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Issue No. 6, Article 7/May 1, 2009

Remembering a Weed Science Colleague

A question during a recent phone conversation prompts me to share news of the passing of a former colleague. Dr. Ellery L. Knake, professor emeritus of agronomy and weed science at the University of Illinois, passed away on March 1. Dr. Knake, an internationally recognized authority in weed science, demonstrated an unrivaled passion for bringing innovative weed management solutions to Illinois farmers during his 37-year tenure at the University of Illinois.

Ellery's association with the university began when he enrolled for undergraduate courses in the fall of 1945. Six weeks later he was drafted into the army, where he served from 1945 to 1946. He returned to the U of I the following year under the GI Bill, completing his B.S. in vocational agriculture in 1949 and his M.S. in 1950. Ellery taught high school at Barrington, Illinois, for six years until he returned to the U of I in 1956 as an instructor with the vocational agriculture service. While an instructor, he began a Ph.D. program in agronomy under the direction of Dr. Fred Slife, completing it in 1960. His thesis research investigated the competitive influence of giant foxtail on corn and soybean, culminating in the publication of the seminal research that defined the critical period of interference between giant foxtail and these agronomic crops.

Ellery's Ph.D. research marked the beginning of his fascination with weeds and ushered in his career-long pursuit to better understand how weeds adversely impact agronomic crops. He became an assistant professor of agronomy at his alma mater and advanced through the ranks of associate professor (1964) and professor (1969). Much of Ellery's early research on weed competition pioneered the establishment of thresholds for several annual grass and broadleaf weed species and provided economic justification for using soil-residual herbicides. He provided critical leadership in creatively developing and promoting weed control technology for conservation tillage systems. He was instrumental in developing a simplistic color chart to determine soil organic matter content so application rates of soil-residual herbicide could be optimized. Ellery also conducted some of the earliest research to develop techniques for flame cultivation. Much of his work in later years was devoted to optimizing performance of soil- and foliar-applied herbicides in conventional and no-tillage cropping systems.

Dr. Knake's enthusiasm for research was surpassed only by his passion for extension. He aggressively planned and conducted numerous field research experiments to find solutions for emerging weed problems, and then he took the results to his clientele through a plethora of media. Ellery wrote extensively for newsletters and was a source for countless articles in the popular farm press. He was a stalwart presence and presenter at county agronomy days and campus-based conferences. His compelling educational methods were enlightening, imaginative, and entertaining.

Those who knew Ellery also knew of his fondness for sharing stories about his experiences. He often couched a favorite story as a training tool for young extension weed scientists on the potential hazards of weed identification. He would relay that one day he had received by mail a folded-over brown paper bag, which he assumed contained a weed the sender wished him to identify. Opening the bag, he reached inside and felt around for the slip of paper typically enclosed that would tell who sent the sample and what the request was. Upon finding the slip of paper--along with the weed--he was startled to read the message scribbled across it: "Is this poison ivy?"

I conclude this memorial to Dr. Knake with words from the presidential address he delivered at the annual meeting of the Weed Science Society of America in February 1975, titled "Pluck a Thistle and Plant a Flower":

"Regardless of your specific calling, I would admonish you to take pride in your profession and in your own accomplishments. 'The purpose of life is to accomplish something that outlives you.' And in achieving your goals I hope that our Society, yours and mine, can be of service so that we might all better serve mankind.

"In closing, I quote from a great statesman who lived for a while in Illinois, and then moved to Washington, D.C. to leave his mark. 'Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I plucked a thistle and planted a flower, wherever I thought a flower would grow.' --Abraham Lincoln."

Many who knew Ellery L. Knake can attest that his accomplishments will persist long after his departure from this life. So also did Ellery pluck many thistles and plant many, many flowers. --Aaron Hager

Author:
Aaron Hager

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