The Storied Joshua
Ken Shapiro, University of Wisconsin

I first knew Josh only by reputation; then as a colleague who became a friend and ultimately a model.  

In talking about Josh and his time at UW, I have to start with Jill. IN all the many places they lived around the world, Jill and Josh made a wonderful life together and raised two great kids. Visiting them abroad you knew you were visiting a home, not a way-station. It was extraordinary.

Josh’s career at UW can’t be captured in just a few minutes, but one comment he made says a lot about it. Sometime in the early 1990s, I was trying to convince Josh to take the lead role in our WB Bolivian project – to be Chief of Party.  And he said to me, “You know Ken, what I really like is being in the field, solving problems.”   Even though he was ultimately prevailed upon to take the Bolivia post - and other leadership roles, Josh always kept his feet on the ground, - in the field, solving problems. 

I first came to know Josh back in the 1980s, when the college was starting a farming systems research project in the West African country of The Gambia.  That led us to contact Josh, who already had a big reputation for this kind of work.  We invited him to apply, and sure enough he was the top choice of the search committee.  What I want to especially note is that Josh came right into UW with tenure on the recommendation of the Agronomy Department and the Biological Science Divisional Committee.  This was quite a feat for someone who had spent most of his early career in the field in Africa and Central America, not in a campus office.  That was a testament to the rigor with which Josh approached his work throughout his career, regardless of location or context – and regardless of whether there was electricity or running water or telephones  - or toilets.

A few years later, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded us a grant to start the Summer Institute for African Agricultural Research to train African doctoral students. I was feeling pretty good since I had written the proposal.  But that was short lived.  The Rockefeller VP, Joyce Moock, took me aside one day and said. “You know, Ken, you did not have the best proposal.  You had the best people – and Posner is exhibit A.”  And she was right.  In the 12 years of the Summer Institute, as in The Gambia, Josh showed an extraordinary ability to mentor and motivate young scientists in a way that not only enhanced their careers but also led to wonderful friendships.

Josh’s warm, embracing personality could be seen in his hospitality and his humor.  I was reminded of both by an old email.  Josh was organizing a meeting for five of us to talk about China, and he wanted to offer refreshments.  So he sent us all an email.  I quote:  “We have our options, a light red wine from Burgundy or if we want to stay local, a full bodied (I am talking about the wine) red from Languedoc.  I will have both at room temperature and well aerated before the meeting.”  What a thoughtful guy.  Well, the only hitch was that this meeting was held via Skype.  Four of us were in chilly Madison while Josh was in sunny Montpellier – with the wines!  But he did make sure they were visible on the screen and he toasted us with them repeatedly!

 That conference call was about the NSF China IGERT project that Josh directed, starting about 7 years ago. Working with Josh on that project I learned a lot about his resilience, his optimism,  and his persistence. Our first proposal to NSF got high marks but wound up just below the list of funded projects. That is the first time I became aware of Josh’s favorite expletive— “Phooey’!  What a gentle guy.  An NSF staffer encouraged us to try again, which we did, but that time got terrible marks. When the same NSF staffer encouraged a third try, I said “forget it’— and added a few of my own expletives— a bit stronger than phooey!  But Josh would not give up. His optimism and persistence prevailed.  That third proposal was successful.

In directing the IGERT project, Josh showed a remarkable talent for gathering and leading people from very different backgrounds.  The project had more than 25 faculty members from three different colleges in 12 different departments, literally spanning Anthropology to Zoology – in addition to scientists and administrators from four different research institutes in China.   Josh molded this diverse collection of individuals into a congenial group, all working toward the same objective.

A measure of Josh’s effectiveness as a leader and of the high regarding which he was held by his colleagues can be seen in how the IGERT project was governed.  You know that faculty governance is a big deal at Wisconsin. So one day a group of us were discussing how to set up a governance structure to ensure fair funding allocations to all faculty and students.  the discussion kept getting more and more complicated. Finally, Ed Friedman, a seasoned, while head from political science spoke up. “Look” he said “we’ve all gotten to know Josh and I think I can speak for all of us in saying we can trust him to make fair decisions for the best of the project”  And that was that. end of meeting. We never had another governance issue for the life of the project.

When I think about Josh now, I think about his enthusiasm, about his optimism, and his good cheer. I think about the warmth of his friendship and his empathy toward others. I think of Josh as a model for how to live one’s life.

Steven Brown, son in law

I feel lucky to be speaking today because I think of Josh as a person of the highest integrity, humility and morality so saying a few words in his memory is quite the challenge. How to summarize Josh in a few words or stories? What stories do I tell about the great story-teller himself.

 

Let me start with Josh the man’s man. There were few things in life Josh could either not do or not figure out how to do. I always admired this trait. He was a real man who wouldn’t call someone to fix things when something needed to be done. Jill would simply point out something that wasn’t quite right and he would roll up his

sleeves, and get to work on whatever needed fixing. Actually, he was usually already wearing short-sleeves so that saved some time. The whole process from start to finish was quite a process to watch. He has a tool and place for everything. Things were well organized and labeled so that he knew exactly what he needed to accomplish his goal. Upon completion things were neatly put away in the spot where they belonged, even the trash was organized; something that became part of the legend of Josh. Upon completion of the task at hand, a pat-on-the-back and a cold beer were enough reward for a job well done; Spotted Cow was preferred and a light beer was met with a little disappointment in his eyes although he would never complain.

 

Which leads me to Josh the family man. In the 17 years I was around Josh, this is probably the role I saw him in the most. And much like Josh the handyman, when there was a problem to solve, this time usually pointed out by my wonderful wife, he took time to analyze the problem and try to address it. Some problems were big and some were small, just like those found in most families; but for the most part Josh was the one whose opinion was sought Josh had to decide who was being the unreasonable one, even when the easiest choice was to blameMatt rather than deal with repercussions of placing the blame elsewhere.

 

My favorite aspect of Josh the family man though was ability to play the court jester even when he was truly the King. Most family stories involved some manner in which Josh had confused words in another language or because of his big heart and aim to avoid insulting hosts, had caused the family some undo hardship. Like the story of the taxi in Chile where he had hired a kind, elderly man to take the family on a long drive only to be pointed out that this man could not see very well and seemed to be dozing off.   Rather than getting angry and finding a different cab, Josh offered to instead let the man rest and take the wheel for the duration of the trip.

 Or the time in Bolivia when Josh was instructed by Jill to cut the lasagna for the dinner guests that night. Well, he had noticed that in Bolivia circular cakes were first cut by carving a small circle in the middle and then equal pieces were carved out of the middle well, in trying to adapt to the culture he decide to do the same with the rectangular lasagna, needless to say this was met with shock and then laughter. As Josh would say with a smile, 'You know a man tries and this is the thanks .. .’

 

This leads me to Josh the father-in-law. Josh taught me many things about life in general; in fact, I spent more time around Josh than I have my own father. He wasn’t too proud to ask for help when needed, and was more than happy to step-in and


Lend a helping hand to friend, family or stranger in need. I watched as he dealt with difficult situations delicately and strived to make each and every person who entered his house feel welcomed by giving them his complete attention and asking about their areas of interest. This was done not because of being nosy, but because of having a true appreciation for the each person’s life journey.  

He loved being around the girls as they grew older and were able to interact with him more and more. This even after his grand scheme in France had failed. After much consideration of what the girls should call Josh as they approached that ever-important speaking age, he had jokingly settled on Zeus. It seemed fitting that the girls should consider him the god of gods.   To his dismay, Isabelle took a look at him and simply said 'Pipa' and went on her way. Well, he looked defeated and spent the next couple of days trying to come up with something more manly sounding saying no, no whenever one of the girls called Pipa. Few men   can  get away with being   called  pipa—but   he could.   But wouldn’t you know it, it grew on him and it’s hard for me not to think of him as smiling Pipa chasing after the girls to tickle them. We love and miss you Pipa. Thank you.

Joshua Lowe Posner, July 23, 1947 - April 3, 2012

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
    whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

-Bessie Anderson Stanley

Jim Rundle, Cornell

Dear Josh,

 I just want to tell you a few things I remember from the old days.

 I remember when you presented your thesis proposal in Emerson and made a humorous point-by-point analogy to Jill’s research in child psychology.  It was such a pleasure to hear your admiration for Jill’s work while making your own project clear and fun to listen to, which is something that research proposal presentations are not famous for doing.

Ground nut stew in your dining room at your second floor apartment in the old farm house on Bostwick Road.

Stories about trying to get Orc to stop chasing cars, which I’m pretty sure involved at least a bucket of water (and the sad result when he turned out to be utterly incorrigible)

 Joining you and delightful members of your family and friends at that great house in Liberty, and watching Wimbledon on TV with you and some other fans there, on the porch, I think.

Jill at our Pleasant Grove apartment laughing as she held Nathaniel, who charmed her and I think perhaps confounded her a little, by smiling before he was supposed to.  At least that’s the way we like to remember it.

 Hearing from you in Ithaca several years ago and having dinner together outdoors at Madeline’s, hearing about your and Jill’s good work, and enjoying being with you both again.

Meeting Matt for dinner to talk about the ILR School…he’s a great guy.

 I’ve been thinking of you and Jill a lot.

Jim

A Jill , a vos enfants et petits enfants,

Je n’ oublierai jamais Joss dont j’ ai fais la connaissance au cours d’ un voyage dans le sud Marocain .Ce ne fut qu’ une semaine ,mais il est des rencontres , memes brèves, qui restent gravées dans notre mémoire et dans notre coeur …celle-ci en fut une

Joss était un homme chaleureux , humain, plein d’ humour, de gaîté ,a l’ intelligence rayonnante. 

J’ aurais tant aimé que votre projet de venir vous installer dans notre région se concrêtise ,nous permettant ainsi de nous connaitre mieux !

La vie en a décidé autrement, j’ en suis bien triste,

Je m’ associe tres sincerement a ta peine ,Jill , ainsi qu’ a celle de votre famille. 

 Jill ,Tu seras toujours la bienvenue a Montpellier, je t’ embrasse.

Joss a rejoint la  longue caravane de chameaux silencieux ,traversant le désert ,dans la nuit étoilée…..

Jess’s words at the memorial services

As you know we had a service in Madison that was a different kind of ‘affair’== 300 people.  I spoke at that service. I’ve had a good 6 weeks and I keep thinking—I should say something different, more intimate  about my father at this New Rochelle service, as this service is mostly family (writ large).

So I played around with a few ideas:

First I thought… maybe I should really be up here speaking about Josh as a father:

I could use his after dinner walks around the block as a ‘metaphor’ for his parenting style.  With a few simple words and the very telling intonation in his voice “Hey Matt-Man, Hey Minnie-Mouse” – lets take a stroll.  And depending on the intonation—you could tell right away if the walk was:

  • Dad was proud of you, and he wanted to reflect on whatever it was ‘from school papers, to the difficulties of moving, to challenges in relationships or child rearing’
  • Dad was disappointed in you, and most likely mom had prepped him with something that needed to be discussed —-(this was only Matt of course ..—I have no first-hand knowledge …
  • Or if it was just a regular walk, with his arm always on your shoulder talking about work, friends, politics, the world.

But how can you talk about your father in a few minutes so I thought, let me be more general….

So I thought, well, let me focus on how Dad as a human being was possibly the kindest and most thoughtful man I have ever known.   (Yes, I’m aware I may be slightly biased)

  • I shared my story of finding his business cards with no PhD  by his name on his blog
  • Many of you have heard how dad drove a Chilean taxi in Santiago because this taxi driver was feeling ill AND Matt and I berated him till he finally did it. If you see everyone’s double take as Josh drove the taxi….
  • SOME OF you know how much dad wanted the approval of the trash men, and if you ever had dad help you move (a huge help given he was a very solid, strong 63-) how much energy was spent on the trash….  With our first move Steven was truly baffled to be honest—after many moves he’d gotten used to it.
  • Or recount the times the Posner family has been afflicted with food poisoning because Dad was thanked by some farmer or another and we were gonna try that Senegalese cheese that some friend was proud of, or that entire furry agouti was in the fridge waiting to be skinned and cooked by mom  
  • In the end I am back to what I spoke about in Madison

We have heard a lot about how much my father loved his work. And he did—he loved to be the first one in the office.  But he also took dinner time with the family very seriously.   Always entering the door and calling out “CO-CO” (or hey there, in French).
 
No matter the house, the country, our ages— Dinner time in the Posner House was an ‘event’ & it was always the same.   We, of course, had to abide by certain rules. Many of you here have joined us for dinner and know what I’m talking about.
 
Absolutely no phones or TV but a must was:
 
 
  Candles, music playing in the background
 
  a salad, good French bread, a delicious meal and wine (food courtesy of mom)
 
& my father sat at the head of the table and in his usual engaging way, talked to us about our activities, current events and always— his adventures of the day.
 
Suppose I knew then but most certainly know now (after reading about his various professional accomplishments) is that he talked about his work with such humility—everything was always a team effort.
 
and about 3 out of 7 nights we had a guest or more join the dinner table.  We are lucky to have had many of you as our dinner guests.
 
Matt and I have been privileged to have had dinner with such a range of people. From distinguished international professors passing through UW to lecture , Directors of USAID missions who went to crossed paths with my parents in a previous country  to agriculture extension workers from a tertiary city in Senegal/Bolivia, or a farmer here in WI.  
 
People from different countries, different ‘walks of life’, different ways of viewing the world.  And while at times Matt and I certainly rolled our eyes as we were called down to dinner  (a table les efants!) — we learned so much about people, about the world and much of this was facilitated by my fathers kind, humorous, engaging and often self deprecating story telling.
 
It is the biggest gift my parents have given Matt and me, not just the people or the places or the experiences but a paradigm in which to move forward into the world as adults—a paradigm that is one of inclusion.  Dad truly believed that people were much more similar to each other than they were different.  As our family grew to include Steven, then Lynne, then my girls—he continued to play his role , truly enjoying the more people he got to love.
 
Dad always said he was the lucky one— But we were really the lucky ones.   Thank you

These stories capture some aspects of his fun loving and extraordinary qualities.. But there are many more and there may never be enough to say about how much he loved us all (all of his friends and family here) and that we loved him back. 

Dwight Mueller

Hi Josh,

Janet has kept me updated on your condition and I wanted to let you know
you have been in my thoughts and prayers.

I was driving by the WICST trials the other day and thought about the
first time I met you and showed you all over the Arlington
Station (late 80’s). We covered a lot of ground as I recall, but of
course, I was trying to satisfy a rather unusual request-no one had ever
requested 40 acres for a crop research trial. It was 10 times the size
of other requests. And it was just the beginning of a number of other
land requests from you, and as I often joked with you, I really think
you would have taken over all of Arlington if I let you!

One of the things I fondly remember is the early field days that were
co-sponsored by the Madison/Goose Pond Audubon Society and the Arlington
Research Station. It was called Farming the Prairie for Ducks and
Butter. I don’t know who came up with the name but I always thought it
was a great name. Of course one of the memorable talks was done by
you. I believe it was the first or second time we had the field day.
It was the last talk, the sun was setting and you were the speaker
mixing in geology, soils, and Wisconsin agriculture. You began talking
about the glacier and ice age (10,000 years ago) and it’s impact on the
landscape and then you SLOWLY moved through your presentation, talking
about Wisconsin as a wheat state at the turn of the century, and then
becoming a dairy state. By then we had the tractor lights on and the
moon was coming up!

Your research and work on the WICST trials not only advanced our
knowledge of organic agriculture but also the importance of cover crops,
nutrient crediting, soil quality, and of course crop rotation. In fact
your were quite critical of Tommy Daniel and me for our narrow focus on
continuous corn and not thinking more broadly about the benefits of
incorporating crop rotation into the cropping system whether you were
growing the crop conventionally or organically. As I found out, it
enhanced the success of no-till which has been demonstrated by a number
of studies.

Of course your role in increasing our understanding of organic
agriculture or low input as you first referred to it (organic was not a
popular word in the early days of your research) has been so
impressive. Your vision in establishing the WICST trials,and all the
satellite sites lead to so many research trials that have advanced the
knowledge of both organic and conventional cropping systems. It’s a feat
that in so many ways was quite unique within the UW setting. To pull
this all off you needed to pull together many researchers, farmers and
others. I was so impressed at how well you were able to do this within
the university with its many walls among the various departments within
the college. To think about where we started in our knowledge of how
to successfully grow organic crops and where we have come is simply
quite impressive.

Again I want you to know I am thinking of you and hoping today is a good
day. May you be surrounded by everything that makes you comfortable and
lets you know how much others care.

Dwight