Charley Hess, Dean Emeritus and Plant Sciences Professor Emeritus, Dies at 87

Charles E. “Charley” Hess, a UC Davis Medal recipient and dean emeritus of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who never took the word “retirement” seriously, died Saturday (April 13) of congestive heart failure at the age of 87.

Hess and his wife, Eva, at June 2014 UC Davis Medal Gala held at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.

Saturday was Picnic Day, the biggest celebration of the year at the institution he loved. Two years ago he rode in the Picnic Day Parade as outstanding retiree of the year, an honor bestowed on him by his fellow retirees who took seriously and appreciated his continued service to the campus community.

He had been under Yolo Hospice care at his Davis home, where he died surrounded by family, said his wife, Eva. She said the family is planning a memorial celebration for late May. Dateline UC Davis will post an announcement when the arrangements are final.

Helene Dillard, who studied for her advanced degrees in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, or CA&ES, during Hess’ time as dean, is now the dean herself — fully cognizant of Hess’ role in the college’s status as a global leader in agriculture.

Hess accepts the UC Davis Medal.

“We would not be where we are today without Charley’s vision and leadership,” said Dillard, a plant pathologist who was appointed dean in January 2014 a few months before Hess received the UC Davis Medal, the campus’s highest honor. “Charley was a wonderful colleague, an inspirational teacher, a tremendous mentor and a dear friend to our college and the people we serve.”

Hess was the dean when Anita Oberbauer received her appointment to the animal science faculty. “He was a great and kind man,” said Professor Oberbauer, who recently received the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Hess earned a Bachelor of Science degree in plant science at Rutgers University, a Master of Science degree in horticulture and plant pathology at Cornell, and a Ph.D. in horticulture, plant physiology and plant pathology, also at Cornell. He joined the Purdue faculty in 1958, then returned to Rutgers in 1966 as chair of the Department of Horticulture and Forestry. He advanced to acting dean of Rutgers’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 1971 and two years later became the founding dean of Rutgers’ Cook College (today known as the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences).

He became the dean at UC Davis in 1975 and held the post until 1989. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Environmental Horticulture (now part of the Department of Plant Sciences).

Born into agriculture

He was a natural in the plant world, born Dec. 20, 1931, in New Jersey, into a family with a nursery business in Wayne. He could have joined the business after college, but the science bug bit him. Still, as an academic and administrator, he developed strong relationships in agriculture at all levels, from small businesses like his family’s, to industry giants — and, of course, with student farmers, too, having been an enthusiastic supporter of the UC Davis Student Farm since its inception in 1977 in his second year as CA&ES dean.

The farm eventually became part of the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Program that was established later during his tenure as dean. He also participated in the development and funding of California’s Integrated Pest Management Program and the UC Davis Biotechnology Program, and he facilitated the move of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Western Human Nutrition Center from San Francisco to UC Davis.

As a vice chancellor, John Meyer worked closely with Hess on retiree issues. “Charley was the last of a special class of leaders — a leader with not only an amazing intellect but a talent for motivating people through kindness,” said Meyer, who is president of the UC Davis Retirees Association. “He cared deeply about the entire UC community and was so affirming to everyone.”

Hess was a former president of the UC Davis Emeriti Association and former chair of the Council of UC Emeriti Associations, but his advocacy extended to staff, too. He was the first chair of the advisory committee that led to the creation of the UC Davis Retiree Center and was the first recipient of the Charles H. Hess Founders Award in 2016, given by the Emeriti and Retirees associations.

Community service awards

For nearly two decades, he participated in the selection of two students per year to receive the Charles Hess Community Service Awards at CA&ES commencement. He eagerly met with the recipients every year, always very interested to hear of their post-graduation plans and to learn more about their activities and goals. Then he would attend commencement to present the awards, even last year when he needed an escort from his son John to walk to the stage.

Dean Dillard and Dean Emeritus Hess (in his Rutgers academic regalia) flank Chun Yin “Anson” Lai, recipient of a Charles Hess Community Service Award in 2016.

He continued to serve the university and attend other events, like the CA&ES College Celebration last fall. And when he could no longer make the trip to campus, he turned his home into a UC Davis outpost, said his wife. Most recently, he hosted fellow faculty members who served with him on a committee to write the Academic Senate’s official “in memoriam” for Elmer W. Learn, professor of agricultural economics and executive vice chancellor emeritus.

Hess is survived by his wife of 38 years, Eva, and their son, Peter Hess, and four children from his earlier marriage to Marie C. Lilliedoll: Mary Foster (and husband Mike Foster), Carol Hess Allan, Nancy Hess (and husband Garry Buchko) and John Hess. Other survivors include daughter-in-law Akiko Ogura; and five grandchildren, Julie (Foster) Mecca, Brian Foster, Alex Buchko, Jules Buchko and Emma Hess.


(Article by Dave Jones, with contributors Diane Nelson, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Maril Stratton, associate chancellor emerita; and Pat Bailey, retired senior public information representative.)


  1. It was our pleasure to have known Charlie and Eva both academically and socially during my tenure as Extension Rangeland Specialist. Charlie also invited me to serve three years as the campus representative to the National Ag Alumni Association. During his time with USDA in Washington D.C., I was a consultant to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association where I had frequent contact with Charlie. I considered him as a true and valued friend.

  2. I send my heartfelt condolences to Charley’s family at this difficult time. I first met Charley in 1975 when he came to Fresno to meet with my dad who was, at that time, Dean of the School of Agriculture at CSUF. I was finishing my BS and planning to head to graduate school back east for an MS. Charley didn’t think that was a good idea and tried to convince me that UC Davis was where I needed to go. I politely declined. However, after finishing my MS I did take Charley up on his recommendation and came to UCD for a PhD.

    Fast-forward a few years after starting an academic career in Texas when I was invited to return to UCD to join the faculty in the Department Environmental Horticulture. That was a proud moment especially since my invitation letter came from Charley Hess (I still have it!). Charley was a member of the Department of Environmental Horticulture and often participated in our teaching program.

    After his “retirement” as Dean, he came to my introductory horticulture class to address the students on “LOCAL, STATE AND NATIONAL POLICIES AFFECTING EHUF (ENVIRONMENTAL HORTICULTURE AND URBAN FORESTRY)”. It was a joy watching Charley interact with these students especially since they knew his background and stature in the academic/political world.

    Whenever I saw Charley he always took the time for a quick chat and he always wanted to know what and how I was doing. Charley continued his research interests after ending his time as Dean. I was honored to provide him with some laboratory space while he figured out how sphagnum moss controlled damping-off diseases in seed flats (it turned out to be a bacterium living in the interior folds of the moss leaves that produced an anti-fungal compound). Charley was a gentleman and a role model for those of us in academics. I’m saddened by his passing, but comforted by these words: “He’s no longer where he was, now, he’s everywhere I am.”

  3. I arrived at UC Davis a few years after Charley Hess. We were in the same department — Environmental Horticulture. He was a faculty member and dean of the college, and I was a new grad student. Both of us were east coast emigrants to a great university in California. He knew my father, as both had been “ag.” professors on the east coast.

    Charley was endlessly kind and inspirational to everyone. Even with his busy schedule, he would take a few minutes to talk with students in his department. Much later, after he retired, I contacted him a few times to get information. Again, he was always responsive and helpful.

    We’ll miss you Charley. Best wishes to your family.

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