Professor Charles E. Bessey (1845-1915), a native of Ohio, was a nationally known University of Nebraska professor of botany and horticulture from 1884 to 1915 and a gifted administrator who served as acting chancellor of the University of Nebraska from 1888 to 1891 and again in 1899. When he arrived in 1884, the university was only 15 years old with 373 students. His botany students were soon covering the state, gathering data on the flora of Nebraska. Within two years, Bessey had convinced the Board of Regents to establish an agricultural experiment station to take university research to Nebraska’s citizens.
Bessey’s accomplishments were many. He wrote congressional legislation requiring land-grant universities to distribute new knowledge and research to the public through agricultural experiment stations. He established one of the foremost botany programs in the country, developed modern plant classification, was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and mentored many students who became leaders and pioneers in their own fields including plant ecology, entomology, law, medicine, and parasitology.
Professor Charles E. Bessey made a lasting impact on the University of Nebraska and our state through his conviction that the University of Nebraska should be a state university for the benefit of the public. His motto, “Science with Practice,” succinctly stated his guiding philosophy that scientific discovery is most useful when put into practice. Called a “great harmonizer,” Bessey believed that the University of Nebraska should provide both classical and practical education; he fought efforts in 1889 and 1915 to create two separate state universities for these purposes. Nebraska is indebted to Bessey for laying the foundation of our single, unified state university.
Bessey served on national, state, and community groups promoting public education and environmental stewardship. The first suggestion that the federal government should plant trees in the Sandhills came from Bessey in 1890. He believed such forestation would provide a source of fuel and fence posts, help control erosion, and provide sanctuary for wildlife.
In 1891 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry established a small, experimental plantation of pines on the Bruner Brothers’ ranch in Holt County. This success led to the creation of two forest reserves on the Dismal and Niobrara rivers by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt in April 1902. In 1908 the reserves became the Nebraska National Forest. The Dismal River reserve near Halsey was later renamed for Charles Bessey, and the Niobrara reserve became the McKelvie National Forest in 1971.
Charles E. Bessey was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 2007. The current Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize those such as Bessey who have made significant contributions to Nebraska and the nation. Individuals must be deceased thirty-five years to be considered. The Hall of Fame Commission, with members appointed by the governor, is the official body responsible for the evaluation of candidates and the bestowal of this honor.