As a young boy, Hwei-Hsien Cheng and his family saw their lives uprooted by the Chinese Communist Revolution.
But the longtime soil scientist devoted himself to education, a career path that would bind him to his native country.
Cheng, 88, died Jan. 24 at his St. Paul home after complications from COVID-19, said his eldest son Edwin Cheng of San Francisco.
"He was a very gentle and patient father," Edwin said. "He gently guided us, and there was always the expectation we would be staying at school as long as we could."
Known as "HH" to friends and colleagues, Cheng was born in China in 1933. Education was his family's ticket to the U.S. and a path that gave him lifelong connections with the scientific community back home. Minnesota was already known to the family, because his father had attended Hamline University in the 1920s on a scholarship.
Cheng earned his bachelor's degree from Berea College in Kentucky and received a doctorate at the University of Illinois, where he met the love of his life, Jo, then a graduate student studying music. The two married in 1962 and traveled widely, including to Belgium for a Fulbright scholarship and Ames, Iowa, for a postdoctoral fellowship. They settled in Washington state, where Cheng taught soil science and served in a number of administrative roles at Washington State University.
After 25 years in Washington, Cheng moved to St. Paul with his family. In 1989, he was named head of the Department of Soil Science at the University of Minnesota. Under his leadership, the name of the department was changed to the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate to reflect its increasing scope of expertise.
He remained at the helm until his retirement in 2001. During that time, Cheng helped the U foster collaboration with major universities in China. Cheng was widely known for his research on carbon and nitrogen cycling in soils, transformations of natural and anthropogenic chemicals in soil, water quality, precision agriculture and agricultural sustainability, said Carl Rosen, professor and head of the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate at the U, who was a faculty member when Cheng chaired the department.
Meanwhile, Cheng was the president of the Soil Science Society of America in 1996, and in 2000 he led the American Society of Agronomy — two giant national societies. Because of his service to his field, the U awarded Cheng with an honorary degree in 2004.
"He was instrumental in shaping departmental direction with a broadened vision," Rosen said. "HH was a true leader, not only for the department but also for the profession."
Besides academia, Cheng relished singing with a local Chinese choir directed by Jo, who tapped him to sing bass because it was difficult to find male singers. Since 2018, he and Jo lived at an assisted-living facility in St. Paul, where Cheng fostered new friendships, sang in the residents' choir and cherished his morning ritual of eating a "hearty" breakfast, reading the newspaper by the fireplace and taking a stroll in a land where he and his family found refuge.
"Just as Minnesota had given my father the beginning for his lifelong career devoted to education, Minnesota has provided me the opportunity to continue the efforts in enhancing the quality of life for people in China and in America through education," Cheng wrote in a letter a decade ago.
Cheng was preceded in death by his parents, Chi-Pao Cheng and Anna Cheng, and his brother George. In addition to his wife and son Edwin, he is survived by son Tony Cheng of Fort Collins, Colo.; brothers Francois Cheng of Paris and David Cheng of Cupertino, Calif., and four grandchildren. Services will be held at a later date.