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UND professor donates disease-resistant trees

GRAND FORKS -- It started with a vegetable garden in Florida. William Sheridan, who goes by Bill, started a small victory garden at his childhood home in central Florida in 1944. His interest in growing things blossomed as he taught himself how t...

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GRAND FORKS -- It started with a vegetable garden in Florida.

William Sheridan, who goes by Bill, started a small victory garden at his childhood home in central Florida in 1944. His interest in growing things blossomed as he taught himself how to graft plants by cutting the stems and inserting them into each other. It wasn't long before his mother's pink hibiscus plant was showing signs of his work.

"Eventually it had seven different colors on that one plant," he said, laughing.

The University of North Dakota  professor has come a long way since, earning a doctorate degree and working at several universities across the country, including Harvard and Yale. He has worked at UND for the last 41 years and said what has kept him here is the people, freedom and space to conduct his research.

"I've traveled a long way down the road of life here as a professor," Sheridan said. "I've had my PhD for 50 years. I'm very much attached to the university and I love it dearly. As I think Daniel Webster once said about Dartmouth, 'It's but a small college, but I love it well.'"

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Sheridan loves it so much that he has donated about 30 trees to the university in the last four years. Scattered across campus, the trees are resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, which is carried by beetles and kills trees nationwide.

"Here on campus we have a whole lot of them and they're slowly dying out," Sheridan said.

Sheridan buys the Princeton Elms Bergeson's Nursery in Fertile, Minn., loads them into his Ford Ranger pickup and brings them to campus for planting. A row of seven were planted to the east of the High Performance Center earlier this month.

Most of the trees Sheridan buys are about $100 each and come as young plants with trunks about as thick as the fat end of a pool stick. Some of the newer disease-resistant breeds are pricier, costing $275 each.

"There are some other elm trees that also have been found to be resistant and in the future I intend to purchase some of those and bring them here so the university can try them out as well," Sheridan said.

Biology Department Chairman Jefferson Vaughan said Sheridan's commitment to research is an inspiration.

"As I'm getting older I just look at him and think if I could do that it would amazing," Vaughan said. "He maintains his interest in not only his own research but in biology in general. He's very impressive that way."

Vaughan said he didn't know about the trees Sheridan had donated but wasn't surprised.

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"He really believes in research and believes research is important not only to the university but to society as well," Vaughan said.

Most of Sheridan's daily work is done inside Chandler Hall, one of the buildings slated for closure as the university moves departments in line with its master plan. Sheridan said he thinks his work will eventually move to the old School of Medicine and Health Sciences building when it is vacated and renovated.

Surrounded by ears and kernels of corn stacked neatly in labeled boxes, Sheridan explained his work focuses on how certain genes affect embryo development in corn kernels.

His work also takes him around the world as a visiting professor.

While the corn research has an immediate impact on farmers being able to grow healthy plants, Sheridan said it has broader repercussions worldwide in the advancement of agriculture.

And he doesn't plan to stop any time soon.

"I'm getting to do what I would choose to do if I could do whatever I wanted to do," he said. "Why would I stop?"

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