Claude McKee, 68, U. of Md. agronomist, international expert on state's tobacco

November 18, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Claude G. McKee, a longtime Maryland Cooperative Extension Service tobacco researcher and educator who was considered an international expert on the unique aspects of Maryland tobacco, died Thursday of lung cancer at his North Keys farm in southern Prince George's County. He was 68.

Mr. McKee, an agronomist, retired from the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1995 after nearly 40 years, during which time he had become a familiar figure to Southern Maryland tobacco farmers.

A friendly and unassuming man with a ruddy complexion, Mr. McKee could usually be found busy at work in the laboratory at the University of Maryland's experimental tobacco farm near Upper Marlboro, or tramping over a farmer's field examining his young tobacco plants.

"His tobacco knowledge was wide-ranging and took in all aspects of the industry," said David L. Conrad, an extension service regional tobacco specialist based in Upper Marlboro. "It also included a knowledge of diseases, insect infestation, plant variety development, labor and mechanization," he said.

"He was a man of tremendous intelligence who had a mentoring-type personality. He enjoyed both his work and helping people," Mr. Conrad said.

"He was known as 'Mr. Maryland Tobacco," said T. Milton Nelson, extension agriculture editor for the University of Maryland and a colleague for 28 years. "He was a leading authority on all aspects of tobacco, from growing to harvesting ,, to curing," said Mr. Nelson.

Once the state's No. 1 crop dating back to the 17th century, Maryland tobacco is recognized for its steady-burn characteristics and aroma, which is largely due to the old-fashioned air-curing process, Mr. Nelson said.

Most of the Maryland crop is sold in Europe, where it is used in the manufacture of cigarettes.

"All the worldwide buyers knew Claude McKee," said Mr. Conrad.

He represented the Maryland tobacco industry at the first World Tobacco Exhibition and Symposium in Europe in 1971, and led several Maryland tobacco trade delegations in following years to Europe and Southeast Asia.

For years, Mr. McKee was host of the University of Maryland's Tobacco Field Day at the university's 200-acre research farm, where tobacco farmers from Southern Maryland came to see new equipment and learn about industrywide developments and research.

A longtime cigarette smoker, he refused for years to accept the medical findings relating to smoking and the development of cancer, friends said.

"However, I think he did come to accept those findings in recent years," said Mr. Nelson.

Mr. McKee was born and reared on the farm where he spent virtually his entire life. When he was 7 years old, his father died, and a tenant farmer took an interest in the boy.

"Louis Fleet, a black tenant tobacco farmer, became a surrogate father to him and taught him how to farm, among other things," said Mr. McKee's wife of 40 years, the former Kay Edwards.

Mr. McKee graduated from Upper Marlboro High School and earned his bachelor's degree in 1951, his master's degree in 1955 and his Ph.D. in 1959, all from the University of Maryland.

He was a lifelong member of Brookfield United Methodist Church, where services were held Monday

Besides his wife, Mr. McKee is survived by two daughters, Lynn G. McKee of Greenbelt and Wendy C. Hambleton of Lake Bluff, Ill.; two sisters, Hannah Crosswhite of Mitchellville and Jane Watson of Brandywine; and two grandchildren.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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