Kermit Larson helped feed the world.
For eight years, the soil scientist with the bright smile and the kind eyes traveled the fields of India and Pakistan, helping farmers level and irrigate their land and plant new high-yield crop strains. Decades after he and colleagues left, the farmers welcomed him back with open arms, eager to show him all the ways their lives had changed for the better.
"It is all due to him," Indian farmer Shisha Singh said, shaking hands with Larson when they reunited during a 2005 visit. Larson's granddaughter, journalist Jennifer Maloney, chronicled the visit and the two-story, bubble gum pink home Singh had built to replace the two-room mud house his family shared in 1969. That's when Larson's team arrived and introduced him to a new variety of wheat that increased his harvest sevenfold.
Larson's daughter, Nancy Maloney, remembers stories about her hands-on father jumping into trenches to show villagers how to dig them properly — astonishing a community that was unused to seeing a high-status figure like the visiting American getting his hands dirty. But Larson was a natural leader, she said.
"He was really a sweet and wonderful man," she said. "He was interested in people. He loved people and he loved living."
Kermit Larson died Oct. 17 in Perham, holding hands with Helen, his wife of 67 years, who had joined him on his adventures in the subcontinent and all the adventures that came before and after. He was 91 years old.
Kermit Elmer Larson was born in Albert Lea in 1924 and enlisted in the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in 1942. While he was in training at St. Olaf College in Northfield, he met a college student and farmer's daughter named Helen Drovdal.
They married after the war and Larson's interest in his in-laws' North Dakota farm led him to study soils and agronomy at the University of Minnesota. He took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service, Helen worked as a music teacher, and together they raised three children.
In the late 1960s, when his daughter Nancy was a college freshman, her father asked her: "How would you like to see India?" she remembered. "We all said we would love it!"
Kermit Larson had joined the Green Revolution, a decades-long effort by scientists and researchers to increase agricultural production in the developing world. The movement is credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation.
Larson remained interested in conservation issues his entire life. Even at 90, until he was diagnosed with leukemia, he would collect water samples from 20 lakes around Otter Tail County. In all things, he and Helen were a team. In the garden, the family remembers, she grew the flowers and he grew the vegetables. He built the dollhouses and she wallpapered them. She taught him to sing harmony to the Lutheran hymns they both loved.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by sons Thomas Larson of Aptos, Calif., and David Larson of Sykesville, Md.; seven grandchildren; three great-grandchildren and a loving extended family.
Memorial contributions can be made to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society or to the Perham Calvary Lutheran Church Kermit Larson Gardening Fund.