Former CALS dean Leo Walsh, professor emeritus of soil science, dies at 93

Leo Walsh, an emeritus professor of soil science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who served as dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences from 1979 until 1991, passed away on June 27, 2024. He was 93 years old.

Born and raised on his family’s farm in Moorland, Iowa, Walsh earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from Iowa State University. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees in soil science from UW–Madison and joined the faculty in 1959. He served as chair of the Department of Soil Science (now the Department of Soil and Environmental Sciences) from 1973-1979 before stepping into the role of CALS dean. He served as dean until his retirement in 1991.

“Almost thirty years after he left the CALS deanship, Leo was among the first to welcome me to UW–Madison,” says Glenda Gillaspy, the current dean of CALS. “The fact that he remained so engaged with the college even after retirement shows his deep connection to our mission and to UW students. We continue to benefit from the innovative leadership decisions he made as dean, and we will miss his wisdom.”

Walsh successfully led the college through tumultuous times. During his tenure as dean, U.S. agriculture underwent its worst financial stretch since the 1930s, and the college was sometimes a target of farmers’ frustrations. The period was also marked by heightened public and political concern for environmental protection, genetic engineering and the survival of rural communities. While facing major fiscal pressures and diminishing budgetary flexibility, Walsh navigated the college through these various challenges and kept it at the top of its game.

Walsh ushered in several new programs to help address the needs of the times, including the Center for Dairy Research, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, the Farm Financial Analysis Program and the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program. Walsh also played a key role in the establishment and the initial funding of the UW Biotechnology Center.

“He led the college through a very difficult period…yet the college remain[ed] one of the crown jewels of the university and Wisconsin,” said former UW–Madison Chancellor Donna E. Shalala, at the time of Walsh’s retirement. “That’s a testimony to his ability as a leader.”

With a deep commitment to agriculture at all levels, Walsh’s own research and extension work focused on soil fertility and management. He worked to improve soil testing methods, develop more accurate soil test recommendations for lime and fertilizer, and improve the utilization of manure and municipal wastes on cropland. He conducted research on soil and water conservation efforts, evaluating conservation tillage systems in relation to fertilizer requirements.

Early in his career Walsh got involved in international agricultural development work, serving as a consultant on projects in Egypt and Brazil. While dean, he appointed the college’s first associate dean for international studies and nurtured the college’s international efforts on trips to China, France, Germany, Indonesia and Peru.

Leo Walsh in 1979. Photo courtesy of UW Digital Collections, local identifier: 2019s00198.

Walsh was active in numerous professional organizations and received many honors over the years. He was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Wisconsin-Extension (now UW–Madison Extension), and also from the National Limestone Institute.

In his retirement, Walsh continued to advocate for his discipline, agriculture and the college. In 2007, he received the college’s Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes meritorious service by faculty and staff members and is among the highest honors bestowed by CALS.

Walsh’s obituary is posted at His funeral was held on July 5, 2025, in Madison.