From the Pesek Memoir: Coming to Iowa State; Role in Human Relations

Pesek book coverIn 2016, John Pesek published a life-spanning memoir, Mesquite, Prickly Pear and Rattlesnakes. The title references his growing up in rural south Texas. The memoir is available in the Parks Library, with a copy in both the general collection and in Special Collections & University Archives.

The memoir tracks an amazing life, from childhood to retirement. Among the chapters, Pesek recounted how he arrived at Iowa State and his involvement in early efforts on human relations and civil rights on campus.

How Pesek Came to Iowa State

Two young men who would become giants in Iowa State University history met for the first time as student and teacher in Texas.

Pesek wrote: “I had a stroke of good fortune that I did not recognize when it happened during my graduate program at [Texas] A&M and I did not fully appreciate its total impact until many years later.” One of Pesek’s required courses was advanced soil management, which was taught by Louis M. Thompson, “an outstanding undergraduate soils teacher with a reputation in teaching soil classification and soil conservation.

It turned out that Pesek was a student in the last course that Thompson taught at A&M. Afterward, Thompson left to continue his graduate studies at Iowa State. Pesek remembered: “In addition to beautiful handwriting, [Thompson] was among the best-organized instructors I ever had and liked his course. Evidently he was very satisfied with my performance because I got a good grade and he remembered me years later.”

After completing his master’s at A&M and nearing completion of his Ph.D. at North Carolina State University, Pesek looked to be headed for a faculty position at Purdue or a scientist position with USDA. But then he met with Iowa State’s agronomy head, William Pierre, who left him an application form for a position.

Soon after, Pesek was “pleasantly surprised” by a letter from Louis Thompson at Iowa State, who urged Pesek to submit his application. He did and was hired as an assistant professor at a salary of $4,600. “I am forever grateful to Louis Thompson for making the effort to encourage me to apply at Iowa State.”

(Like Pesek, Thompson became a legend in Iowa State history as a champion for undergraduate education, serving the university for over 40 years in the agronomy department and 25 years as associate dean of academic programs for the College of Agriculture. In the 1970s, Pesek and Thompson teamed up with another legendary Iowa Stater, Owen Newlin, an agronomy alum and then a senior executive with Pioneer Hi-Bred, to garner the public and private support necessary to make the construction of Agronomy Hall a reality.)

After earning his Ph.D., Pesek loaded “all his earthly belongings” into his 1941 Ford and drove to Ames. He was 28 years old.

“I knew I had my whole life on the horizon when I arrived in Ames and took my position at Iowa State. I was ready to go to work for the people of Iowa and the farmers of the U.S. at a location that I considered the very best in the world for someone trained in soils and in agronomy, the science and practice of crop production, soil management and climatology.”

Pesek wrote that he “had no idea that I would spend at least another sixty years right here.” In quiet understatement, he wrote: “My work turned out to be of more use to farmers than I had expected.”

Pesek and Civil Rights

Some of Pesek’s earliest service to the greater Iowa State University community came in the area of human relations and civil rights.

He wrote: “Several years after arriving at Iowa State, I was a member and later, chair, of the Human Relations Committee that helped establish the conscience of the University to follow the spirit and words of the Civil Rights Act, consciously to promote integration and uniform treatment of students, and the employment of faculty and staff.”

Much of the committee’s work was done “without fanfare,” including identifying and changing university documents to remove wording “leading to discriminatory implications.” Pesek wrote that he was the “penman” who wrote the first “Justice for All” statement printed on most university publications. Later, the Human Relations Committee proposed appointing a university Committee on Women. Pesek was an original member of that committee, which was comprised primarily of women.

Earlier in his memoir, Pesek recalled an incident where he saw prejudice and discrimination first-hand.

While working on his Ph.D. at NCSU, he conducted field research, taking trips into rural parts of North Carolina with his major professor, Wreal Lott, and other members of the research team. Pesek recalled that one person working with Lott was black. When they stopped their pickup at a local restaurant to eat lunch, everyone was allowed in the front door except for the black team member, who had to go to the back door and be served in the rear of the place. Pesek briefly recounts the conditions in the South in the 1950s and the subsequent federal Civil Rights legislation in 1964.

For his long-time service, Iowa State’s University Human Relations Committee honored Pesek with the first Recognition Award for Significant Contributions to the Betterment of Human Relations at Iowa State University.

—Brian Meyer
CALS Communications
February 17, 2019