Turf MD: Karl Danneberger celebrates the career of a turfgrass icon

By |  February 17, 2024 0 Comments

A significant end to an era is coming to turfgrass research, teaching and extension with several recent retirements among university turfgrass professors. One of the most recent is Joseph Vargas, Ph.D., professor of turfgrass pathology at Michigan State.

Vargas was among the generation of turfgrass pathologists that included icons like Houston Couch, Ph.D., Noel Jackson, Ph.D., Richard Smiley, Ph.D., and Peter Dernoeden, Ph.D., to name a few. All were well-known figures in the golf industry for decades. Attending a professional meeting — like the American Phytopathological Society meeting or a turfgrass conference — with one of these researchers was an experience you wouldn’t want to miss.

Vargas was a prodigious researcher who could relate his research results to the golf course industry better than most. Because of that, he became one of the most iconic figures in our industry.

Danneberger (left) and Vargas. (Photo: Karl Danneberger)

Danneberger (left) and Vargas. (Photo: Karl Danneberger)

Making waves

Vargas’ research has been on the cutting edge and has often been seen as controversial over the years. For example, his early research on anthracnose as a major disease of Poa annua refuted the dogma in the industry at the time that Poa annua died in the summer from high temperatures.

His work led to revolutionary changes in how we managed golf course turf. Vargas identified the first bacterial disease of creeping bentgrass, known as bacterial wilt. His research led to new control methods and green renovation strategies for dealing with the disease.

To name a few more, Vargas’ research into fungicide resistance and product evaluations has continued to address questions facing the industry. This led to Vargas being in constant demand as a conference speaker.
Vargas is often introduced with few words. His reputation spoke for itself.

Man of the people

In turfgrass diagnosis, turfgrass pathologists are the tip of the spear. They are often the first contacted regarding turfgrass decline on a golf course.

Vargas was one of the best — if not the best — on-site diagnosticians I have known. His ability was due, in large part, to his work on golf courses and responsiveness to golf course superintendents. Being out there in the field contributed considerably to his support within the golf industry.

Well-recognized here in the United States, Vargas also had a great reputation internationally. His influence globally is reflected in his 3.5 million plus frequent flyer miles on Delta Airlines.

Vargas’ trophy cabinet showcases his career accomplishments well. He received many awards including the USGA Green Section Award in 2007 and the Col. John Morley Award from the GCSAA in 1997.

Of the more unique awards Vargas ever received speaks to his international influence and respect within the golf industry. Vargas was the first American to receive the title of Honorary Portuguese Golf Course Superintendent from Associação Portuguesa de Greenskeepers.

Cruisin’ into retirement

Vargas was a committed teacher and lecturer in the classrooms at Michigan State University. He brought a thoroughness and expertise of his subject to the classroom. Often, his lectures were brought into clarity by his uncanny ability to summarize a topic or thought in a single saying or sentence.

It’s difficult to capture the full scope of Vargas’ career in just one column. For the many who came in contact with him, he’s become a friend not to be forgotten. From my days as a student, to my current title, I have always respected Joe and, at the same time, considered him to be pretty cool.

If I had one wish for Joe in retirement, it would be for him to be cruising in a 1955 Fleetwood Series 60 Cadillac with the radio playing Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. Viva Joe.

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About the Author: Karl Danneberger, Ph.D.

Karl Danneberger, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of horticulture and crop science at The Ohio State University. He is author of the popular The Turf Doc column that appears monthly in Golfdom. Karl writes on topics ranging from Poa annua to pest control.

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