I got to know John Wilcut when he was a graduate student and later a post-doctoral student at Auburn University. It was clear that even as a young man, he was something special. In an academic world where too many people were too concerned about tenure, promotions, journal articles and self preservation in general, John was a welcomed diversion — one who was truly interested in learning and using that knowledge to help others.
John Wilcut died on Aug. 24, after an off and on bout with adrenal cancer that lasted for a number of years. He was only 52 years old.
He earned his doctorate in microbiology, working with legendary Auburn scientists Don Davis and Bryan Truelove. His dissertation on cogongrass brought him into close professional contact with weed scientists Harold Walker and Glenn Wehtje at Auburn. “He worked with us as a post-doc, Wehtje recalls, and he was a natural — he caught on really fast to everything we were doing.”
John rapidly became a favorite at grower field days and with students in the Department of Agronomy and Soils at Auburn. It seems clear to all of us who knew him that he had found his niche in life.
We published a research magazine at Auburn at that time and John was such a regular contributor to the publication he was named to the Editorial Board, which meant critiquing articles submitted for publication. He jokingly said he was put on the committee because he was such a bad writer that he could easily identify bad writing. In reality, he was not only a good writer, but a good communicator, moving seamlessly among professional colleagues, students and farmers.
After he left Auburn, I lost track of John. I now know he went to work in weed science at Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia before ending up at North Carolina State.
When John came to North Carolina State his talents meshed perfectly with legendary North Carolina State Weed Scientist Alan York. I don't know what their professional relationship was, but both seemed to me to be cut from the same bolt of cloth. Both were, and York still is, selfless in their approach to helping their constituents and tireless in pursuit of excellence in their craft.
Not long after I started my latest career here with Southeast Farm Press, I got an e-mail from John, typically thanking me for trying to help him become a better writer when he was at Auburn and offering to help me in any way he could in my new job.
At that time glyphosate resistance had just been documented and the whole realm of herbicide resistance was in the news. I called on John often for information, both off and on the record. He never was too busy to help me understand the intricate relationships between plants and chemicals, nor to talk about Auburn football, nor recalling good times shared when he was at Auburn.
The last time I saw him, in December at the North Carolina Crop Consultants winter meeting, John said he had been sick, but felt good and was optimistic that all that was behind him — that's about all was said about his cancer. Instead, we talked about the growing problem of herbicide resistance in North Carolina — characteristic of his selfless nature.
It's always sad when someone, like John Wilcut, with so much to offer has his life shortened by an incurable disease. It is even more sad when others, often more gifted, let treatable maladies, like drug and alcohol addiction and a plethora of other social problems reduce their professional existence to just that — existence.
I know John's wife Cathy and children Jared and Caitlyn, and his legions of former students, ag industry friends and colleagues will miss him greatly. They can bask in the assurance that John was a good man, a good colleague, devoted father and husband, and a caring, thoughtful public servant — one of the really good ones. He will be missed.