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Agronomist Thomas W. Scott dies at 89

Thomas W. Scott, an emeritus professor of agronomy who specialized in soil fertility and had a knack for nurturing undergraduates, died Aug. 22 in Ithaca. He was 89.

Scott joined the Department of Agronomy (now the Section of Soil and Crop Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ School of Integrative Plant Science) in 1959 as an assistant professor of soil science with responsibilities in soil fertility extension.

His research focused on soil fertility and crop management effects on long-term soil productivity. Prompted by the increase in New York’s corn acreage in the 1960s and ’70s, and the abandonment of crop rotations in favor of monoculture corn and expanded use of pesticides, Scott studied the effects of intercrops and cover crops in corn polyculture systems on several soil properties including nitrogen.

Recognizing the need to get students out of the classroom and into the field, particularly in regions that had different soils, crops and industries, Scott worked with other faculty members, including the late Madison Wright, professor emeritus of agronomy, to develop a course to take students to visit farms and experiment stations across the United States and eventually Central America.

“That was pretty revolutionary back in the in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Gary Fick, emeritus professor of crop and soil sciences. “Tom was involved in setting that up. What they started has evolved, but it’s still here.”

For about five years, Fick and Scott co-taught a course, Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture, in which Fick was able to see just how strong a connection his colleague had with students.

“He was a model. Absolutely amazing,” said Fick, who was teaching coordinator for the department. “I sat in on some of the courses. A couple weeks after he got started – and I don’t know how many students he had, 30 or so – but he knew everybody. He advised a lot of students, and they said he remembered them all and what their major was and what grade they got in his course.

“That may be exaggerated because he had a handy grade book,” Fick added with a laugh. “But his relationship with students, and particularly getting to know them personally, was a good part of his teaching.”

Ralph Obendorf, professor emeritus of crop physiology, recalls a constant stream of students coming to see Scott.

“He fought hard for the underdogs,” Obendorf said. “The typical aggie student that was going back to the farm, he could relate to them. He knew most of their families through his extension activities. He had a really good rapport with them.”

Scott’s dedication to his students was acknowledged, and reciprocated, when the student council awarded him the Professor of Merit award for excellence in classroom teaching in 1969.

Scott was born Nov. 10, 1929, and grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1952 then served as a first lieutenant in the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War. In 1953, he married his college sweetheart, Nancy Parrish. He earned his master’s degree from Kansas State University in 1956 and his doctorate from Michigan State University three years later.

At Cornell, Scott served as university ombudsman and was a faculty fellow with the University Residence Life Program. He received the Outstanding Teaching Award and Outstanding Advising Award in CALS, and the Teaching Award from the Northeast Branch of the American Society of Agronomy.

Scott retired from Cornell in 1995 but remained active in the Ithaca community. He served as an elder, deacon, Sunday school teacher and usher with the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca. After traveling to famine-wracked Ethiopia in the 1980s, Scott worked with church members to start the Ethiopian Rural Education Project; the group opened a school there to improve rural early education.

“Ethiopia was suffering so terribly in the famine,” Fick said. “They were closing schools. Tom saw the need for education. It’s the sort of thing people in the department, or maybe in the university, didn’t even know of how involved he was. He was an amazing guy.”

Scott is survived by four children and their spouses, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Donations in Scott’s name can be made to the Ethiopian Mission Fund at the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, or to the Thomas W. Scott Family Scholarship Fund at Cornell, Office of Donor Relations, Alumni Affairs and Development, 130 E. Seneca St., Suite 400, Ithaca, New York, 14850.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.