Remembering Dr. Joseph Vargas

The CANR Spartan community commemorates the impactful life and enduring legacy of Joseph Vargas

Image of Dr. Joseph Vargas

Joseph Vargas, Ph.D., a distinguished plant pathology and turfgrass management professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, passed away on April 18. He was 82.

An internationally renowned researcher and scholar, Vargas joined the faculty at MSU in 1968. During his 56-year career he improved the quality of turfgrass on six continents and inspired generations of leaders in the field of turfgrass management.

“To put it simply, Joe was one of a kind,” said Brian Horgan, Ph.D., Professor and Chairperson, Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. “There are just not enough words to describe the incredible influence he had on all that were lucky to know and work with him. His teaching, research and extension work benefited partners across the state of Michigan and around the world. He will be remembered for his energy, his exceptional scholarship, his vibrant sense of humor, humility and friendship.”

“Joe’s remarkable life embodied the true spirit of a Spartan,” said College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dean Kelly Millenbah, Ph.D. “The CANR community joins with all those who knew and loved Joe to celebrate his many accomplishments and honor his extraordinary legacy. His pioneering work made an impact across the globe, particularly in the golf industry, where his outreach and engagement proved vital for so many over the years. My heart goes out to Joe’s wife MaryAnn and the entire Vargas family during this difficult time.”

“Joe was always willing to help those in need,” said Nancy Dykema, a PSM research assistant who was mentored by Vargas as a student and served as his long-time assistant. “Whether it was a golf course superintendent, a student, colleague or friend, his mentorship and support were second to none. He was passionate about teaching and loved working with students. For those he supported, it was a comfort to have him as a staunch advocate.”

A prolific scholar and industry partner

Vargas was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on March 11, 1942. During his youth, he worked on his grandparents’ farm, as well as at Fall River Country Club, which inspired his initial interest in turf grass. He attended the University of Rhode Island, earning his bachelor's degree in 1963. He went on to receive a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1968.

After joining the faculty at MSU, Vargas quickly established himself as a leader in turfgrass pathology, advancing innovative solutions addressing complex challenges and supporting industry partners. During the course of his career, he published more than 200 articles on turfgrass diseases and related subjects. He also published the most widely used turfgrass disease book and co-authored two other books.

His extensive scientific contributions include developing the first prediction model for turfgrass disease, advancing new disease management protocols and pioneering fungicide applications. Vargas’ outreach efforts were also expansive and international. He shared his knowledge at more than 1,000 presentations in such diverse places as Australia, Argentina, Ireland, Malaysia, Spain, Japan, and South Africa.

The practical applications of his many academic achievements earned him widespread recognition and industry acclaim. Vargas received the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) Distinguished Service Award in 1997 and the United States Golf Association (USGA) Green Section Award in 2007. In 2016, he was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. He also received the CANR Distinguished Faculty Award in 2019 and the Michigan Golf Course Owners Distinguished Service Award in 2021, among numerous other recognitions throughout his career.

An enduring legacy

In 2022, the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation (MTF), a non-profit organization which supports turfgrass research and education, donated $1 million to launch a campaign at MSU to endow the Joe Vargas Chair in Turfgrass Pathology.

Honoring Vargas’ lifetime of groundbreaking achievements, the endowment further enhances the capacity of the MSU turfgrass management program to produce cutting-edge research that positively impacts practitioners, from our back yards to world-class golf courses.

Funding for the endowed Joe Vargas Chair in Turfgrass Pathology will ensure that a strong and robust program is possible in perpetuity and will honor Vargas’s enduring legacy as a scholar and researcher whose exemplary work benefitted so many in Michigan and around the world.

Additional information about the life and legacy of Joseph Vargas, as well as details about funeral services can be found here. More information about the Joe Vargas Endowed Chair in Turfgrass Pathology can be found here.

In lieu of flowers, the family wishes that memorial contributions be made to the Dr. Joe Vargas Chair in Turfgrass Pathology at Michigan State University here, or by check payable to “Michigan State University” including Joe Vargas Chair in Turfgrass Pathology or A108101 on the memo line of your check.

Gifts by mail should be sent to: CANR Advancement Office, Michigan State University, 446 West Circle Drive, Room 319, East Lansing, MI 48824.

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