Charles “Charley” Hess, the dean emeritus of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis who was instrumental in building the college’s reputation as one of the top schools for agricultural and environmental studies in the world, has died. He was 87.
Hess died of congestive heart failure the morning of April 13, according to his wife, Eva Hess. He had struggled with chronic illness for the two years and was in hospice in the days before he died, she said.
A highly regarded researcher and administrator, Hess was appointed assistant secretary for science and education in the Agriculture Department by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, after he had served as dean at UC Davis for 14 years. He also held two presidential appointments to the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation.
Hess led the push for the creation of the UC Davis Student Farm, which opened in 1977 during his second year as dean. The Student Farm is a 23-acre farm that gives students the opportunity to learn about sustainable food systems in the field.
“He was approached with the idea and really had to battle the higher administration to make a go of it because they were worried about wild animals coming into campus and other catastrophic expectations,” Eva Hess said. “Charley persevered. He saw great potential in it.”
Helene Dillard, current dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said that Hess’ dedication to the creation of the Student Farm demonstrated his commitment to his students.
“Charley was really engaged and wanted to make sure that the students were getting the top-notch classes and the best teachers,” Dillard said. “We were always talking about ways we could help the students.”
But those who knew Hess best said it’s not his professional accomplishments that they will remember him for, but instead his kindness.
“Sometimes with scientists you talk about ‘oh, they discovered the black hole,’” Dillard said, “but that’s not what you remember about Charley. You remember the person. That’s something we all aspire to.”
Charles E. Hess was born Dec. 20, 1931, in New Jersey. His parents were immigrants from the Netherlands who ran a nursery business. Hess attended Rutgers University, where “the science bug bit him,” his wife said. He went on to study horticulture, plant pathology and plant physiology at Cornell University, where he received his master’s and doctoral degrees.
After serving for two years as a first lieutenant and project leader in the crops division of the U.S. Army’s biological labs in Fort Detrick in Maryland, Hess joined the faculty of Purdue University in 1958. He then returned to Rutgers in 1966, where he was chair of the Department of Horticulture and Forestry before becoming the founding dean of Rutgers’ Cook College, which is now known as the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
In 1975, Hess moved across the country to helm the UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, a position he held for 14 years.
“Charley always said if he was going to be dean someplace, the place he wanted to be was Davis,” Eva Hess said. “That was the mecca of colleges of agriculture. It was an instant adjustment when he came out West; he loved it right away.”
Colleagues said Hess’ leadership as dean was critical to building the success and prestige of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Davis’ premier program.
“The administrators that Charley recruited really went a long way to laying the foundation for the reputation the college has now,” said Mike Campbell, long-time friend and retired assistant dean. “The young faculty that he recruited are now leaders within the college but also recognized both on a national and international basis for their expertise.”
Dillard said that during Hess’ tenure as dean, he was instrumental in the development of the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. The “very successful” UC Davis biotechnology program was also begun under Hess’ tenure, Dillard said.
“He’s touched this college and university in a big way,” Dillard said.
Hess received awards for his research on the physiology of plant growth regulators and received the Distinguished Service Award, USDA’s highest honor, in 1988.
Hess left Davis for two years for his appointment to the USDA in 1989. During his time in Washington, Hess was responsible for the oversight of all agricultural research, extension and teaching activities carried out by land-grant colleges and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
Hess was also in charge of the national Agricultural Library, the National Arboretum and agricultural research laboratories across the U.S. while he was at the USDA, The Bee reported in 1989. He was a key player in getting the National Research Initiative, a research-funding program, through Congress at a time when support for agricultural research funding was lacking, his wife said.
“He really had this uncanny ability to work in the sphere of these bureaucratic people, but also to really relate to the farmers that are doing the hard agriculture on the land,” Nancy Hess, his daughter, said. “He could be that translator like nobody else, and it was really his passion to convey those insights from research into the application area.”
In 1992, Hess returned to UC Davis as the first director of international programs. Though he officially retired in 1994, according to UC Davis, Hess continued his work with international programs, served as assistant to the provost and chancellor and served temporarily as chair of the Department of Nutrition and vice chancellor of research.
It was during his time as chair of the Department of Nutrition that he mentored Francene Steinberg, who now holds that role.
“His leadership and his mentorship were incredibly valuable to me in terms of learning good practices and working with people in a leadership role,” she said.
Hess also served as president of the UC Davis Emeriti Association, and he oversaw the committee that led to the creation of the UC Davis Retiree Center. He was dedicated to ensuring retired academics received recognition and benefits. He received the UC Davis Medal, the campus’ highest honor, in 2014.
Hess is survived by his wife, Eva, and their son; four children from a previous marriage; and five grandchildren. Eva Hess said donations can be made in Hess’ memory to the Charles and Eva Hess Scholarship in Production Agriculture.
A memorial service for Hess will be held May 24 at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the UC Davis campus. The service will be at 9:30 a.m. and will be followed by a reception at 10:30. Guests can park at the Gateway Parking Structure, according to UC Davis.