Last Update: 09/12/2022
Dr. Frederick Hebard
Dr. Dayle Zanzinger
The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) would not be where it is today without the perseverance of Dr. Frederick V. Hebard, its longest tenured employee. Fred has spent most of his adult life working with chestnuts. He got hooked on the tree when he was working on a farm while an undergraduate at Columbia University. He was helping round up stray heifers when he came across an old chestnut sprout. The farmer told him about the blight and all the trees that had died. Something about the story captivated Fred. "I don't understand the psychology very well, but it gives me a mission." In 1989, after getting a M.S. degree in botany and a Ph.D. in plant pathology, Fred heard that the recently established American Chestnut Foundation was looking for someone to manage its farm. He leaped at the chance, though the job meant moving his wife and two small children to the hamlet of Meadowview. His first year on the job, he planted the open pasture behind the farmhouse with 250 young Chinese and hybrid trees. Since then it's been a long, slow process: planning crosses, planting nuts, collecting pollen, pollinating trees, harvesting nuts, testing young hybrids for resistance and culling inferior specimens.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that Fred got confirmation that the backcross plan developed by Dr. Charles Burham could even work. He inoculated a group of second-generation hybrids with the blight fungus and then methodically tracked how well each tree coped. Crawling along the ground between the long rows of trees, ruler in hand, he measured the cankers on each tree and compared them to those on the Chinese trees. Gradually he realized that some of the hybrids were showing a marked resistance to the blight. "It looked like the Burnham hypothesis had at least passed its first test," he says, adding with characteristic understatement, "I was pretty pleased about that."
The results also underscored the intimidatingly long odds of creating a fully blight-resistant tree. By tracking how many of those hybrids held up against the blight, Fred was able to confirm that, as suspected, only two or three main genes control resistance. This means that after all the necessary crosses and backcrosses, only a fraction of the trees he produces will have the level of resistance needed to survive in forests riddled with blight.
After decades of dedication to the cause of restoring American chestnut into eastern forests, Dr. Hebard retired in the summer of 2015 and assumed the title of Chief Scientist Emeritus. This backcross-breeding process was carefully conducted for nearly three decades under Fred’s leadership and watchful eye, primarily on TACF’s Glenn C. Price Research Lab and Farms in Meadowview, Virginia. His contributions to the restoration of this species include countless hours of research and the planting of over 130,000 chestnuts on the farms. His tenacity and commitment to this endeavor has resulted in the development of populations of trees that average 15/16 American chestnut and are our most advanced, blight-resistant generation to date.
Fred was an intellectual advisor for Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling novel, Prodigal Summer. This book helped to romanticize and propel the nature of the Appalachian mountains and culture.
Dr. Dayle Zanzinger is a nurse practitioner specialist in Marion, VA in family medicine. Dayle graduated with honors from the University of Virginia School of medicine in 1999. Having more than 17 years of diverse experience, especially in nurse practitioner, Dayle affiliates with many hospitals including Smyth County Community Hospital, Johnston Memorial Hospital, Wellmont Health Systems. Dayle changed professions after moving with Fred to Meadowview, Va. Dayle has a M.S. degree from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. from the University of Maine in plant pathology. Fred and Dayle have two daughters, Kayla and Paige.
Everyone who knows anything about TACF would agree that Fred has done more toward restoring the American chestnut than anyone else. He has been and continues to be an inspiration to each of us who pursue this reality and marvel of scientific prosperity. Based on his lifetime commitment and dedication to restore the American chestnut, the Rowlesburg Revitalization Committee is proud to honor Dr. Fred Hebard and Ms. Dayle Zanzinger as Mr. and Ms. Chestnut for 2016.