in 2014. Church Among the Palms: Serving the Community, the Nation, and the World takes its readers on a journey spanning the church’s rich 100-year history.

Robert Zeigler, IRRI director general, says of Ben, “I had the great pleasure and honor of working with Ben in the 1990s. In so many ways, he lived the life of a humanitarian scientist. His love of science was embodied in the demonstrable excellence of his work. His dedication to having excellent science make a difference in the lives of rice farmers is embodied in the creation of his Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice. His overall love of nature shown through in his love of plants, gardens, and the beauty they bring our lives. And his love for mankind was seen in his everyday dealings that were characterized by warmth, understanding, and humility. While we will miss Ben, his very life enriched all of us and made the lives of all he touched just a little bit better. In that sense, he does live on in us all.”

Ben received many awards over the years, including the Biology Teachers Association (BIOTA) Achievement Award (1980), Rizal Pro Patria Award (1980), Crop Science Society of the Philippines Award (1981), American Society of Agronomy Fellow (1986), Academician, National Academy of Science and Technology (1987), Gamma Sigma Delta Honor Society of Agriculture—Honorary Fellow (1993), and Outstanding Citizen of Los Baños (2004).

Recently, Ben had embarked on selecting and breeding fruit trees of economic value. In collaboration with the Mama Sita Foundation, he had identified, bred, propagated, and promoted the Mama Sita Banana, the Luz calamansi, and the Mama Sita Macopa—all at his Los Baños farm.

The wake was held at Arlington Sta. Mesa through 26 October 2015, and then later at Church Among the Palms, Los Baños, 27-28 October. IRRI had a memorial service at the Church Among the Palms on 27 October. A state funeral for Dr. Vergara, organized by the Department of Science and Technology/National Academy of Science and Technology, was held on Thursday, 29 October, followed by burial at the Heroes’ Cemetery (Libingan ng mga Bayani).

Clarissa David, professor in the College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines at Diliman, recently wrote an in-depth feature about Ben and his achievements that appeared in the International Journal of Philippine Science and Technology.

Ben was treasurer of the Asia Rice Foundation. Donations may be made in his memory through the Asia Rice Foundation USA (ARFUSA).

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