Leonard Topoleski, vegetable crop expert, dies at 83

Leonard D. Topoleski, professor emeritus of vegetable crops and horticulture, died Feb. 8 in Sayre, Pennsylvania. He was 83.

Leonard D. Topoleski

Topoleski conducted research on vegetable crops, served as an extension agent and left a legacy as a popular teacher and student adviser.

“He was an enthusiastic teacher of our undergraduate beginning horticulture course and, over his career, inspired many students with his love of plants,” said Chris Wien, M.S. ’67, Ph.D. ’71, professor emeritus of horticulture.

Born in 1935 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, Topoleski earned a bachelor’s (1957) and a master’s degree (1959) in horticulture from Penn State University and a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics (1962) from Purdue University. That same year, he joined Cornell’s faculty in the then-Department of Vegetable Crops where he worked until his retirement in 2001.

Topoleski’s research involved understanding incompatibility issues that arise when breeding different tomato species. He received training in the use of electron microscopy and became the department expert on using the technique for plant science research.

He also researched greenhouse vegetable production, evaluating new growing systems and fertility management, assessing new varieties and providing basic greenhouse tomato production information to new growers.

But his biggest impact may have been as a teacher.

“Professor Topoleski was revered by his students for his hands-on and engaging approach,” said Frank Rossi, professor and extension turf grass specialist in the School of Integrative Plant Science. “Students would be responsible for growing and studying the growth of plants from seed to harvest each semester, a tradition I know my colleagues and I have attempted to maintain in our coursework today.”

Topoleski’s general horticulture course (Hort 102) exposed hundreds of Cornell undergraduates to the world of fruits, vegetables and landscape plants for the first time. He also was an undergraduate adviser for more than 30 students per year.

As a 4-H vegetable crops extension specialist, he trained agents, wrote highly regarded extension publications and guides, and developed new programs.

“He was well-known and appreciated by 4-H and home gardeners all over the state,” said Elmer Ewing, professor emeritus of horticulture, adding that Topoleski was also a strong supporter of Cornell sports.

“A big man, with a booming voice and extrovert personality, he was a memorable figure in our department,” Wien said.

Topoleski is survived by his wife of 61 years, Janice, along with three children, five grandchildren and a sister.

A memorial event will be announced at a later date.

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Lindsey Knewstub