Life Stories: Scientist helped develop defenses for barrier islands, beaches

CorrespondentJanuary 5, 2014 

  • Uliss O’Dell Highfill

    Born: Aug. 6, 1912 in Summerfield

    Family: Born the youngest of five children. Marries wife Pattie Mae Latta Highfill in 1936, and they move to Raleigh in 1946. His daughter, Patricia, is born in 1948. They have two grandchildren, and he is widowed in 2006.

    Career: Moves to Raleigh in 1946 to work in the Crop Science Department at N.C. State. For 31 years he conducts research, focusing for decades on salt-tolerant grasses for the Coastal dunes stabilization through soil fertility and the establishment of appropriate vegetation project. He retires in 1977, builds a home in Hillsborough. He and his wife move to Black Mountain in 1997.

    Dies: Dec. 15, 2013, in Black Mountain

In the 1960s, when it became clear that the development of coastal land was beginning to take a toll on the environment, researchers such as O’Dell Highfill joined forces with the Army Corps of Engineers on what was called the Dune Stabilization Project.

Because of Highfill’s work, planting varieties of sea oats and spartina was determined to be the most effective way of salvaging the essential habitats near the coast’s barrier islands. Beach denizens from sea turtles to seasonal clam diggers have appreciated, knowingly or not, his calculated efforts to save the riparian area, where land meets water.

Efforts to sustain Carolina’s coasts have remained necessary long after Highfill retired from N.C. State University’s Department of Soil Science, colleagues say.

“The work that he did served as the foundation for a lot that’s happening now down there,” said Robert Patterson, a former student and longtime friend of Highfill.

Highfill died last month at 101. He did not have any initials indicating degrees after his name. In fact, he had no degree to speak of beyond that of high school in Summerfield. Yet for more than 31 years he conducted research on what grows best in various regions of North Carolina. Early in his career he worked more inland, but when the Dune Stabilization Project kicked off, he joined in eagerly.

His family says the work he did in the Outer Banks was one of his proudest accomplishments. Other points of pride were his nearly 70-year marriage to his wife, Pattie Mae Latta Highfill, and the long list of students, family and friends who learned much more from him than which grass grows best in the Piedmont.

Highfill studied agronomy for one year at N.C. State before the money for his education ran out and he headed home to the family farm. Years later, that year proved helpful when a friend at NCSU told him about a position in the Soil Science Department.

But before his career at NCSU took off, he served in World War II. Highfill, who was already married, spent years deployed to Europe and North Africa with the Army before an eye injury brought him home. Then he worked in a military post office in Kansas.

One of his duties was to deliver mail to German prisoners of war. At the end of the war, Highfill received a letter from one of those prisoners, thanking him not only for delivering him mail, but also for performing the task with such kindness.

“He was well-loved by everybody that knew him,” said his daughter, Patricia Tuttle.

The Highfills were married 12 years before the birth of Tuttle, who says her parents made clear to her that she was cherished. Among her favorite memories are trips with both parents to the Outer Banks.

“He talked about it so much, and he took Mother and me down to see what they were doing and talk about the value,” she said.

For students such as Patterson, Highfill’s example showed him both how to conduct “sterling” research and how to be a decent human being.

“What made him so special was his integrity, his commitment to doing it right, and, if a mistake was made, he made it very clear we were to start all over again,” Patterson said. “In our field, erroneous data could be far more dangerous than no data. He really inculcated that concept in many graduates.”

Highfill was never stingy when it came to doling out experience for his students.

“He made certain we knew each day what the overall, fundamental objectives of the research were for that day. It wasn’t just a job, he wanted us to be a part of it. We felt a degree of ownership because of Mr. Highfill that would not have happened otherwise,” Patterson said.

Highfill retired from NCSU in 1977 and built a home in Hillsborough. For 20 years he reveled in his own garden. In Raleigh his shady lot had required he borrow land from Patterson to grow his butterbeans and strawberries. He volunteered with Meals on Wheels, and remained active in his church.

His daughter jokes that he then had a second retirement – a retirement from his retirement – when her parents moved to Black Mountain to be closer to her and her children.

When Highfill turned 100, they had a huge celebration. At least 100 guests came, among them former students, colleagues, and the many friends he’d made in Black Mountain.

At a certain point, his daughter said he began to wonder why he was granted such longevity in his life.

“He often said, ‘I don’t know why I’ve lived so long. I have to figure out why I’m here. I guess I’m here just to be nice to people’,” Tuttle recalled. “And I thought, ‘You’ve been doing that your whole life.’ 

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