Robert Bitz ’52, agricultural pioneer, dies at 92

Trustee emeritus and Central New York farmer Robert “Bob” Bitz ’52, a longtime supporter of the university who was instrumental in helping organize Cornell’s first advisory committee on planned giving, died June 17. He was 92.

Bitz’s roots ran deep in Plainville, New York, where generations of his family lived on the 71-acre farm his great-great-grandfather purchased in 1835. At Cornell, he majored in poultry science before returning as the fifth generation in his family to lead operations of what was then a small farm. Under Bitz’s leadership, and with the help of modern concepts like specialized production and vertical integration he acquired through his studies, the farm began to specialize in turkeys. It grew into one of the largest in the Northeast.

He led the operations of Plainville Turkey Farm for more than 30 years before gradually turning leadership over to his son, Mark Bitz, M.S. ’85. Bitz remained interested in agricultural innovations and authored 12 books on Central New York, New York State history and agriculture. 

Bitz believed strongly in the mission of land-grant universities and the importance of alumni involvement. He was elected to the Cornell Board of Trustees in 1985 as a trustee from the field of agriculture, serving until 1993. He served on the board’s committees for alumni affairs and development, buildings and properties, and land grant and statutory colleges.

Bitz was vice chair of the board’s community communications committee from 1988-93, co-chairing the Syracuse campaign committee and serving as a member of the special gifts committee of “The Cornell Campaign: Creating the Future,” from 1990-95. He also served on the advisory councils for the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

“Bob exemplified all that was good about being a New York farmer, and he was a devoted volunteer to Cornell,” said President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III. “His leadership, commitment and plain common sense will never be replaced; his example certainly served to inspire others.”

He served on the CALS Alumni Association from 1979-86 and as its president from 1983-84. He implemented a plan that grew its membership by more than 200%, reversing a downward trend. He was awarded the CALS Alumni Association’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 1988 and, in 1990, established the Bitz Family Scholarship Fund, which has supported more than 45 undergraduate students from rural areas in Onondaga and Cayuga counties. In the early 1990s, he led a successful campaign effort as chair of the Alpha Zeta Building Fund Drive.  

“Bob Bitz was the key driving force behind the success of the $1.7 million fundraising campaign toward a major renovation of the Alpha Zeta House during the early 1990's,” said Richard A. Church ’64, past president of the Alpha Zeta Alumni Corporation Board. “His optimism that ’together we can do it,’ plus putting together a great team, led to two-thirds of our 1,200 alumni donating to make it happen. He also led by example by committing personally to the campaign.” 

Bitz was recognized as a trustee emeritus in 1993, selected as one of 100 agricultural leaders nationwide for the Alpha Zeta Centennial Honor Roll in 1997, and honored with the Frank H.T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Service Award in 2002.

Bitz was predeceased by his wife of 65 years, Janice, whom he met in high school. He is survived by their sons, Mark and Bruce ’87, daughter Cynthia Bowen, and several nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Starr Todd is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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Rebecca Valli