Remembering Charles Walkof

Charles Walkof and family.

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Dr. Charles Walkof was a highly regarded research scientist, an outstanding Morden citizen and a kind mentor to me during my youth. His grandfather, Simon Walkof, emigrated from Romania to Quebec with his family in 1886. Son, Joseph, was five years old at the time. When Joseph (Charles’ father) was 9 years old, the family moved to southern Manitoba where Simon became a shoemaker. Joseph attended school in the Haskett area and later taught in several small country schools. Joseph and his wife, Agatha, had two sons, Charles and Albert, and one daughter, Irene. Both boys attended the University of Manitoba. Charles received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1933. In 1940, he attended the University of Alberta in Edmonton and received a Master’s in Agriculture. In 1950, he attended the University of Minneapolis in Minneapolis, Minnesota and received a Ph. D. in Horticulture.

After graduating in 1933, Charles married Marie Wiebe. They moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, where he spent 9 years working at an experimental farm. In 1941, he moved his family, now including two daughters, Shirley and Jean, to Morden. Here he worked at The Morden Experimental Farm until his retirement in October of 1972. During those 31 extremely productive years, he was involved in many different areas of producing new and hardier vegetables.

Of all the awards Dr. Walkof received, his most prized was the Stevenson Memorial Award in 1967. This award was the gold medal in horticultural research given by the Manitoba Horticultural Association. The presenter of this award, Lieutenant Governor R. S. Bowles, credited Dr. Walkof with introducing 22 new varieties of vegetables and collaborating in the development of three others. These included many varieties of tomatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, cabbages, eggplants and peppers. In fact, Dr. Charles named the Morden Cucumber, the Morden Midget Eggplant and the Arctic Sweet Pea. Most of the seeds of these plants were distributed by the vegetable seed industry in Canada and the United States. Several were incorporated into the breeding programs in Europe and the Middle East.

Dr. Walkof received other awards too numerous to mention and was also written about in many horticultural publications. He published 12 scientific papers and a number of technical papers. He also directed and advised graduate students who, later, worked in important productive research positions. He represented Canada on the International Commission for Horticultural Science and he was also a member of three other recognized scientific organizations.

Dr. Walkof discovered ways of cross-breeding tomato and cucumber strains that only a geneticist could understand. He named his first big successful tomato the Mustang. It was the first F1 hybrid tomato to be used commercially and, now, 67 years later, it is still recommended for use on the prairies. His crossing block technique produced an F1 hybrid cucumber seed. He also collaborated with a research colleague to develop a type of potato useful for chipping. This potato did not need conditioning at room temperature. The potato chipping industry considered this an important advantage for them.

But if Dr. Walkof were alive today, he might say that one of his greatest achievements and the pride of his career was having a tomato named after him. He developed the Monarch, the Mustang, the Meteor, the Starfire, the Bush Beefsteak, the Early Girl and the Red Staker. When the seeds of the Red Staker were approved to be sold to the general public in 1972, the T & T Seed Company added Charles’ name and it has been known as Charlie’s Red Staker since.

This honour was bestowed shortly before his retirement. Shirley contacted this company recently and was told that they still sell Charlie’s Red Staker tomato seeds and that it is a customer favourite. Charles worked closely with the founders of the T & T Seed Company, two brothers Paddy and Jerry Twomey. He considered them good friends. When this company celebrated their 50th anniversary, two sons of Paddy’s, Kevin and Brian, wrote this tribute to Dr. Charles Walkof: “Charlie helped us select early season varieties for many of our past catalogues. He spent 31 years at the Morden Research Station developing such vegetables as Morden’s Early Cucumber and Charlie’s Red Staker. He was a very kind and special person.”

In 1967 Dr. Walkof began broadcasting a radio show on CFAM. This show on gardening tips and horticultural advancements proved to be so popular, he continued sending tapes after his retirement.

Not only was Dr. Walkof an incredible research scientist, he was an amazing family man and very involved with his church and community. Charles was in severe pain every day with a crippling form of rheumatoid arthritis but always found time and energy for activities important to his wife and daughters. He was proud of his daughters’ accomplishments in piano and voice training. His wife, Marie, was not a nurse but did her best to make his life a little easier and more comfortable. This allowed him to focus on his work.

After teaching for some years, Joseph, Charles’ father, began The Church of God in Morden. Charles became involved in all aspects of church work. He spoke when called upon and served as chairman of the board and treasurer for the church. Charles was also a strong Morden supporter. He loved his community and after joining the Kinsman Club helped wherever he was needed. On July 1, at the Kin Sports Jamboree, Charles could always be found in the sound booth announcing the different events being held.

Charles retired early at the age of 62 years. He chose to move to warmer climates where he could find some relief from his pain. After a few years of living in Las Crues and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Charles and Marie returned to Canada to live in Oliver, BC. Even though they missed family and friends in Morden, they made friends wherever they lived. Charles was born in 1910 and was only 74 years old when he died in 1984. Most of us can only dream of accomplishing as much as he did in his lifetime. He was so humble about his achievements that many of us who knew him well were not aware of all the important research he was doing.

I met Charles, his wife Marie, and their two daughters in 1951 when our family began attending The Church of God in Morden. Although Charles was called Dr. Charles Walkof by his associates at work, I knew him as Mr. Walkof or Charlie Walkof. I also knew him as a friend and a mentor. I don’t remember when he started taking an interest in this poor, dishevelled tomboy of a child that I was, but he did. I don’t think I was looking for a father figure but he became one. He seemed to know that I had an uninvolved, disinterested father.

When Charles discovered my huge appetite for reading, he opened up his immense home library to me. Our home had few books. Morden did not have a public library nor did our high school have a library. I was reading The Silver Chalice and Ben Hur while my friends were still reading comic books. Charles also encouraged me to enter the festival in spoken poetry, public speaking and, later, debating. One of the years he coached me in public speaking, I won first place in Morden and had to compete against Winkler and Altona in the finals. Of course, I lost out to Howard Dyck, the well-known radio broadcaster and conductor. The year he coached my friend, Eva, and me in debating, we won over two Winkler boys. That was one of the highlights of my Grade 11 year.

But the kindest gesture Dr. Charles did for me, he did for our entire family. As chairman of the board of trustees for The Church of God, he proposed that the church spend $3500.00 to renovate our small home. I was 15 years old when our house was put on a full basement and two small bedrooms and a bathroom were added. A cistern was built in the basement and my days of hauling water were over. A furnace was installed in the basement and we could get rid of our space heater in the living room. Jim finally had his own bedroom. This work was all done with a minimum of professional help and a maximum of volunteers from the church and community. We were so proud of our new home and the many benefits it offered us.

While I was growing up and Dr. Walkof was encouraging me and building up my self-esteem, I did not know him as an important person. I only knew him as a kind, helpful and generous man who took an interest in me and my education. We named our third son Charles. We did not name our son after the highly respected research scientist that Dr. Charles Walkof was; we named him after the wonderful human being I had learned to love and appreciate.

I know that I never thanked Dr. Walkof for helping me and for mentoring me. I know that I never thanked him for showing me a different kind of man, a different kind of father. Posthumously, I want to say “Thank you, Dr. Charles” from one of your other kind of students.

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