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Rice Pioneer Dr. Henry Beachell Dies at 100
Dr. Henry (Hank) Beachell died on Dec. 13, 2006 in Alvin, Texas.

Before Dr. Henry (Hank) Beachell died last week on Dec. 13, 2006 in Alvin, Texas, less than a mile away from the verdant, high-yielding rice fields he so famously developed, I attended his 100th birthday party.

I went to photograph "Dr. Hank," whom I knew only as the famous agronomist who'd won the World Food Prize and the Japan Prize of the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan in 1987—the man who'd led the "Green Revolution" in rice and saved, oh, maybe a billion human lives through developing IR 8—the progenitor of extremely high-yield, hardy rice varieties.

Dr. Hank had worked Alvin's rice fields right up to age 98. But at 100, he'd become frail. His devoted caretakers had propped him up in a bed on a dais at his party so he could see and be seen, and some folks murmured that this was "so horrible."

But what I saw was a man who'd lived 100 years, lovingly surrounded by over 100 people—most of them his relatives and descendants through his siblings. He and his late wife were not able to have any children, but his nieces and nephews and their children and cousins came from
all across the country and shared the most amazing personal stories of their life with this great scientist. To them, the man who fed the world rice was just "Uncle Hank," and he and his wife took them on amazing car trips to agricultural stations across America. Their time with him fully informed their lives. They came to his dais and embraced him, unabashedly.

Moving from table to table to take my photos, I overheard whispers through the party-talk and laughter. Some were unnerved by Dr. Hank's unblinking stare. Some said the party and Dr. Hank's bed on the dais were "disgraceful," and they sternly ordered each other to "never do that" to them if they lived that long. But what I saw was a 100 year-old guy clearly enjoying himself at his own party, eating Texas barbeque and birthday cake with relish, and receiving hugs and kisses from every blessed member of his family, students and former students, co-workers, big-wigs from corporate seed companies, foreign ambassadors and dignitaries, as well as his doting pastor and the lady who so tenderly took care of him when he became bed-ridden. She smilingly turned his face to the huge crowd spread out across long tables placed end-to-end, and told him, "See? They are all here for you. And you worried that nobody would come…."

Photographers read eyes, and in Dr. Hank's I saw only joy and, frankly, curiosity. "Who's here?" his eyes asked, taking it all in. No self-pity, no shame at being old and infirm, not even fear, just happiness at being part of the great chain of humanity, and for a few hours, watching it all unfold, lavishly and lovingly, out before him. Like ripe rice, rippling emerald green and gold in watery fields.

When Dr. Hank was young, families often lived together, three generations all under one roof, and how grandparents balanced the tribulations of that frequently uncomfortable closeness with the great satisfaction of seeing new generations coming into being, of being part of their immediate present while imagining and helping plan futures they themselves would never live to see.

Dr. Hank lived to see more than most.

And he gave futures to many millions who would otherwise have suffered from malnourishment, starvation and death—a gift beyond measure, beyond medals and prizes.

Some of these millions and their descendants came to his birthday party from as far away as India, Indonesia, Central and South America, and the Philippines, where in 1966 his new rice varieties more than doubled previous yields. Some came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Beaumont, Texas Experiment Station—now the Texas
A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Beaumont—where Dr. Hank worked from 1932 to 1963 and developed nine new rice varieties which eventually created more than 90 percent of the United States' long-grain rice production.

RiceTec, the research-based hybrid rice company in Alvin, kept his office ready for him even through his last confinement. Who will sit at his desk now?

Hopefully, the next leader of the new "Green Revolution." May he or she continue Dr. Hank's work, save a billion lives, and help plan the futures of another billion people they will never live to see. May they live long enough to see one special day the great chain of humanity spread out before them not just in admiration but in love and the sincerest form of thanks, which is sometimes to simply survive in the world.

May they be the blessing to new generations that Hank Beachell was to ours.






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