To help plants and people grow.
This is what motivated Robert Wesley Sheard throughout his life.
On Oct. 21, the retired professor of plant agronomy and soils at the University of Guelph passed away peacefully of natural causes at the age of 93, with both of his sons by his side.
“You could never get the farmer out of the man, but this was his secret strength,” says his son, John Goerzen Sheard of his father.
“The ancient wisdom of farming justified by science, extending education out into the community, this is rooted in who he was. He took his agricultural research and brought it back to the farm.”
Research in nutrient requirements and soil structure led Sheard to specialize in turfgrass and sports field construction.
He was instrumental in founding the Guelph Turfgrass Institute and developing the association now known as the Sports Turfgrass Institute.
“He was a fine researcher and he basically grounded the association,” says Michael Bladon, first president and honorary member of the association.
“Bob was a major contributor, and he did a great amount of work for the association. He was a member of the board of directors and he also received an honorary lifetime membership. He was a busy guy, but he loved every minute of it.”
In 1993, Sports Turf Canada (STC) established the Robert W. Sheard Scholarship in recognition of his contributions to the association.
After retiring as a professor in 1990, he became STC’s first executive secretary and he was the editor and major contributor to the Sports Turf Newsletter, now the Sports Turf Manager.
Sheard edited and produced an Athletic Field Manager’s Guide, the Athletic Field Construction Manual and the Constructing the Sports Field brochure. He also authored Understanding Turf Management, transferring ownership and donating all proceeds to the association.
“This was my dad. He did everything he could to pay it forward”, his son John said.
Sheard also served on various boards including the International Turfgrass Society, the Guelph Turfgrass Institute and the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium.
One of the most important things for Sheard was the opportunity to mentor his students, one-on-one.
“He always encouraged others. He delighted in the success of others. People have called me from the industry saying that ‘he helped me grow my business’. It didn’t matter who they were, academics or not, he was there to help,” John said.
“He was so quiet and patient. It was that on-on-one encouragement and engagement that he wanted to offer others. This was the thing with dad, it was having these relationships with people.”
Sheard often joked saying his aim was to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before.
This love of ‘growing’ began at an early age.
“It was the Canadian farm boy in him,” John said. “For him, it was just the way the world was.”
The second of six sons, Sheard was born on a prairie farm in Maryfield, Saskatchewan, on January 17, 1927.
His post secondary education began with a Bachelor of Science and Agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan, followed by a Master of Science from the University of Toronto, which he obtained at the Ontario Agricultural College, now the University of Guelph.
While at the OAC, he met his future wife of 62 years, Gladys.
Sheard went on to earn a PhD from Cornell University, returning to Guelph as a professor.
“We lived in the Harcourt neighborhood in Guelph. My brother and I used to deliver the newspaper. All the houses had names and there was a story associated with each one. And I remember as a young boy, visiting the grass plots on Stone Road,” John said.
“At the University of Guelph, my dad arrived at the right place at the right time. In terms of research there was so much happening with fertilizers, plant nutrients, hydroponics and with constructing artificial turf. It was science and the art of growing things. They complemented one another since the days when farmers depended only on their land and the Farmer’s Almanac.”
Departments at the university were growing and expanding as was Sheard’s opportunity to research and pull together a rapidly growing turfgrass industry.
“For dad, it was about taking the innovations from the university and bringing them back to the farm,” John said.
“It was being able to help the person who maintained the sports field, wherever it was and to make sure it was maintained in a way that would prevent sports injuries. He had this sense of why it mattered. It wasn’t about the research grants as much as it was about keeping people safe, helping the growth of crops, not destroying the soil and paying it forward.”
John says his father had a strong sense of the value of agricultural research at the University of Guelph and the impact it has on the community and the rest of the world.
“His research also led him to read about what others were doing around the world,” John says.
“Academia allowed him many travel opportunities.”
The travel bug for the entire family was lit.
“Mom and dad’s connections were global, and I learned as a 10-year-old boy travelling to New Zealand, that my Guelph, my Canada, was not the centre of the world. The world was so wonderful and so big!” John said.
Sheard and his wife were avid curlers. Through the years, he was also a member of the Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star.
“Both my parents volunteered. There was this humble sense of obligation about it. They had this sense of responsibility in the world,” John said.
Sheard was unwavering in his commitment to his wife Gladys following her stroke in 1985 and he fully supported her advocacy work for stroke recovery.
Retirement in 1990 meant Sheard could spend more time with his family including his beloved grandchildren, travel, occasional consulting and work with the Sports Turf Association.
“And gardening. He was an avid gardener, right from the seed. He just loved gardening,” Bladon said.
John says retirement allowed his father to leave behind the politics of campus life and that it was his practical work that truly fulfilled him.
“And yes, he always had a garden. Growing things was just a habit. He would dig up geraniums and there would be over 200 in the basement and then he would replant them in the spring. The hard thing was leaving his garden behind when he and my mom moved to Arbour Trails,” John said.
And with the move to Arbour Trails Retirement Village in 2013, another garden began to grow.
Sheard himself suffered a stroke in 2016.
“He still grew plants in his room and enjoyed his flower garden outside,” John said.
It was also seeing the people around him grow, his family, friends, colleagues and students that inspired Sheard.
“I know for sure, that even if he were speaking at a lectern right now, it was that one-on-one engagement with others that he wanted to offer the most. He was always encouraging others. I think this is how he saw himself and I think this is what he was for many in the community,” John said.
“We were really lucky to have dad as our example.”
John recalls a photo of his father on the prairies during his younger days.
“I have a picture of dad golfing. It was an early golf experience in the prairies. It looked like he was golfing on the moon. It was on dirt and it was so dusty which now, is so funny to see,” John said.
And so, the grass began to grow.