Noted potato expert Joseph Sieczka dies at 79

Joseph Sieczka understood that before he could share his scientific expertise with the farmers he met across the East End, he first needed to gain their trust. Even when there might be disagreements, perhaps about use of a specific pesticide, he had a way of presenting his case that earned him respect in the agriculture community.

For more than two decades, Mr. Sieczka worked as coordinator at Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research Center in Riverhead, where his research involved various crops, but focused primarily on potatoes.

“My level of respect for my dad went up another notch when I saw what the people who worked in the field thought of him,” said his daughter Liz, who at one point worked alongside her father at the lab in an outreach program focused on pesticides and the Colorado potato beetle.

A potato expert — he had served as president of the Potato Association of America and co-authored two editions of its handbook — Mr. Sieczka was remembered as a generous, loving family man known for his singing and dancing. He died Sunday at his Mattituck home, where he was found unresponsive in his swimming pool, according to Southold Town police. Family members had initiated CPR, which police continued before he was transported by members of the Mattituck Fire Department to Peconic Bay Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, police said. Mr. Sieczka was 79.

His daughter said an exact cause of death is pending.

Mr. Sieczka loved to perform at North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck. (Courtesy photo)

“He was very active until the last minute,” said Dr. Sieczka, who lives in Brooklyn and is the oldest of three siblings. Her brother, Michael, lives in Washington state and her sister, Michelle Scheer, lives a few houses down from the family home.

Mr. Sieczka had been out biking Sunday afternoon while family members attended a performance of “Seussical” at the nearby North Fork Community Theatre. As he typically did after a bike ride, he took a dip in the backyard pool.

The NFCT had been big part of his life since 1980, when he and his wife, Mary Ann, moved with their family to the North Fork. The children, who ranged from fifth grade to ninth grade at the time, joined the group the next winter. Their father would go on to become president of the NFCT.

He had attended Friday night’s performance of “Seussical.”

Dr. Sieczka said singing and dancing were a big part of her father’s life after he retired in 2002, especially in giving lessons.

He even performed at open mic nights, both locally and in The Villages, Fla., where he split time. He would sing show tunes primarily. She recalled one time this past year when he began singing Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

Dr. Sieczka remembered her father as someone who could be very serious at times, especially when he spoke in his deep, stern voice. But then, he’d break out in song.

“Everybody would laugh, ‘Oh, Dad, not again,’ ” she recalled. “He could go from spouting off scientific data to being goofy.”

Before Mary Ann Sieczka died in 2014 at age 70, she implored her husband to remain active and continue doing what he loved. They had been married for close to 48 years. He made good on that promise by singing, dancing and traveling.

He planned to take each of his five grandchildren on trips. Just last month, he traveled to London and Paris with two of his grandchildren, Jessica Scheer and Lucia Sieczka. And he took another granddaughter, Kimberly Sheer, to Poland. Dr. Sieczka said her two boys, James and Alexander Felakos, missed their opportunity to travel with their grandfather.

Mr. Sieczka grew up just outside Buffalo and earned an associate degree from Alfred University, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and a master’s from Cornell University. He had considered becoming a farmer, but didn’t have the land to pursue that, so he took the scientific path instead, his daughter said. In 1968, he joined the staff of Cornell’s Department of Vegetable Crops, where he was responsible for the research program on horticultural aspects of potato production. Just over a decade later, he moved to Long Island to begin the next phase of his life.

The Sieczka family will receive visitors Friday, Aug. 3, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at Coster-Heppner Funeral Home in Cutchogue. A memorial service will be held Saturday, Aug. 4, at 10 a.m. at St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Southold.

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Photo caption: Joseph Sieczka of Mattituck spent more than two decades as coordinator of Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research Laboratory in Riverhead. (Courtesy photo)