Gene German, food industry proponent, dies at 90

Gene German, M.S. ’59, Ph.D. ’78, whose 40-year Cornell career was devoted to supporting the food industry, died Oct. 9 in Ithaca. The emeritus professor was the inaugural Robert G. Tobin Professor of Food Marketing in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. He was 90.

“Gene is remembered as always being positive, energetic and an all-around great colleague,” said Jinhua Zhao, the David J. Nolan Dean of the Dyson School. “His legacy lives on today in the Food Industry Management Program, in his research, students, colleagues, friends and family.”

German’s first interaction with Cornell came in the mid-1950s when his then-employer, the Kroger Company, sent him to the university to participate in the Food Industry Management Program. He went on to obtain a master’s degree in agricultural economics.

In 1963, German returned to Cornell as an extension associate, to manage the “Home Study Program,” another element of the industry program in which he had participated. The program was supported largely by the supermarket industry, and it provided mail-based education tailored to professionals already working in the food industry. By 1979 more than 100,000 students had enrolled in one or more courses, according to a short biography German wrote about his work at Cornell. The Dyson School still maintains a suite of educational options for professionals through this program.

In 1967, German was promoted to a lecturer position. He then became a pathbreaker for the university’s Employee Degree Program, as the first person in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to enroll in the program. Through it, he earned his Ph.D. in 1978 and became an assistant professor.

German thrived as a teacher, for decades leading introductory courses with enrollments of at least 400 students (“Marketing” and “Introduction to Business Management”), as well as several higher-level courses. His teaching earned him multiple awards from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, including the Outstanding Professor award, which was voted on by students, the Edgerton Career Teaching Award and the Distinguished Advisor Award. For over a decade, German also served as faculty adviser to the men’s hockey team, a role that included occasionally travel with the team to proctor exams and provide academic support.

“Certainly a highlight of my teaching at Cornell was the interaction that I enjoyed with students,” German wrote in his biography. “Before the internet and emails took over our lives, meeting with undergraduate students on a personal level as a faculty adviser was an important activity which allowed me to really get to know them.”

Ed McLaughlin, who became the Robert G. Tobin Professor of Marketing when German retired, praised German as a selfless teacher, mentor and colleague.

“Gene loved people and students in particular, and they loved him back,” McLaughlin said. “I was fortunate to be one of the many to whom Gene became a mentor and I could not have asked for a more unselfish colleague and great friend.”

In 1978, German was named director of the entire Food Industry Management Program, and of the summer Food Executive Program. The programs “became known in the industry as the ‘stepping stone to promotion,’” German wrote.

He also took over responsibility for the annual “Operating Results of Food Chains” reports produced by the department. The innovative reports, established by Professor Emeritus Wendell Earle, were created to aid supermarket chains in comparing their performance against their peers. They relied on companies sharing their confidential financial data with Cornell. Financial institutions and industry leaders used the reports to evaluate companies and identify food-industry trends, German said.

Beginning in the early 1980s, German also oversaw a USDA program that brought retailers from Southeast Asia to the Cornell campus each year to participate in specialized Food Industry Management trainings. He retired in 1998.

German was born Feb. 23, 1933 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University. He was an ROTC graduate and served in the U.S. Army for two years. German is survived by Jean, his wife of 68 years; their three children, Terri Jackson, Nancy Brook Heckel and Amy German ’87; grandchildren, great-grandchildren and extended family.

German’s family invites all who knew him to attend a community reception on Tuesday, Nov. 28, from 4-6 p.m. at the Moakley House, 215 Warren Road in Ithaca. Anyone who wishes to make a donation in German’s honor can contribute to the Gene A. and Jean H. German Scholarship or to Cornell Men’s Ice Hockey.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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