Josh passed away at 940pm. Jill, Matt & Jess with him— holding hands, the hospice nurse let us know she thought he was taking his last few breaths.
In spite of our sadness— we are constantly reminded of how Josh always told us how very lucky he was. He said that even at the very end of his life. He really did feel like he was ‘the luckiest guy’— with so many people to love and who loved him back.
Thank you all so much for all the love, laughter, friendship, kindness and support you all have provided our family
MADISON - Joshua Lowe Posner, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin and an international agricultural expert, died in his home April 3, 2012, of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a disease he battled two years. He was 64.
He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Jill Posner of Madison, daughter, Jessica Posner and son-in-law, Steven Brown, of Washington, D.C., and son, Matthew of Brooklyn, N.Y. He had two five-year old granddaughters, Sophia and Isabelle Posner Brown and three siblings, Prudence, Deborah and David Posner, who reside in the New York area.
Josh was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. His parents, Harold and Ronah Posner, were social activists, dedicated to civil rights and a host of humanitarian causes during their lifetime. Their commitment to others and to family, as well as their humor and graciousness, had a profound effect on Josh’s character and on his life.
Josh’s international work was focused on improving crop production in poor resource environments, particularly in Africa and Latin America. In Wisconsin, he sought to improve land tenureship with low-input cropping systems. His interest in agriculture was initiated while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in a school gardening program. He left a functioning “lab” school in place and almost 50 schools producing vegetables and poultry for the school lunch program at the end of his term. Josh learned from this early experience that he loved working outside, talking to farmers, and trying to find solutions to the enormous challenge of poverty alleviation.
Josh completed his undergraduate studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. After Peace Corps, he and wife Jill sought graduate degrees at Cornell University. Josh obtained a master’s and Ph.D. there in agronomy. Their first international adventure as a married couple was in Honduras working directly for the Ministry of Agriculture. Their daughter, Jessica, was born there in 1979. After a brief interlude in New York as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, Josh and the family returned to West Africa and spent the better part of the 1980s in what was then the Senegambia. Their son, Matthew, was born in Senegal in 1983.
Josh was hired by the UW in 1986 to participate in a research project in Banjul, Gambia and arrived in Madison in 1988. His pioneering work on the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems trial is a 20-year research trial, one of his most important domestic legacies. The research has involved many of his students and colleagues, on and off campus and has examined a large number of issues related to low input (organic) agriculture in the Midwest.
In 1993, Josh began a long involvement with Andean agriculture and the family moved first to Bolivia and then to Peru in 1998. In Bolivia, he led another interdisciplinary Wisconsin team in a research and development program at the Bolivian Agricultural Research Institute. In Peru, he worked for the International Potato Institute (CIP) and was responsible for strengthening a fledgling consortium for Sustainable Development in the Andes (CONDESAN) that now includes more than 70 organizations from all seven Andean countries. His most recent international work was as the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation training grant to support University of Wisconsin graduate students to learn Chinese and conduct their dissertations in Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods in Yunnan Province.
Josh’s academic accomplishments were impressive but more than these was his unique ability to connect with people. An old friend of Josh’s as a child recently wrote: “He was the kind of kid, other kids could never get enough of.” This has been true of him all his life. His warmth, humor and kindness were obvious to everyone from professors to janitors. He never made distinctions based on class or education. His interactions with people were grounded in equality and social justice. These were the core of his moral fabric and he used humor, passion and his wonderful ability to tell a good story to connect with people from all walks of life and very divergent cultures on an equal footing. He was a dedicated husband, father, grandfather, friend and teacher. He embraced life and he lived it to the fullest. One of his last utterances to a childhood friend was: “I am running on empty, but I am in love.”
Je m’appelle Etienne Landais, j’ai 63 ans et je dirige le Centre international d’études supérieures en sciences agronomiques (Montpellier SupAgro). My name is Etienne Landais. I am 63 and I am the director of the International Center for Studies in Agronomic Sciences in Montpellier, France.
I spent the first part of my career in West Africa (1975-86) doing research in agronomy. My wife Dominique and I were in Korhogo in the north of the Ivory Coast for our first assignment overseas as were Josh and Jill .We got there several years after the Posner’s had left. Later, he and I discussed this experience: the contact with the Senoufo farmers was for me, as it was for him, a decisive life experience.
After the Ivory Coast, Dominique and I went to Senegal in 1983 where we met the Posner family: Josh, who was working for the same research program as I was, Jill, their daughter Jessica, three at the time, and soon Matthew, born a few months later: practically the same ages as our two older children.
The Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research was setting up a multidisciplinary team in farming systems with technical support from both an American team and a French one. Josh was the specialist for cropping systems and I was the specialist for livestock systems. Our teams quickly melded into one, and for a few years we enjoyed a rare and unforgettable experience. Josh and I have never lost touch since that time.
As all of us know, Josh’s professional life was built on humanistic values and strong social convictions. We shared them to such an extent that we hardly felt the need to discuss them.
Josh possessed, what Claude Lévi-Strauss, (a famous French anthropologist) called, “le gout de l’autre—or “a taste for others”. His empathy, curiosity, and respect for his partners, was the basis of his ability to interact so productively with the farmers of Africa and Latin America. His success in exploring new technologies which were compatible with their resources improved production.
Three years ago, Josh took advantage of a sabbatical year offered by his university, and chose to come to France to the school in Montpellier where we train engineers in agronomy who often work in developing countries. Josh put a lot into his classes and we could see what a wonderful teacher he was: his vast knowledge, his passion for teaching, and the strength of his convictions made him the kind of professor, students truly came to love. The values that inspired him throughout his life, the noble objectives he pursued, and his steadfast perseverance are an inspiration to me and his many French colleagues as well as those all over the world who knew him.
I could go on much longer Josh’s career and the 30 years of friendship that have linked our two families—the fact that Jill and Josh are great friends of France, where they visited often and have many friends here. It was a privilege to have them with us in Montpellier. That year was a period when one our “amitié lumineuse” flowered. We will always treasure it.
Josh aimait à dire qu’il avait eu de la chance dans la vie, mais en vérité c’est lui qui était une chance dans la vie des autres. (Josh liked to say that he had a lot of luck in life, but in truth, we were the lucky ones to have had Josh in our lives.)
My wife Mary and I have been friends with Jill and Josh and their family since we were in graduate school together at Cornell in the late 1970s, where we were all working on Ph.D. degrees. Agricultural economics was my field. Josh’s larger-than-life persona was apparent from the first time I saw him. As I was leaving at the end of a lecture in soil science I noticed a stir in the back of the room as this large guy was talking and joking and greeting other students, and generally being received as a semi-celebrity back after a lengthy absence.
My wife Mary’s definite opinions and high standards made a strong impression on Josh. He would shake his head and say he felt sorry that I had such a tough woman for a wife. (As if Jill was a pushover!) One time when Josh and Jill were visiting us in Ithaca, Mary was talking about having to clean bathrooms as a young girl, and hating it when her five brothers would pee all over and generally make a mess. So after dinner, Josh leaves Jill with us and walks into town to meet a friend. After several beers, walking back to our house, Josh feels a call of nature. But he says to himself, “I’ll get into trouble if I mess up Mary’s bathroom.” So he decides to just pee along the way. But he chooses the wrong place (under a street light) and the wrong time (as the town police drive by). You can picture this encounter between Josh and the police, with Josh explaining how he just got back from Honduras, where peeing by the road is routine, how he was visiting a friend with a very hygiene-conscious wife whose bathroom he’s afraid to mess up, etc. No doubt this story seemed very implausible to the police, but you can imagine Josh selling it to them and escaping without a ticket … but then berating Mary for putting him in that predicament.
In the mid-1980s, we were both in Senegal, working on a Michigan State University project with the Senegal Agricultural Research Institute. Josh was the agronomist on a farming systems research team in the south. During my visits, I came see the qualities that so many others have noted. Josh loved field work, he was committed to helping rural farm families improve their lives through agriculture, and he was able to inspire others on the team with his enthusiasm and desire to understand farmers’ practices. From Josh, I learned how to do rigorous survey data collection and analysis. Josh would not just run the data through the computer. He would print the raw data files and go painstakingly through the printouts line by line to spot errors of data collection or data entry, things that didn’t ring true with his knowledge of local farming.
Josh recruited me to work with him on a couple of publications. He wanted input from an economist, but like most agronomists he was skeptical of economists! My role was to analyze the profitability of the improved agronomic practices that the FSR team was testing. When Josh saw that I wanted to include the cost of labor used to harvest the crop, he heaped scorn on me in classic Josh fashion. “Why count harvest labor as a cost? Do you think any farmer would not harvest the crop because it takes labor to do that?!” Josh regarded this as a smoking gun that proved how crazy the economics perspective was.
Mary and I visited Josh in the hospital in late March. Despite the toll exacted by his illness, Josh’s enthusiasm for his students, and interest in issues of agricultural development, and sense of humor continued to be strong. Talking with Josh was like old times, and it didn’t feel right to say goodbye.
This reminds me of a story that Josh would tell, sometimes laughing so hard it brought tears to his eyes. It was from a Second City comedy skit about a refrigerator commercial. Josh would imitate the announcer recounting all of the refrigerator’s stellar features, ending with: “And when you close the door, THE LIGHT STAYS ON”!
So here we are, maybe with tears in our eyes. For Josh, the door is closed, but the light stays on.
Although I was not related to Josh, I always felt that I was.
I guess there were two main factors, we were both Jewish and we had decided to enter into agronomy only after getting a degree in another subject. Soon after I started in agronomy at Cornell, I viisted my father’s sister whose husband was a Russian emigre doctor. When I told him that I was studying agronomy, he said “you must be the only Jew in the field — Jews don’t go into agriculture”. Although this is a commonly held belief, I have since found many Jews in agriculture — I frequently visit the widow of my mother’s cousin whose father, after being mugged in NY during the depression, moved the whole family to the Catskills where they raised chickens and cows. The same
sister of my father’s later told me that the family had a dairy in what is now Belarus and when they came to New York, they had dairy cows in Brooklyn. Soon after I came to Cornell, my grandfather visited me and looked at the names on the list of faculty in Caldwell Hall and he said to me, “I see there are a number of Jews in the department” — he then pointed out to me which are Jewish names — and it
did later develop that both my MS committee members were Jews and the publication from my MS thesis had three Jewish authors. I met Josh right after he came to Cornell and after we both had just finished our peace corps service — in September of 1972. A fellow graduate student, Les Everet, said to me, “there’s a new graduate student here taking all the basic courses”. I had sort of done the same thing when I first came to Cornell (Unlike Josh, I had finished my MS in agronomy before I joined the peace corps.) but Josh was doing it in a much more thorough fashion and while I had remained more or less on the periphery of agronomy (in soil microbiology) at first, Josh went into it in his usual fashion — wholeheartedly, unselfconsciously —he made no secret of the fact that he got his undergraduate degree in African studies. From the first, we always talked openly about everything — when I got discouraged, Josh never had any doubts. “This is a second career’, he would say to me. He had made up his mind and he was going to do it, come what may. He was really never afraid of anything — up until his final illness — he always went to the root of things—questioned everything —there was just nowhere he had any fear of going. That was his great gift — he taught me to be myself — admit that you are what you are and do what you have to do to get where you want to go. I doubt I could have finished my Ph.D in agronomy without Josh giving me encouragement and assuring me that every obstacle could be overcome.
When my wife first met Josh, she said to me,
“He looks like Charlton Heston” —there was a resemblance — of course, the role we most associate with Charlton Heston was that of Moses. And Josh was a sort of Moses to me,
leading me to the promised land. “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” But the successor of Moses who led his people into the promised land, was Joshua.
My father was the kind of person Kodak made their ads for. Not only did he take pictures at every significant family event, but he catalogued his pictures and saved them in immense photo albums. About fifteen years ago, as my dad approached his ninetieth birthday, he began breaking up his albums and distributing his pictures to his children. One of the pictures he sent me was a snapshot he had taken of Josh, Richard McCombs and me on the day of our college graduation in June, 1969. I think of it as our “three stooges” picture. I have on my fluorescent tie; Richard has hair hanging over his ears (we all had lots of hair), and Josh has on the dashiki that he had worn at the commencement ceremony. We have our arms around each other and silly grins on our faces. We were so eager to get out of there: I was headed for an inner city elementary school in Philadelphia, Richard was bound for the New York, and Josh was on his way to the Peace Corps and Africa.
I have had that picture on my desk now for many years. For most of that time it lay crowded up against pictures of Holly and our children, reminding me of the optimism and boundless energy we felt that day nearly 43 years ago. We were blasting off! In the picture we are laughing, remembering all the time we had spent together as friends, and feeling as though that common bond had fueled us up for whatever lay ahead. We were impatient and indifferent to the risks in life—whether those risks involved a late night road trip, a swim in an off limits reservoir, or, in Josh’s case, a spontaneous decision to join me on a charter flight to London after he discovered that the airplane suddenly had an empty seat. (Yes, he left his car in the Kennedy airport parking lot.) I never look at that picture without remembering the extra portions of fun life had sent our way during our college years. And the silly grins always reminds me of the joy we shared in the years afterward—visiting in New York and Ithaca, dancing the meringue at Jessi’s wedding, swimming in the lake at Elkhart, celebrating our 60th year together in California, and exploring Chicago eateries.
Over the last two years, the meaning of that snapshot changed. It no longer cast me back into the past, but propelled me into the future. From the time Josh was diagnosed, I looked at that picture and thought only of his courage and of the future we would share once he returned to health. I imagined that Richard and I (and the army of Josh’s friends) were holding him up and encouraging him onward to a new place, cheering him on to renewed vitality and restoration of his marvelous abilities. I looked at that picture while talking with him on the phone, while sitting and worrying about him, and even while we sang “Lord Jeffrey Amherst” into his answering machine just a few weeks ago. That picture kept telling me that Josh’s enormous courage and optimism would triumph. I told myself over and over again: this is Josh Posner, he battled hungry hippos in Africa; certainly he can overcome this!
Today I look at my picture and see something else. I feel angry that Josh isn’t here. I am going to be angry about that for a long time. But now the goofy guy in the dashiki is holding me up. His love and energy and optimism were and are so palpable that I can’t imagine the world without them. He is still there smiling for my dad, sharing his charm and calling us to new adventures. The pictures isn’t about the past anymore, or about the future, but about the present. Right now. We love you Josh; and we know your love and your spirit are here with us, now and forever.
Jerry Doll, Dad’s UW Mentor
I met Josh when CALS was recruiting an international crop production scientist. This was a new venture for the college and department. Not international work as such because we have a long tradition of faculty involvement in overseas programs and of training international students. But in this case the college was seeking someone whose core appointment included significant attention to international endeavors and 25% of their time actually living overseas.
Our dream – and Josh’s - came true. As a faculty member, he participated in numerous international programs and his family lived for extended periods in the Gambia, Bolivia and Peru. These years, plus numerous trips, particularly the Andean region of South American and to China, exceeded our expectations of impacting people and programs in developing countries and regions.
His state-side appointment focused on cropping systems. He arrived in Wisconsin in the middle of the sustainable Ag evolution (or revolution to some) and quickly brought together key players in this area. What emerged is not the oldest cropping systems trial in the state, but has the widest rage of systems being compared, the most “advisors” (almost farming by committee), and field-sized plots as the farmers wanted.
Josh’s persona was ideally suited to assemble a wide collection of people from the biological, physical and social sciences on campus, and many from beyond campus (farmers, private organizations, Extension personnel and others) for this project. It truly embodies the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea. The project is entering its 22nd year and is one of Josh’s best legacies. The College and Department must ensure that the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Trial System lives on.
This project is known as the WISCT trial. The letters of this acronym can be used to highlight many of Josh’s virtues and qualities. Here is my view of how WICST describes Josh.
W: Josh was wise. He was witty. He became a true Wisconsinite.
I: He was inquisitive and certainly international, not only in travels and living abroad but by how he saw the world. Jill and Josh were PC volunteers together and both Jessica and Matt were born overseas: an international family.
C: Josh was creative and deeply cared for the people in his life and about his mission in agriculture. He was very concerned for the future of farming systems and our planet.
S: He was sensitive to others, student-focused, Spanish speaking, and if you knew him at all, you know he was social. The last social event I shared with him was right here at the Union Terrace last fall; though ailing, he was on cloud 9 in the company of regional leaders of cropping trials similar to WICST.
T: Josh was a teacher: to graduate students in his program and to many undergrads in his popular Cropping Systems of the Tropics course; he was a true and trustworthy friend and colleague.
Josh touched us all. Let us always remember and emulate his wonderful gifts and spirit.
Ken Shapiro, Dean of Int’l Programs
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 temporary waystation. 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 seven 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 very high marks but wound up just below the list of funded projects. That’s 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. And 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 regard in 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. And the discussion kept getting more and more complicated. Finally, Ed Friedman, a seasoned, wise 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. And we never had a governance issue for 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.
Josh Posner Memorial Service
April 27, 2012
Josh was a big man with a big heart. He embraced life: his family, his friends, his colleagues, his work. “Embrace” seems like the right word. Knowing his sister Deb and her work, I went to the dictionary for definitions of the word. Here are some of the definitions of “embrace”:
To clasp in the arms with affection
To accept with cordiality
To include as part of something broader
To take up a cause
All those meanings fit Josh.
When I’d see him he’d grin, put his big, hairy arm around me, his eyes sparkling, and say, “Hey, man”—signaling that I’d just made his day, just by being there.
He had friends all over the world. He accepted them with cordiality, drawing them into his excitement about the project he was working on. The work day often ended with food, drink, and camaraderie — whether he was in Latin America, Africa or China.
He embraced causes. In college in the late 1960s, he was a charismatic, fiery leader of the campus anti-war movement—a real force on campus, continuing the social activism of his parents. It was logical that he and Jill would end up on a Peace Corps adventure, and Josh would take up his lifelong cause of improving crop production in many poor communities around the world.
He embraced and adored his family, providing a foundation of love, acceptance, understanding, and constancy.
I particularly remember visiting Josh and Jill in Lima, Peru, with my wife Diane. Of course we were greeted with the usual embrace of hospitality and swapping of stories. One night on that trip, I was struck down with food poisoning from a restaurant, and was lying limp, barely conscious on their couch. And there was Josh—he’d pulled up a chair right next to me and was explaining, in great detail, irrigation plans to transform agriculture in Peru. And despite my condition, I still remember the conversation! It was Josh, after all: irrepressible, full of life, on a mission.
My wife Diane and Josh, very different in many ways, had a special spark of friendship. I’d like to end with a poem that Diane wrote:
There once was a great guy named Josh
Who tickled our fancies, by gosh
Whether farmer or not
He liked us a lot
And we all liked him back, that’s not bosh.
How the stories of Josh do abound
‘cross the globe there are tales to be found
College, Peace Corps, and after
In love and in laughter,
We all felt his spirit resound
Josh resides in our hearts now and ever
That’s a bond that his death cannot sever
He helped the sun shine
Warmed our lives – yours and mine,
With this gift, he’ll be our pal forever