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Dr. Armand Van Wambeke

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Dr. Armand Van Wambeke Obituary
Dr. Armand Van Wambeke

Ithaca: Dr. Armand Robert Henri Van Wambeke, age 84, a Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, died Monday afternoon at Kendal at Ithaca. Dr. Van Wambeke was born on May 16, 1926 in Ghent, Belgium and enjoyed a rich and diverse professional career. He worked for many organizations around the world before he and his family settled down in Ithaca after receiving a position as Professor of International Soils at Cornell University in 1976, which he held until his retirement in 1995. Armand's education was based in Ghent where he graduated from the Royal High School in 1944, and studied Tropical Agriculture at the University of Ghent from 1945 to 1949. He was also an accomplished basketball player and represented his country at the 1948 Olympics in London. After military service in the Ordinance Corps, Armand worked as a soil surveyor in the Belgian Congo, Rwanda and Burundi from 1951 to 1960. This formed the basis for his Doctorate dissertation at the University in Ghent (1958) on the properties and classification of soils in the Kivu area, eastern Congo. This work was expanded in a 1974 publication for the FAO on the management of Ferralsols, the most highly-weathered and supposedly infertile soils of the tropics. During this time, Armand and Francine had seven children - Paul, Jan, Luc, Philippe, Annika, Caroline and Elisabeth. Armand assumed a number of assignments around the world: the University of the Congo (1960-61), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (Colombia 1961-64, Nepal 1965), and the Belgian Center for Soil Survey (1965). He became acquainted with Cornell University during an interim position as International Professor in 1966, after which he returned to Latin America as the regional soil survey officer for the FAO, and in 1970 to the University of Ghent to serve as project leader for the soil survey program. His arrival at Cornell University in 1976 initiated a very productive phase as Professor of Tropical Soil Science. He regularly traveled around the world in support of soil survey and educational efforts and did two sabbaticals in Ghent. Armand made many contributions to the field of soil science, especially on tropical soils and land evaluation. His language skills (fluent in Dutch, French, English and Spanish) allowed him to effectively work in many international settings. He taught undergraduate and graduate students about tropical soils and his research contributed to their appraisal and classification. For ten years his group supported the international outreach of the US Soil Survey with a series of practical publications on cartography, map unit names, evaluating the quality of soil surveys, and soil moisture and temperature regimes. He gained international recognition for his research in land evaluation and the development of a computer based expert system with his PhD student David Rossiter (ALES, Automated Land Evaluation System, 1987), which is used around the world. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of any technology that could improve his work, including personal computers and geographical information systems. Towards the end of his career he wrote a textbook (1992) on the geography, properties and management of tropical soils, which was later adapted by the FAO (2003) to their new international soil classification. Armand was known for his great analytical mind and ability to bring structure to the evaluation of complex soil systems. He took pride in challenging his students to think both broadly and in depth. His reputation was that of a critical and demanding scholar and a fair and inspiring teacher. Armand enjoyed traveling from the moment he married his wife, Francine, and together they spent their honeymoon in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it was at that point the family began to develop an appreciation for world travel and learning about different cultures. Dr. Van Wambeke will always be remembered for his favorite sayings: "To make progress in soil science one must go outside of it;" "I speak many languages, all equally badly;" "There is only one acceptable quality of work, and that is high quality;" "We don't want to be Dutch, we don't want to be French, we definitely don't want to be German, so we are Belgian," and referring to his Olympic experience where Belgium was eliminated in the group stage despite winning three of five games, "The important thing is not to win, it is to compete." Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Francine Van Wambeke; six children, Paul (Christine) Van Wambeke, Jan Van Wambeke, Dr. Philippe Van Wambeke, Annika (Gordon) Black, and Caroline Kinne, Elisabeth (Paul) Griep; twelve grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; a brother, Andre Van Wambeke; several nieces and nephews. Dr. Van Wambeke is predeceased by his son, Luc Roland Van Wambeke, who died on August 13, 2006; a sister, Simone Heidricx. A Mass of Christian Burial will be on Monday at 1:30 p.m. in Anabel Taylor Chapel at Cornell University. Friends and family are asked to park in the City Parking Garage located in the 100 block of Dryden Road and a limousine shuttle will take people to-and-from the services. A reception will follow in Kendal at Ithaca. Burial will be private in East Lawn Cemetery.

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Published in Ithaca Journal on May 5, 2011
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