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Driven by Helping People and Making a Difference

Friday, February 7, 2014
filed under: Research and Development

Editor’s Note:  Tom Gulya has interacted with a multitude of people across the span of his 35-year career in sunflower. And, he has formed close relationships with many of them — relationships that often became personal as well as professional.

The Sunflower asked three individuals who know him well — Larry Kleingartner, Sam Markell and Gerald Seiler — for some thoughts about the retiring USDA sunflower plant pathologist’s personality and professional contributions. Kleingartner served as executive director of the National Sunflower Association for more than 30 years until his retirement in 2012. Markell is extension plant pathologist with North Dakota State University. Seiler, research botanist with the USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit at Fargo, has been a Gulya colleague for more than three decades.

Here are their remarks.

Larry Kleingartner — Many of us have images of scientists holed up in the lab with their white jackets and seldom willing to come out. Tom is the exact opposite of that stereotype. He much preferred being out of the lab and among his associates.

Tom was the unofficial leader of the international community of sunflower plant pathologists. He knew each and every one of them and their families. He conducted joint projects with the vast majority of them, whether they were in Russia, Australia or Nebraska. Tom’s collaboration greatly expanded the scope of projects and stretched limited research dollars significantly. It was Tom’s sociable personality that got that done. At the end of the day, a great deal of sunflower pathology work was completed with his approach.

Tom’s social nature did occasionally get him in some “hot water.” He was often late in submitting papers, reports and bills. That sometimes got him in some trouble; but it was not unusual for Tom to subdue rough waters with a bag of donuts, a big smile and an apology.

Tom was always very gracious. One summer day when he was surveying commercial fields for diseases, he called me to say he would be coming through Bismarck. I invited him to stop at the house for burgers. He asked if he could bring anything for supper, and I jokingly suggested some decent “road kill.” When the doorbell rang, there stood Tom with a bag that he proudly presented to me. It was road kill — a coyote’s tail that he extracted from a ditch somewhere in South Dakota! From that point forward, I was more careful in what I asked for from Tom.

Tom’s work will have a lasting legacy. In addition to having a particular disease strain named after him, he has generated a great deal of “cutting edge” research that will be referenced by future pathologists, breeders and students.

Sam Markell — There are a couple things that I think define both Tom’s personality and his legacy.

The first is his incredible ability to network with people and bring people together. He has professional colleagues (many close friends) on every continent, save Antarctica. Tom altruistically networks for other people as well, introducing people to each other for both professional and personal connections. As an example, in the last year he has hosted visitors from Argentina, Australia, South Africa and Turkey — many of them staying for more than a week to visit Tom.

The second thing is his deep connection to the sunflower industry and the people in it. For as long as I have known Tom, he has gone out of his way to assist people when they have an emerging issue, a need for advice — or simply to help. He is driven by helping people and making a difference. Simply, he really cares.

Lastly, he is a great mentor. Six years ago I knew nothing about sunflower pathology and knew no one working on sunflower. Today, I am more comfortable with sunflower pathology and have more colleagues in the sunflower world than in any of the other seven crops with which I work. This is unequivocally a result of Tom taking me under his wing. He is a great mentor and friend.

Gerald Seiler — When I look back over Tom’s career, the thing that strikes me is the close relationship he had with the industry. Granted, diseases are on everyone’s mind, and he was willing to listen and help. Tom could never leave a door unopened; he always had to see what was on the other side! With his inquisitive nature, he was always generating new ideas, interacting with partners, stakeholders, cooperators and colleagues.

Tom will also be remembered for his championing of surveys, especially diseases, pointing out the necessity of tracking the current and emerging diseases and being proactive instead of reactive. This has built a database of information to see where we have been and where we might be going in the future.

Tom also has always been a champion of genetic diversity. I will miss him dearly because of his support of wild species for sunflower improvement. He was way ahead of the breeders at that time, based on his belief that wild species had value. Breeders were not willing to put the necessary effort into identifying the resistance genes and putting them into a cultivated background. Use of wild species is still true today with many of USDA sunflower geneticist Brent Hulke’s recent releases and much of the mapping now being reported upon by molecular geneticist Lili Qi.

His interest (passion) in the wild species spilled over into my area of research. Tom is an adventurer and liked to travel, so plant exploration was a natural fit for him. We collected wild sunflower for more than a decade, exploring the hinterlands of the USA and Australia. Collecting with Tom was always a challenge, i.e., keeping him on task due to his vast interest in many things. I considered him the John James Audubon of sunflower!

Tom was the quintessential traveler, both domestically and internationally. He could not pass up an ice cream store, bakery, used book store, roadside fruit market, boiled peanuts, greenhouse nursery, floral shop, eclectic restaurant, flour mill . . . . you get the idea. Travel for Tom was not just travel; it was an adventure to glean all possible hours of daylight searching for new things, interacting with people and generating new ideas.

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