Column: Passing of two legends: Elmer Gilbert and Macon Steele

Over the past 40 years or so in this business, I have met a boatload of great people. Many have made life-lasting impressions and countless times were quoted in articles. Two died recently: Elmer Gilbert and Macon Steele.

Obituaries are part of this business. Everyone gets one eventually. Elmer got his a few days shy of his 75th birthday. Macon was 89. Macon was a cotton ginner’s cotton ginner. Elmer was a cotton breeder with a Midas touch.

Anyone in the cotton business, especially in California or Arizona for any stretch of time, knew Macon and Elmer. Their followers and friends were many. They were innovators and pioneers, recognized repeatedly by their peers as among the very best in the business.

I met Elmer in the early ’70s when I was a reporter on a newspaper in Tucson, Ariz. Former University of Arizona Extension Cotton Specialist Brooks Taylor introduced me to Elmer as the “best cotton breeder in the world.” It took me awhile to understand everything Elmer imparted about cotton, but I realized quickly he knew his business because his knowledge of cotton drew farmers to him like almond blossoms draw bees. When Elmer spoke, farmers listened.

Longtime friend Sid Cox introduced me to Macon. Like Elmer, you had to hustle to keep up in order to understand what Macon was talking about in the business of ginning cotton. His favorite invite was to “call me and we’ll take a ride to the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley to look at some cotton gins.”

Both left lasting legacies.

Couple of stories about Macon and Elmer:

One of the first articles I recall writing when I moved to California more than 30 years ago was on five Producers Cotton Oil ginners from the same family.

I learned quickly how dangerous the business of ginning cotton could be. At least two of ginners in the family had missing hands, fingers or arms. I learned about the danger of ramming a broomstick into the bottom of a running, clogged gin stand. Ginners knew better, but sometimes fatigue and long, frustrating hours clouded judgments and accidents happened.

There are plates on the bottom of gin stands to prevent such accidents, but those plates were easily removed. It took adding electric kill switches to those plates to shut down the gin stand to prevent accidents. Macon did all he could to protect the men who ginned cotton for him.

Elmer was known by his numbers, notably Deltapine 61, Deltapine 70 and Deltapine 90, all cottons he developed during his 47-year cotton-breeding career. These cottons literally “traveled” the world. Cottons are normally regional in adaptation. It was rare to discover one adapted virtually worldwide. Elmer developed at least three.

Elmer and Macon loved to share stories and talk about their careers. They knew no strangers in or out of the cotton business.

It was an honor to know them and not just for what they taught me about growing and ginning cotton. I learned more important things from Elmer and Macon: Respect, perseverance, integrity, dedication, a never-quit attitude and a desire to live life to the fullest.

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