One of my former staff at IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) passed away last week. Tom Clemeno had been an employee of IRRI for many years, working his way up to Senior Manager of the institute’s Experiment Station (ES). Diagnosed with a lymphoma in 2013, Tom fought the disease with courage but it became clear in recent weeks that he could not win this last battle.
It is a sign of the affection in which he was held by friends and former colleagues that there has been an enormous outpouring of sympathy on his Facebook page and those of his immediate family.
Tom’s role in GRC in the 90s
Tom must have been a Research Assistant in GRC when I joined IRRI in July 1991. He was one of at least two staff handling field operations: rice germplasm multiplication, rejuvenation, and characterization. Once I’d made a thorough review of the genebank operations, I separated germplasm multiplication/rejuvenation and germplasm characterization as distinct activities, and we determined the level of field support needed to carry out each of these functions efficiently. I asked Tom to take charge of germplasm characterization, while his colleague Ato Reaño was put in charge of the germplasm multiplication and rejuvenation operations.
Towards the end of the 1990s I was approached by the then head of the ES because he wanted to recruit Tom as his 2-I-C. In those days there was a pretty strange job transfer protocol in place at IRRI. An employee was allowed to move across to a new position in another department only with the approval of his/her current head of department. A head could effectively block someone’s career, and unfortunately that did happen from time-to-time. As Tom related in a short memoir that he wrote not long before he passed away, he came to see me full of trepidation. He did acknowledge that while I was quite strict, I did listen to my staff. Anyway, I told him that if he wanted to move to the Experiment Station, and if he felt it was an appropriate move for him to progress his career, then the decision was his, not mine. We arrived at an accommodation with the head of the ES to allow Tom to complete some important germplasm characterization activities he was involved with, and so Tom moved on from GRC. He eventually left IRRI in 2010 to manage a 200 ha rice farm in Malaysia, but did return to the institute three years later as a consultant in the plant breeding group.
Tom and CIEM
While Tom was on my staff in the early 1990s, there had been considerable staff unrest at IRRI. I don’t remember all the background after so many years. But Tom played an important role for several years as the local staff chair of the Committee of IRRI Employees and Management (CIEM). I think Tom was a born politician, and had a pivotal role in negotiating an outcome to the unrest that was best for everyone. He certainly had the gift of the gab! But these CIEM responsibilities increasingly took him away from his GRC ones. And that was not a sustainable position to be in. His colleagues would have to cover for him when he was called away frequently—and often unexpectedly—to a meeting with senior management.
So we agreed among ourselves to effectively allow Tom a three-year ‘leave of absence’ from GRC, and we re-organized the field operations with Ato taking on an enhanced role (that he has maintained to this day). I do believe that the support of Tom’s GRC colleagues, particularly Ato, should also be recognized during this important phase in IRRI’s history. After three years, we asked Tom to return full-time to GRC, but not long after, as I mentioned earlier, he was recruited to the Experiment Station.
Participating in groundbreaking research
But while Tom was managing the germplasm characterization activities in the early 90s, we had begun a research project (with my former colleagues at The University of Birmingham and at the John Innes Centre, and funded by the British government through DfID) to determine how molecular markers could be applied to the study of genetic diversity in a rice germplasm collection. We used rather crude molecular markers by today’s standards. These were so-called RAPD (Random Amplification of Polymorphic DNA) markers, and we wanted to determine if there might be an association between these markers with ten quantitative traits: culm number, culm length (cm), culm diameter (mm), grain length (mm), grain width (mm), leaf length (cm), leaf width (cm), days to 50 per cent flowering, panicle length (cm) and seedling height (cm). I asked Tom to take charge of the important field experiment that was planted between November 1993 and May 1994. Without hesitation I can say that Tom conducted this field trial with great care and generated valuable data. In fact, they were so good that not only were we able to correlate (or ‘associate’) markers with these morphological traits, but were able to predict the performance of rice germplasm growing in the field at Los Baños. A paper was finally published in the international journal Heredity in 1996, and Tom was included as one of the authors, and rightly so, for his contribution to the research. This paper was one of the first, if indeed the first, rice research paper to definitely demonstrate the link between molecular markers and phenotype in a sub-discipline now known as ‘association genetics’. We also believe it’s one of the first papers for any plant species. Click on the image below to read the paper.
It was very sad to see Tom’s decline over recent months, which I did through various posts on his and others Facebook pages, most often in connection with his beloved and very active Rotary Club of West Bay membership, of which he was Charter President. I think the last time I met Tom in person must have been in August 2014 when I visited IRRI in connection with the 4th International Rice Congress. He seemed his usual robust, and substantial self. Tom was rather short in stature, and we always had a teasing joke between the two of us about that. But that belied a BIG heart.
Another Tom characteristic was his (almost) ubiquitous hat. Everywhere! Here is a photo of Tom (wearing his signature titfer) among GRC friends during a lunch we shared at Tagaytay in late February 2010 shortly before I retired from IRRI, and probably not long before he headed to Malaysia.
Tom, you will be missed. But your memory will linger on in the hearts and minds of your IRRI friends and former colleagues.
My sincere condolences to Tom’s wife Jovith, and his three children Jaicee, Teejay, and J2.