UNH mourns loss of professor emeritus Owen Rogers

The University of New Hampshire mourns the loss of Owen Maurice Rogers, 85, professor emeritus of plant biology in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, who passed away Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Rogers devoted his career to breeding lilacs, the New Hampshire state flower, and was instrumental in developing UNH’s lilac breeding program that spanned 60 years, the longest continuous lilac breeding program in the United States.

“How could you not be enamored by the lilac? The virtues that it has, there are many. Between the variation in size of plants and colors of plants, the lilac fills all the bills. The fragrance is very nice. You can hardly go wrong with the lilac,” Rogers said in a short documentary “For the Love of Lilacs” produced by the Wentworth-Coolidge Commission.

Known nationally for his lilac expertise, Rogers conducted much of his research at the UNH Woodman Horticultural Research Farm, a facility of the NH Agricultural Experiment Station, which supported Rogers’ lifetime of research. Rogers was among UNH’s lilac breeders who solidified UNH’s place as the center of lilac breeding for six decades beginning in the 1940s.

UNH scientists with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station developed 10 varieties of lilacs, including one of the most popular in the world, the Miss Kim lilac. The three principal UNH scientists engaged in this work were Elwyn Meader, Albert Yeager, and Rogers. The experiment station’s Woodman Horticultural Research Farm still exhibits the fruits of this lilac research with many varieties blooming every year.

“The primary work being done with lilacs at UNH is to develop species that will extend the bloom season. Our accent is on breeding better lilacs, which will come into bloom after the common lilac has peaked and faded,” Rogers told the New York Times in 1979.

Rogers cross-bred thousands of varieties of lilacs and introduced three new lilacs. The Agnes Smith Lilac is a white lilac Rogers introduced in 1970. It is named for Agnes Greene Smith of Portsmouth, the first president of the New Hampshire Federation of Garden Clubs. The Agnes Smith was chosen as the best plant introduction of 1973 by the International Propagators Society and is considered one of the finest white lilacs in the world. The Jesse Hepler Lilac is a purple lilac Rogers introduced in 1981. It is named for Jesse Hepler, UNH professor emeritus of horticulture. The Marie Rogers Lilac is a light violet lilac introduced in 2003 by Rogers and Walter Oakes of Dixfield, ME. This lilac was named by Walter Oakes for Owen’s wife Marie Rogers.

“Jesse Hepler has been introduced but not widely propagated or marketed. It is important because it is the latest blooming lilac in New England, and possibly the world. No other lilac is known to bloom as late, which extends the lilac bloom time by several weeks,” said John Bentley, author of Lilacs: A New Hampshire Perspective.

While on sabbatical in 1975, Rogers compiled the Tentative International Register of Cultivar Names in the Genus Syringa L. Published by the NH Agricultural Experiment Station in 1976, it became the cornerstone of the International Register and Checklist of Cultivar Names of the Genus Syringa L. (2007).

“The success of the Tentative registry eventually led to it becoming the registry of lilacs. Thus, anybody who wanted to announce a new lilac had to go through UNH. This encouraged much interchange of information about lilacs with the UNH staff, who in turn connected to a larger network worldwide,” said Bradley Bittorf, executive vice president of the International Lilac Society.

Janet Sullivan, adjunct associate professor of biological sciences and collections manager of the Hodgdon Herbarium, shared an office with Rogers after the department moved to Spaulding Hall from Nesmith Hall in 1996. “He was a very gregarious person, and he loved UNH. He felt he had been blessed in life as far as his academic career and opportunities. He loved his family, and was especially happy to be able to spend time with his grandson. He fully enjoyed his retirement, doing the things he loved: sharing his knowledge and love of plants -- especially lilacs, socializing and keeping everyone connected, and traveling. He was generous with stories and advice,” Sullivan said.

Barb Rollins, landscape specialist supervisor with the NH Department of Transportation, worked with Rogers for many years on the NH Governor’s Lilac and Wildflower Commission. “He was a true delight to work with, a gentleman, and his wit was always a welcome! He was also a judge for the many entries in the annual Lilac Photo Contest held in August, something he enjoyed and took pride in. I feel privileged to have known and worked with Owen and will miss him very much,” Rollins said.

Rogers was an active member of the International Lilac Society, serving s president, editor, and in other capacities. He is the recipient of the Director’s Award (1979), the Honors and Achievement Award (1984), the Arch McKean Award (1991), and the Distinguished Recognition Award (2001) of the International Lilac Society. He also served as a commissioner on the NH Governor’s Lilac and Wildflower Commission.

In addition to his lilac breeding work, Rogers taught classes in plant genetics and breeding at UNH, judged flower shows, and served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve for 20 years. He was considered the unofficial spokesman for lilacs in New Hampshire, appearing in magazine articles and on television to promote lilacs well into his retirement.

Rogers was born on July 4, 1930, in Worcester, Mass. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1952 from the Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; his master’s degree in 1954 from Cornell University; and his Ph.D. in 1959 from Pennsylvania State University. He was a Master Mason.

He is survived by his wife Marie Rogers of Durham; two daughters, Mary Rogers LaPolice and her husband Matthew LaPolice of Durham, and Lucy Parkman of Dover; and a grandson, Troy LaPolice of Durham. Funeral services for Rogers are private. A community celebration of his life is planned for a later date at the Durham Community Church.

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