Industry mourns loss of Joe Vargas, legendary turfgrass researcher

By |  May 13, 2024 0 Comments

If the true measure of a man is the legacy he leaves behind, the late Joseph Vargas, Ph.D., can rest easy.

Dr. Joe Vargas is a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame and has dedicated his 51-year career to improving the quality of turf. (Photo courtesy of MSU)

Joe Vargas, Ph.D., won the USGA Green Section Award in 2007 and the Morley Award from the GCSAA in 1997. (Photo: Kevin Frank)

Based on the countless tributes and eulogies that poured in following his death on April 18 following a long illness, Vargas’ legacy — one that included more than 50 years at Michigan State University as a professor of turfgrass pathology — was as immense as any the industry has ever seen.

“I don’t know that there is anyone in this industry who didn’t know Joe or at least know of Joe,” says Kevin Frank, Ph.D., a professor and turfgrass Extension specialist who worked with Vargas at Michigan State for nearly a quarter of a century. “We were trying to figure out how many students he taught over his years at MSU, and you could easily come up with over 2,000 turf students. Add in all the seminars he taught at conferences … he just impacted so many people for so long. He was literally an institution.”

“When you lose somebody that had that type of impact in the industry, it’s a little stunning.”

That impact as an influential — and sometimes controversial — figure in turfgrass education and research extended into the world of golf course management, as well. Countless superintendents relied on Vargas for sage words of advice and wisdom throughout his career, contributions that led to Vargas receiving honors such as GCSAA’s Distinguished Service Award (now known as the Col. John Morley Award) in 1997 and the USGA Green Section Award in 2007.

“He was a true friend of the golf course superintendent. He had their backs,” says Frank. “He did his best to help them and defend them when he thought the criticism they faced was unwarranted. But he also wasn’t afraid to tell them they needed to consider doing something else when he thought what they were doing wasn’t working.”

Photo: Kevin Frank

Photo: Kevin Frank

Adam Ikamas, CGCS, now the executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Superintendents Association, got a firsthand look at Vargas’ support of superintendents during his days as a working superintendent.

“When I was in that role … I learned more and more about his impact on golf all over the world,” Ikamas says. “I learned about his willingness to come see me at my course to help with diagnosis or planning for disease control. I learned about his work on Poa annua disease in fairways that was assumed to die in the summer heat. I learned about his outreach across the globe changing the way golf courses were managed.”

Both Frank and Ikamas say that it will be Vargas the person that will be missed just as much as Vargas the turfgrass legend. His lust for life, his love of the game of golf and his passion for Elvis Presley — and his impersonations of The King that he’d roll out at turfgrass conferences from time to time — will be remembered as much as his many contributions to turfgrass management.

“They don’t make them like Joe Vargas anymore. It’s just not possible,” says Ikamas.

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