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John Reitman

By John Reitman

After 40 years, it is the end of an era at NC State

There have been two constants in the North Carolina State University turf program for most of the past four decades.

Fred Yelverton and Rick Brandenburg each earned his doctorate degree at NC State, then returned to work at their alma mater within a year of each other — in 1984 and 1985, respectively.

As they came to NC State at nearly the same time some 40 years ago, they too have left in lockstep, with both officially retired effective June 30.

In that time, each has become a recognized leader in his respective field, Yelverton in weed science and Brandenburg in turf pathology and entomology.

They have spoken at literally hundreds of events in the Carolinas, nationwide and around the world, helping turf managers do their jobs more efficiently.

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A two-time cancer survivor, Fred Yelverton, Ph.D., nearly found himself in medical school years ago.

"To be honest, I don't know if I can even put them into words," said Matthew Wharton, CGCS at Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington, Kentucky, who spent 17 years at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte. "They're recognized around the world."

With a combined 79 years of service at NC State, their retirement signals the end of an era in Raleigh.

"Both have been pillars of the turf faculty group," said NC State professor and extension specialist, Grady Miller, Ph.D. "They have been here a long time. It's going to be a shock to the system that it's not Rick and Fred anymore."

Recognized for the respective expertise, both men came to the turf industry by happenstance.

Yelverton was set to enter medical school after earning a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology from NC State, but the events surrounding a hunting trip in eastern North Carolina led him to change the path of his career.

We could not have picked a more optimal time. The field was increasing in popularity rapidly. Turfgrass was growing rapidly. It was all there for us to mess up.

In 1981, while deer hunting near Scotland Neck, North Carolina, Yelverton fractured three vertebrae when the tree stand he was in collapsed, sending him plummeting to the ground. It was while he was confined to the hospital in Greenville at East Carolina University, that he befriended an ECU medical student. 

"I'd see him at 6 in the morning and at midnight," Yelverton said. "I asked him, 'What the hell. Are you here 24 hours a day?' He said 'As a matter of fact I am.' I told him I was going to go to medical school, and he said 'Good luck with that.'

"After two weeks in the hospital, I decided a hospital was the last place I wanted to be."

Brandenburg's journey into turf was not quite as dramatic but was equally unexpected. 

Brandenburg knew nothing about turf when he returned to NC State after four years working in forage crops at the University of Missouri.

"I had no experience in turf. My training was in field crops," Brandenburg said. "When I had the opportunity for this job, it was in forage crops, grains, peanuts and a little bit of turf. It didn't make any sense. It was a real mixed bag."

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Rick Brandenburg, Ph.D., started his career in fields like forage crops and peanuts.

The duo say they came to turf at just the right time as conditions and technology were changing rapidly and there was a plethora of new turfgrass species in both golf and athletic fields.

"We could not have picked a more optimal time," Brandenburg said. "The field was increasing in popularity rapidly. Turfgrass was growing rapidly. It was all there for us to mess up. Hopefully, things are in place for the next generation to progress forward."

While plans to fill Yelverton's shoes have not been decided, Terri Bielleisen, Ph.D., who in 2015 also earned a doctorate degree from NC State, has worked on campus since 2017 and will fill the post vacated by Brandenburg.

Work — and retirement — have taken on new meaning for Yelverton, a two-time cancer survivor. 

Fifteen years ago, Yelverton was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. At the time, he had been extremely active physically. The only indicator that something was wrong were elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels revealed during a routine doctor's visit.

"I had no symptoms," he said. "I was running marathons. The only red flag was that my PSA had gone up. The doctor who found that saved my life."

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Rick Brandenburg and Fred Yelverton have a combined 79 years of service at North Carolina State University. Both retired on June 30.

While Yelverton was hospitalized at nearby Duke University Hospital, his oncologist discovered that cancer cells had spread to his lymph nodes. An examination of the lymph nodes revealed that Yelverton also was positive for a non-life-threatening form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

A program of chemotherapy and radiation killed the prostate cancer, but because the CLL was not life threatening, it has gone untreated. Still, 15 years later, Yelverton must have check ups every six months to ensure the cancer in his prostate has not returned and that the CLL remains in check.

"There is nothing like walking up to the edge of the cliff to change your perspective on life," Yelverton said. "If you've walked to the edge of death, it helps you appreciate life more."

The turf industry has changed dramatically during the duration of their careers. Height of cut has gone lower and lower as golfer demand goes up and up, making turf more susceptible to biotic and abiotic stress. In response, several new turf varieties have emerged, and advancements also have been made in technology, chemistry and agronomic practices all designed to make the job of superintendents easier.

"Weeds, diseases and insects we see in North Carolina have increased dramatically in the last 20 years," Brandenburg said. 

"It's not anything that anyone has done wrong. We've just created an all-you-can-eat buffet for them." 

Both men have dedicated their careers to helping turf managers overcome these ever-increasing challenges.

Both have been pillars of the turf faculty group. They have been here a long time. It's going to be a shock to the system that it's not Rick and Fred anymore.

"The industry demanded our service," Brandenburg said. 

"We helped develop practices to use products as efficiently as possible, at a cost level that makes sense and that society demands."

Despite their retirement, both plan to continue consulting, Brandenburg independently and Yelverton will continue working with Clemson's Bert McCarty. The difference now is that how much time they devote to work in turf will be on their own terms.

Brandenburg and his wife, Janice, will focus much of their time on family. Together, they have three children and two grandchildren, all of whom live in Raleigh. They also plan to travel, and have a trip to Prague scheduled for the fall.

Yelverton and wife Kimberly will be headed to Ireland in the fall. He also enjoys inshore, saltwater fishing for flounder and redfish. As far as hunting and climbing into a tree stands, that's another matter entirely.

"Hell no!" he said. "I haven't been in a (expletive deleted) tree stand since I fell out of one."

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