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Mr. Chile: Roy M. Nakayama

Born: 9-11-1923 - Died: 7-11-1988

By Rick Hendricks

Roy Minoru Nakayama was born on 11 September 1923 to John K. and Tome Nakayama, both of whom had been born in Japan. At the time of his birth, Roy was the fifth of seven children. He would eventually have one more sibling, bringing the total number of children to eight.[1] Roy's father was born Kaichiri Nakayama in 1879 in Toyama Prefecture, which is on the coast of the Sea of Japan on Honshu Island.[2] He left Japan in 1808 in search of opportunity. After arriving in Seattle, Kaichiri added John to his name. Partnering with a German immigrant named W. W. Peters, he relocated to a farm near Mitchell, Nebraska. After he was settled, John sent to Japan for Tome Miaguchi, the younger sister of his former traveling companion, to come to Nebraska to be his bride.  When she arrived in 1915 Tome was twenty years old and sixteen years younger than John.[3] The daughter of a doctor, Tome was use to a life of privilege and status.

The first child of John and Tome Nakayama was a boy they named Carl, who was born in Nebraska. While working on the farm John injured his ribs, and after he healed was no longer able to tolerate the cold the Great Plains. So the family departed for southwest Texas to look over some land belonging to Peters. Near El Paso, Tome, who was expecting her second child, became seriously ill. Her long recovery required money, so John rented farmland that had belonged to the utopian community called Shalam Colony. Roy was born there in what had been the Children's House.

By 1925, John had save enough money to purchase land, but he had to register it in Carl's name because the New Mexico alien land law (1918) and the Oriental Exclusion Act (1924) forbade foreign born Asians from owning land. John's original twenty-five-acre farm eventually grew to 105 acres and several hundred acres of leased land. When Carl turned twenty-one in March 1937, the Nakayama family finally owned their own land.

Roy enrolled in Las Cruces Union High in 1937 becoming the fifth Nakayama to attend the school. His best courses were vocational agriculture and those designed for members of the Future Farmers of America (FFA). His real passion during his high school years, however, was said to be tennis.[4] Still, Roy intended to be a farmer following in the footsteps of his father who operated a commercially successful truck farm in the Mesilla Valley.[5]

Athletics might have been his favorite pursuit, but livestock judging was what won him recognition in his teenage years. In February 1939 fifteen-year-old Roy was on the winning livestock judging team at the Southwestern Livestock Show in El Paso representing Las Cruces Union High School FFA that took home the H. A. Tolbert Memorial trophy.[6] He participated on the school's livestock judging team that captured a state championship in 1939. Roy was one of five hundred FFA members gathered in Las Cruces for the annual convention in April 1939. He participated in judging dairy cows.[7]

Roy purchased two Rambouillet ewes in December 1939 and planned to gradually increase the size of his herd. Because of his interest in fine wool breeds he was beginning with a breed that had its origins in the Spanish Merino.[8] Later in the month he took third place at the annual inter-class FFA livestock judging competition in Las Cruces and was awarded a gold-plated watch fob.[9] At the 1940 Southwestern Livestock Show in El Paso, again representing Las Cruces Union High School FFA, Roy exhibited in the category of fat lambs. Because Roy was on the winning team from the previous year, he was not eligible to compete in livestock judging.[10]

After high school Roy attended New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (NMA&M) for two years.[11] In October 1942 he enlisted in the United States Army and was called to active duty in 1943. While awaiting orders for assignment, Nakayama attended college at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Hunstville, Texas, for a year.

Company D, 159th Infantry Division left for Europe on 28 September 1944. Nakayama was a participant in the Battle of the Bulge, which began in mid-December 1944, where he was captured. He spent seven months in captivity before being liberated east of Wiesbaden, Germany. At the time of his liberation, Nakayama weighed only eighty-seven pounds. According to his wife, Rose, after his experience as a prisoner of war, Roy could never get warm or endure farm work.

Back in New Mexico, Nakayama decided to return to school but was refused admission on the grounds that he was Japanese. Professors who had him as a student in his freshman and sophomore years intervened on his behalf and demanded his admission to the college. Nakayama earned his S. B. in Botany from NMA &M in 1948. A small mystery surrounds his graduation. Although his picture appeared in the Swastika (the NMA&M yearbook) senior class photographs for 1948 and the NMSU Alumni Office records indicated that he graduated in 1948, Nakayama is not listed in the graduation program for that year.[12]  He began advanced studies at Iowa State College in the fall of 1948 and received his master's in plant pathology from 26 August 1950.[13]  Nakayama remained enrolled through the fall semester of 1951. Apparently, he then went to work for the California State Department of Agriculture. He reenrolled in 1957 and continued graduate work until he received his doctorate in plant pathology from Iowa State University on 27 February 1960, although much of this time he was in Las Cruces and in the employ of NMA&M, having come back to the college in 1956.[14]

Nakayama taught intermediate and advanced classes in the horticulture department. He came to the university in 1956. In addition to his research in vegetable breeding, he served as a consultant for the NMSU-US Agency for International Development joint program in Paraguay setting up horticultural research and teaching programs at the University of Asunción.

Beyond his research and teaching activities, Nakayama was a sportsman. Playing to a fifteen handicap after only a year of serious play, he won a golf tournament in Las Cruces in July 1966.[15] Thereafter his name appeared on the sports pages with regularity. By the early 1970s, Herb Wimberly, the golf pro and manager of the NMSU golf course, commented that Roy Nakayama was "a winner in just about every tournament he enters."[16] Roy Nakayama was also an accomplished bowler, as was Rose. During the 1970s his name frequently appeared in the newspaper among the bowling league results.[17] Nakayama also loved to fish.

One of Nakayama's favorite activities was acting as one of the judges at the annual International Chili Society cooking competition. Rose Nakayama recalled that

Going to the World's Chili Cookoff was always the highlight of a successful chile year for Roy. It was a fitting finale. Aside from the camaraderie, when it comes to chili, too much is not enough. He felt any chili cookoff was good for the industry and deeply believed they helped generate the interest and, as a result, huge strides were made in the Mexican food trade.[18]

During the 1970s the event was often held at the Tropico Gold Mine near Rosamond, California, where Nakayama joined celebrities from the entertainment and sports world to judge chile cooking and eating contests.[19]

In 1975, Nakayama released a new chile cultivar called NuMex Big Jim, which is considered the world’s largest chile, averaging 7.68 inches in length and 1.89 inches in width. It is a little bit hotter than New Mexico 6-4, but not as hot as Sandia. Its large pods make NuMex Big Jim a favorite of home gardeners and chefs for making chile rellenos.[20]

The Las Cruces Board of Realtors recognized Nakayama as its Citizen of the Year for having "contributed most to the betterment of the community in bringing recognition to the area and my affecting conditions directly related to community improvement. The realtors pointed out that Nakayama's release of Nu Mex Big Jim in 1975 received coverage in the New York Times and Time.[21] The United States doubled its consumption of chile products between 1974 and 1984. Much of the increase was a result of the release of new varieties by NMSU.[22]

In 1984, Nakayama and Dr. Frank Matta, superintendent of the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Alcalde, released a new cultivar they called Española Improved.[23] The new cultivar was a result of a hybridization between Sandia and a Northern New Mexico strain of chile.

It is an early-maturing red chile cultivar (155 days). It was bred for earliness and adapted to the shorter growing season in north-central New Mexico. It produces long, smooth, fleshy fruit with broad shoulders tapering to a sharp point at the apex. This shape is common among native pod shapes in the area. The mature, dark green fruit of ‘Española Improved’ average 6.18 inches in length and 1.23 inches in width. Relatively high green pod yields, fruit size, and marketable characteristics (long, smooth pods) make it superior to native strains for use as green chile. Fruit are also adapted for dry red products; its smooth, well-shaped pod dries well. It has high heat lev­els

The new cultivar proved popular in the northeastern United States as well. People were reportedly growing it in pots in New York City apartment windows.[24]

Nakayama released NuMex R Naky, named it after his wife, Rose, in 1985. Its pedigree included Rio Grande 21, New Mexico 6-4, Bulgarian paprika, and an early-maturing native New Mexican type of chile. NuMex R Naky is used as a paprika cultivar in New Mexico because of its undetectable or low heat level.[25]

During his long career as an academic, Nakayama's colleagues and former students noted his dedication to teaching. Even though the outside world knew him as Mr. Chile, Nakayama also dedicated much of his time to research on pecans. He is credited with developing to pecan types, Sullivan and Salopek.[26]  Dr. Roy M. Nakayama retired from NMSU in 1986. He died in Las Cruces on 11 July 1988 after having been hospitalized for an illness.[27] At the time of his death in 1988, Dr. John Mexal, associate professor in the agronomy and horticulture department at NMSU, estimated that Nakayama's research was responsible for $10 million of New Mexico's annual income.[28]

 



[1] United States Federal Census, 1930, San Ysidro, Doña Ana County, New Mexico; and "Roy Minoru Nakayama," http://www.discovernikkei.org/es/resources/military/15718 (accessed 12 July 2010).

[2] Nancy Tod, "The Deeds of Roy Nakayama: Chile and Pecans; Research and Teaching," Southern New Mexico Historical Review 1:1 (January 1994): 23.

[3] Tome was born on 9 August 1895 and died on 27 October 1990. Social Security Death Index, [Database on-line,] Ancestry.com, (accessed 19 August 2010); and ibid., 24;

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] El Paso Herald-Post, 20 February 1939.

[7] "500 Future Farmers from 45 Schools Take Over Town and College," Las Cruces Sun-News, 12 April 1939.

[8] "Vocational Agriculture Students Are to Judge Livestock Saturday," Las Cruces Sun-News, 7 December 1939.

[9] "15 H. S. Students Get FFA Degrees," Las Cruces Sun-News, 14 December 1939.

[10] "High School Boys In Stock Contest," Las Cruces Sun-News, 25 March 1940.

[11] Tod, "Deeds of Roy Nakayama," 25-26.

[12] NMSU University Archivist Martha S. Andrews to Rick Hendricks, Las Cruces, 19 August 2010 (email).

[13] Iowa State University Reference Specialist Becky S. Jordan to Rick Hendricks, Ames, 24 August 2010 (email).

[14] New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts changed its name to New Mexico State University in 1960. "State Garden Clubs' Speakers Specialists-All," Las Cruces Sun-News, 7 October 1970; "State Garden Clubs' Speakers Specialists-All," Las Cruces Sun-News, 7 October 1970; Roy Minoru Nakayama, "Seed Treatment of Legumes and Grasses." Master's thesis, Iowa State College, 1950; and Roy Minoru Nakayama,"Verticillium Wilt and Phyotophthora Blight of Chile Pepper." PhD diss., Iowa State University, 1960.

[15] Herb Wimberly, "Divot Dust," Las Cruces Sun-News, 10 July 1966.

[16] Herb Wimberly, "Divot Dust," Las Cruces Sun-News, 6 May 1971.

[17] "Trujillo Turns 671 Series to Pace City," Las Cruces Sun-News, 18 December 1972.

[18] "Dr. Roy Nakayama," http://www.chilicookoff.com/History/history_legends.asp (accessed 18 August 2010).

[19] "Celebrites Judge Chili Championships," Las Cruces Sun-News, 27 September  1975; and "Chile championship headed for cookoff," Las Cruces Sun-News, 3 June 1976.

[20] Danise Coon, Eric Votava, and Paul W. Bosland, The Chile Cultivars of New Mexico State University, Research Report 763 (Las Cruces: New Mexico State University, 2008), 3-4.

[21] "Realtors Give Awards," Las Cruces Sun-News, 22 April 1977.

[22] "Chile time signals fall," Santa Fe New Mexican, 13 September 1989.

[23] Coon, Votava, and Bosland, Chile Cultivars of New Mexico State University, 4.

[24] "New type of green chile is well-suited to this area," Santa Fe New Mexican, 4 September 1985.

[25] Coon, Votava, and Bosland, Chile Cultivars of New Mexico State University, 4.

[26] Tod, "Deeds of Roy Nakayama," 26.

[27] Social Security Death Index, [Database on-line,] Ancestry.com, (accessed 18 August 2010).

[28] "'Mr. Chile' dead at 64," Las Cruces Sun-News, 12 July 1988.