Speaking For the Trees

My Dad, Chet, liked to quote the Lorax, by Dr. Seuss: “I speak for the trees!” appreciating moments when such words are justifiably needed to be spoken.  Dad loved, cared for and appreciated trees – what they give to us and what they teach us in return.  In 2005, the Como District 10 Environmental Task Force sponsored an annual event called the Tree Trek, a two-hour tree tour in Como Park led by Prof. Chet Mirocha. The annual event became very popular, and Dad guided the trek for many years -- identifying trees, a few plant diseases and sharing interesting facts about the large variety of trees in Como Park.

The District 10 Community Council continues its service to the Como Community today.  As testament to his contributions, in 2007 Chet was named to the Neighborhood Honor Roll.  In 2012, two kind neighbors purchased a tree in his name to be planted in Como Park.  In 2011, the Committee received permission to attach metal tree identification tags to 18 trees in Como Park. These tags remain in place today, allowing anyone, anytime who might spot one during their personal forays into the park to learn more about our friends, the trees.  These tags are an enduring legacy put in place for fostering tree appreciation and connection to nature, a lasting reminder of Chet's work promoting what he loved.  When I come across one of these tags on my walks in the park, memories of and connection to Dad rise up in my mind along with the emotions that accompany them.

To honor this legacy, we intend to "plant" a tree next Spring in Como Park in honor of Chet's love for and dedication to trees.  If you would like to contribute to Chet's Tree Fund, click here.  Thank you.

In 2010, a Tree Appreciation Program began with an event created for June 12 of that year.  Chet (Dad) was an organizing member of this new task force, with the mission of fostering area residents to value existing trees on their property and also to plant more of them.  While the program does not continue today, in 2010, the year this program was established, The Como Park Monitor quoted Chet:

“We’d like to encourage all District 10 residents to provide good care to the trees on their properties and to plant more trees, where possible,” said Chet Mirocha. “Trees are a trust left to us by the previous owners of our homes and one that we should leave to those that come after us.”

Free trees were given away at the event that year, and there was a competition for standout trees to be selected for recognition.

“We hope to inspire a great deal of tree planting,” said Mirocha, adding that he’d like to see a new tree put in place of every one that was cut down on private property. “With so many trees being lost to invasive pests like the emerald ash borer and Dutch elm disease, we lose more of the urban forest every day.”

Dad loved burning firewood as well, creating many lasting memories for the family with his crackling, after dinner fires at home in the living room fireplace.  Always energy conscious, one year he installed an enclosed, glass faced fireplace “stove” that circulated the heat from the fire into the living room rather than up the chimney.  Campfires both at the cabin and on camping trips add many more, warm recollections.  When he was a boy, he and his brother, Cass, built campfires on the shores of Lake Michigan where they grew up during the Depression years, roasting hotdogs, and folding potatoes and carrots into foil among the embers.  One year for Christmas I purchased for him a firewood holder for stacking logs, the largest (18” x 6 feet) wrapped present “under” the tree that year.

“Who is that one for?” one grandchild asked, eyes wide.

“Grandpa!”

“Wow, what did he get?”

What, indeed!

For many years, during the annual visit at the family cabin with Cass, the two men spent enjoyable afternoons taking down dead timber on the lake property.  Andy, one of my brothers, also occasionally worked with him on this.  During the last year or two of Chet's life, I became more interested in chain sawing myself, but that was something we didn’t have the time to explore nor he the energy to mentor me with.  That legacy remains, however, for me to pass forward into the future in firewood handling at the family cabin. Speaking for the trees.

My Dad's Career as Professor of Plant Pathology at the Univ. of MN

Chet’s granddaughter, Sonia, and I (his daughter) recently paid a visit to the U of MN plant path department on the St. Paul campus where Dad was a Professor for 34 years before retiring in 1997.  We wanted to notify the department in person, for this was a most important place for Dad as he dedicated years of hard work here mentoring grad students, furthering scientific progress and adding to the scientific database with his extensive research.  It also holds many memories for us.  We stopped in just days after his passing.  What a warm welcome James Bradeen, Dept Head, gave us!

“Mirocha is a big name around here,” he told us as he showed us around.

It was gratifying to learn that the mass spectrometry lab Dad started so many decades ago continues to be an integral part of the department.  We visited Dad’s old office (I remembered which one). The white board Sonia fondly recalls drawing on is still on the wall, and the calm, dedicated science atmosphere (like aromatherapy) enveloped us and we stood there soaking it all in.  It is good to see the research and teaching legacy continue, for plant path struck us as clearly remaining an active, thriving place!

“Dad!” I said, as we entered his old office.  I felt Dad’s presence there in this quiet, book lined room where he spent so much of his working life, with its 3rd floor view down to the sloping courtyard.  Several times, during my college years I stopped in to visit while attending the University.  A new academician has taken up quarters here, but Dad’s aura lingers.

Decades ago, trying to understand what my father did, I asked him what the name of the class is he teaches.  He told me, The Physiology of Host-Parasite Relations.  I knew also that he worked with or consulted with regional farmers having trouble with fungi affecting their grains – valuable work and research.  But I still didn’t understand the bigger picture of what his work entailed.  Last year, wanting to learn more, I at last interviewed him.  Probing into my dad’s career, I endeavored to understand and explain the details and timeline of his fascinating work, which resulted in a memoir/essay  The following career recap is partially taken from that writing.

My first questions were about the international path my father’s career followed.  I don’t think that outcome was an intentional goal, it just happened.  In 1966, Dr. C.J. Mirocha, or Chet, innovated the idea for a scientific collaboration with Japan and wrote a grant for this to the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The mission was to foster scientific research and information sharing in our post WWII relations with them.  He chaired the first and second seminars of this program called the U.S.-Japan Cooperative Science Program, meeting every 4 years for the next twenty years until it ended in 1986.  From the 60’s on, our family had visiting science colleagues in my father’s field of plant pathology come to the house for dinner -- Dr. Leonov from Russia, for example in the mid 1970’s.  Throughout Dad’s career, there were also professors from Japan, Hungary, Poland and England to name a few.  International graduate students worked with him as their PhD candidacy professor, coming from Iraq, Italy, India, Africa and so on. The opportunities for widening horizons was reciprocal for us family members, for example, in that I stayed with the family of a French professor in Brest, on the Brittany coast, when I visited France as a teenager in 1979.

The focus of Dad’s career was the study of tiny fungi -- parasitic fungi that attack host grains and other agricultural products that have been improperly stored.  These fungi produce deadly substances called mycotoxins as they colonize the crops.  Mycotoxins can produce disease and death in both humans and animals. Their detection and analysis involve very precise, difficult techniques and require advanced equipment.  Dad developed procedures for the detection and identification of mycotoxins using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.  At this point (late 1960’s or early 70’s) he recognized a need for top notch lab equipment and took steps to make that happen for the plant path department.  Through grants from the NSF, he was eventually able to build up his research facility at the University of Minnesota into one of the few labs in the U.S. capable of precisely measuring and detecting extremely small samples of mycotoxins.

The Soviet Union had done much research on these same mycotoxins, especially after WWII when large amounts of the Soviet population began to fall ill after eating improperly stored grain.  During the war, and primarily in the Soviet Union, European harvests were disrupted because the men had been recruited away as soldiers and labor was left short, so farms were unable to manage the harvest.  Many crops lay fallow in the fields over the winter, exposed to snow, damp and cold -- prime conditions for the growth of fungi.  The Soviet region with its continuous freeze/thaw cycles provides excellent growing conditions for Fusarium, the genus name of the mycotoxin producing fungi Dr Mirocha studied, of which there are several species.  After WWII, the Soviet Union began extensive research on these Fusarium species in order to explain and ameliorate the major health concern that was happening.  Research revealed that these Fusarium produce a group of toxic compounds called trichothecenes – and they happen to be the same Fusarium producing trichothecenes that Dad was also researching in his lab on the St. Paul “farm campus” at the University of Minnesota.  Dad traveled to the Soviet Union more than once during the 1970’s to present his growing research and knowledge of Fusarium to conferences.  He traveled to many other countries as well, Yugoslavia for example, and his reputation and contacts grew within the context of that specialized field of research.

Much of Dad’s work also involved a word our family came to hear often -- zearalenone – an estrogen produced by Fusarium graminearum which causes fertility problems in swine.  At these and other symposia around the world he shared his research as principal speaker or led discussions on his and others’ research on these subjects.  He also began to give workshops on mycotoxin analysis in the early 80’s.  Over time he became an internationally respected and sought-after expert in the field of mycotoxicology, and in 1983 was elected Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society along with 12 other scientists.

In the 1980’s, Dad discovered a new Fusarium species, or as he put it in his typical modest way – his lab discovered it with him as leader.  The name of this Fusarium is fusarochromanone Fusarium, discovered in the Arctic region of Norway.  Ironically, after the trip to the Norwegian arctic region, which was difficult to get to, he found more samples of fusarochromanone Fusarium in the wheat fields growing adjacent to the University of Alaska – much easier to obtain there!

They had hopes that this new fungus could have practical applications for the medical field, as the fusarochromanone is a capillary inhibitor, and as such might slow the growth of cancer cells, for example in humans.  Their research showed that, for example, hens exposed to the fusarochromanone laid infertile eggs.  The embryos did not develop due to the lack of blood flow to the eggs.  However, the application has not been researched any further, due perhaps to several reasons:  the expense involved with production of the fusarium compounds, lack of available grants, patent applications and so on.

I am proud of the fact that my father was first and foremost a scientist.  He focused on the data, remaining confident in the integrity of his lab and findings even in the face of one or two geopolitical quagmires “cropping” up.  More importantly, he was a true humanitarian, always thinking of the welfare of others.  A quiet, unassuming man with deep ideas and a knack for thinking things all the way through, one could feel his empathy for others, seeing them as individuals, especially those who were suffering.  Besides being an avid, dedicated skier and bicyclist, he loved the outdoors, was a Boy Scout leader for my two brothers, took my sister and I on a memorable BWCA canoe camping trip including many family camping trips and also served 25 years as a Healtheast hospice volunteer.  With his wife, Donna, he helped cook and serve community meals over many years once a month at Loaves and Fishes.  Continuing the legacy of his Polish mother who immigrated here alone at age 17, Dad had an open and adventurous spirit. “Adventure walks” were an anticipated event for the grandchildren (and all who wished to go) which he led after holiday meals, setting the stage for further adventures to come for the young ones, always engaging those around him with his enthusiasm for the outdoors and leading by example in remaining fit.

He was a true and constant friend to me all my life, besides being my father, someone with whom I have shared innumerable companionable experiences over the years that have enriched my life with many good memories.  When I worked at the University of MN, I would send my poetry to him through intercampus mail, always certain of a thoughtful reading and feedback, and I would do the same for his poetic reflections on nature and spirituality writings as well.

I do so very deeply miss him.  Thanks, Dad.