Joe Vargas, Ph.D.: Remembering a game-changer in turf

Turf legend Joe Vargas, Ph.D., shaped students and the turf industry.


Joe Vargas
Joe Vargas, Ph.D., was recognized in January during the Michigan Turfgrass Conference for his over 50 years of service. Vargas passed away April 18. Photos courtesy of Kevin Franks, Ph.D.

Joe Vargas, Ph.D., couldn’t be described in one word — there are too many of them. Dynamic, energetic, iconic — they all work. Stories about him go on and on. One that comes to mind for Kevin Frank, Ph.D., at Michigan State University in East Lansing, elicits a laugh that momentarily pauses a time of grief.

“There was a joke that if a plane was leaving East Lansing, he was on it,” Frank says.

Vargas’ career did indeed soar with such distinct excellence that it circled the globe. Sadly, it was announced on April 18 that Vargas, a 28-year GCSAA Educator member, passed away after a lengthy illness. Remembrances of a life well served — in revolutionary and groundbreaking efforts that proved to be vital to the golf industry — have poured in.

Vargas was professor of turfgrass pathology at Michigan State before retirement. Even after leaving his position at Michigan State, Vargas remained active.

“If a golf course superintendent called and they had a problem, he’d get there. If not today, tomorrow or the next day. He’d get back to you in 24 hours at the most. That’s how he responded to superintendents too,” Frank says. “He was a true servant to not only in Michigan but across the world.”

A Massachusetts native who studied at the University of Rhode Island, Oklahoma State University and the University of Minnesota, Vargas arrived in at Michigan State in 1968, where he joined the faculty. It was an auspicious starting point. In the 1970s, Vargas identified a groundbreaking moment for the industry focused on Poa annua that changed lives for superintendents. The USGA noted that his recognition of the decline of Poa annua fairways during summertime wasn’t caused by heat stress but by various disease organisms, among other factors. Vargas’ demonstration of regular use of fungicides could allow Poa annua fairways to survive hot summers in good condition.

Well-known for his contributions on disease management protocol and developing the anthracnose fungicide timing model, Vargas was decorated for his efforts. He received the GCSAA Distinguished Service Award in 1997 and the USGA Green Section Award in 2007. In 2016, he was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.

All the accolades resonate with GCSAA Class A superintendent Brian Schweihofer, who oversees Franklin Hills Country Club in Franklin., Mich., and was a student at Michigan State under Vargas. Like so many others, their relationship that lasted, including Vargas’ unannounced check-ins. “He was super innovative for a long time, still on the cutting edge of everything we needed as an industry to move forward,” says Schweihofer, a 33-year association member. “His mentorship was second to none. He was around at a time a superintendent developed from a guy in the barn to professionals we have today.”

Joe Vargas in an Elvis costume
Vargas was a major Elvis Presley fan, and he didn’t mind sharing it with his own Elvis impersonation. Here he is with Kevin Frank, Ph.D., during the Michigan Turfgrass Conference.

Rob Steger, CGCS, is among those who built a back-and-forth with Vargas, including several years ago when Steger was at Saginaw (Mich.) Country Club. Steger shared an email reply he received from Vargas in a conversation about Steger’s investigation on improving rooting in July. Vargas wrote:

My research and others at MSU has shown light daily irrigation in the summer results in healthier turf. Roots are naturally short in the summer because of photorespiration and warm soil temperatures. I do not know what you mean by deep infrequent irrigation that means different things to different people. I would be curious what your definition is. I would also be curious why you think it will give you deeper roots. I will bet you a steak dinner at a place of your choice that you do not have roots, white roots, deeper than 2 inches in August regardless of how you irrigate. If they are not deeper than 2 inches you can buy me a steak dinner at a place of my choice. Do we have a bet?

Steger, now a 24-year GCSAA Class A at Red Run Golf Club in Royal Oak, Mich., lost the bet but says they never settled the wager. Instead, he believes Vargas was more interested in helping a young superintendent understand the limitations on a plant you can’t control rather than focusing on who paid for the steaks.

“It’s a terrible loss for the turf industry,” Steger says. “He was a world-renowned pathologist, and he was always willing to help, and he was incredible to me.”

Vargas wrote and published multiple books, authored hundreds of articles and delivered more than 1,000 presentations. In January, Vargas was honored for five decades of service during the annual Michigan Turfgrass Conference. After Vargas spoke, he received a standing ovation. Frank understands why. “That was as good, energetic, and passionate as I’ve seen him in years,” says Frank, “and the one thing is you didn’t want to be is the person speaking after him.” The title of Vargas’ speech, according to Frank? Turfgrass Pathologist Career: I Did it My Way.

“That was Joe. At times controversial, but he was a force,” Frank says.

Howard Richman is GCM’s  associate editor.