WASHINGTON — State and federal leaders united Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol to salute in death a man credited with giving so many on Earth the gift of life — Iowa’s own Norman Borlaug.
A 7-foot-tall bronze statue of the Cresco native, who died in 2009 at 95, was unveiled in an hourlong ceremony attended by about 400 people in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, where an 1864 law established that each state should have two statues of its notable citizens. The day was filled with ironies, falling on the 100th anniversary of Borlaug’s birth in 1914, as well as National Agriculture Day. And the statue was unveiled on the exact spot where Borlaug stood when he received the Congressional Gold Medal — the country’s highest civilian honor — in 2007.
One of only three Americans to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, Borlaug left a lifetime’s worth of innovations and accomplishments in agriculture, biotechnology, humanitarianism and other sciences that is believed to have saved the lives of at least one billion people in developing countries from starvation. Famines in Mexico, India and Pakistan during the mid-20th Century were particularly prevented, thanks to Borlaug’s invention of an advanced, higher-yielding type of wheat grain. Among his many monikers was the nickname “Father of the Green Revolution.”
“Every once in a while, someone comes along who truly changes everything,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Someone who fashions the ordinary into the exceptional, who fills a hole we didn’t even know could be filled, who makes us raise our eyes from the problems of the moment to look around the world.
“In Iowa, there was such a man ... Norman Borlaug’s work fed the world, and — like all the greats — so did his character, his humanity. And now, having embodied the finest qualities of his state, he is called to represent it in the United States Capitol.”
Gov. Terry Branstad (R), Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), former Gov. and current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (D), Iowa’s entire congressional delegation, and all four House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders attended the event and took turns saluting Borlaug. The statue’s sculptor, Benjamin Victor, and Borlaug’s two children, Jeanie and Bill, were also in the audience after traveling from their current homes in Dallas. Former Miss Iowa Anne Michael Langguth performed the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and Centerville native Simon Estes performed the “Iowa Corn Song” from 1921, said to be Borlaug’s favorite.
Branstad said Iowa owes its leadership in agriculture, farming and alternative energy to Borlaug’s innovations, calling him “an innovator who put science in the hands of those who needed it most, all around the world.”
Like many speakers, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) noted that Borlaug attended a rural, one-room schoolhouse during his childhood years, and never lost his sense of humility even after achieving worldwide recognition. Likewise, Vilsack emphasized that Borlaug never lost his bond with farmers.
“He needed partners to do what he did, and those were the farmers,” Vilsack said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco recalled how Borlaug used the occasion of receiving the 2007 award to remind congressional leaders that he had once faced intense skepticism that famine and starvation could be solved.
“He said, ‘The world once said nothing could be done,’ “ Pelosi said. “God truly blessed America with the life and leadership of Norman Borlaug.”
Borlaug’s children said their father would have been in disbelief at being so revered.
“He was a very common person, a very humble man, and he never got too excited about all of the awards he got,” said Bill Borlaug.
The Iowa Legislature paved the way for the Borlaug statue with a resolution in 2011, following which Branstad appointed a committee to raise funds and select a sculptor. The statue will replace a 1910 statue of U.S. Sen. James Harlan, which will be returned to his hometown of Mount Pleasant for display at Iowa Wesleyan University. Iowa’s other statue at the Capitol is a 1913 work of Gov. Samuel Kirkwood.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky saluted Borlaug by noting that he maintained a rigorous travel schedule and kept planning projects well into his 90s — “almost right up until the time he finally left a planet he did so much to improve.”
“Today, we live in a very different world from the one that Norman Borlaug was born into,” McConnell said. “It’s a world with less preventable misery, less hunger, and more hope for the hungry.“What a legacy for this humble farmer from Iowa — this unlikeliest of revolutionaries, this man who changed the planet with a grain of wheat.”