Empire apple breeder Roger Way dies at 100

Roger Way, Ph.D. ’53, professor emeritus of pomology and world-renowned apple breeder, died June 2 in State College, Pennsylvania. He was 100 years old.

Roger Way

Way gained worldwide recognition for apple varieties he developed. His apple-related fame landed him on a “Jeopardy!” question, under the category “By the Way,” which read: “Roger Way tasted 200 of these a day, helping him develop the Empire and Jonagold types.”

“Dr. Roger Way contributed to the New York apple industry, but also nationally and internationally,” said apple breeder Susan Brown, the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science at Cornell AgriTech. “His Jonagold apple, named in 1968, is seventh in European apple production by variety and Empire is ninth in U.S. production.”

Way was born Nov. 7, 1918, in Stormstown, Pennsylvania, on a fruit and dairy farm that his family still runs. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1940 and his master’s in 1942 from Pennsylvania State University.

Way, who was a Quaker, declared conscientious objector status in 1942, when he received his selective service notification during WWII. He spent the next four years in a Civilian Public Service camp in Bowie, Maryland.

Following the war, he spent more than two years in rural China doing relief work for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

He returned to the U.S. and was hired by Cornell as a research associate in 1949, as he earned a doctorate in pomology (the science of growing fruit). In 1953, he joined Cornell’s faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Pomology and Viticulture at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, New York (now Cornell AgriTech). He served as acting department head in 1974, and again from 1982-83. He retired in 1983 as a professor emeritus. He worked for 16 years following his retirement.

By the early 1980s, Way had established himself as something of a celebrity, appearing on the “CBS Evening News,” Sunday edition, in 1983 and as a guest on Rochester, New York-based home gardening radio and television programs. He was profiled in Ambassador (Trans World Airline’s magazine) and was often quoted in The New York Times.

A 1984 People magazine feature described how he and longtime colleague Robert Lamb, a professor of horticultural sciences at NYSAES, cross-pollinated and nursed more than 100,000 apple trees, and taste-tested the apples on every one of them. “We chew on about 200 apples a day,” Way told the magazine. “It does take a certain amount of physical stamina.”

His Empire and Jonagold varieties received Outstanding Fruit Cultivar awards in 1987 and 1988, respectively, from the American Society for Horticultural Science.

Way’s and colleagues’ research on pollination and apple germplasm led to the introduction of 16 apple varieties, seven cherry varieties and one elderberry variety to commercial growers and nurseries.

“While Dr. Way was quiet at first glance, out in the field and at grower meetings his voice was booming and his passion for genetic improvement of apples was clear to everyone in attendance,” Brown said. “He wrote many articles geared to the industry on apple varieties and their performance.”

He is survived by his wife, Mary, and five children.

A memorial service will be held June 29 at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at Foxdale Village Retirement Community. Memorial contributions can be made to the Foxdale Community Fund.

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Lindsey Knewstub