Neil Harl died at 88 after a lifetime of impactful work in agriculture, law and economics

Neil Harl died at the age of 88, after more than 50 years as a faculty member at Iowa State.

Neil Harl died at the age of 88, after more than 50 years as a faculty member at Iowa State.

Jack Mcclellan

Emeritus Professor, Neil Harl, died at the age of 88 on Nov. 4, at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames.

Before his unexpected death, Harl spent his life at Iowa State, teaching within his many areas of expertise such as farm organization, taxation and legal and economic aspects of farming. Harl also led many efforts throughout his life to to accomplish a wide range of goals in farming, economics and law.

“It is impossible to overstate the impact of Dr. Neil Harl on the field of agricultural law and taxation,” said Adjunct Assistant Professor of Agricultural Education, Kristine Tidgren, in an ISU Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation news release. “It is also impossible to put into words the legacy he left with his many students and the agricultural community at large.”

Harl was born on Oct. 9, 1933 in a small farmhouse in Appanoose County, Iowa. His father was a tenant farmer; he pushed Harl from a young age to excel in school, betting him an ewe that he couldn’t pass both “primary” and first grade in his first year of school. Harl succeeded in this goal, he accredited his drive for education to this early push from his father. 

For the first several years of Harl’s education he attended a one-room schoolhouse, in which he was the only individual for his age group. In eighth grade, Harl graduated at the top of the 108 kids in Appanoose County. In 1947, Harl attended high school in Seymour, Iowa, where he again graduated at the top of his class of 45 people.

The salutatorian of Harl’s class, Darlene Harris would later become his wife after some prodding from previous teachers. They would go on to have two sons, James Brent Harl, of Denver, was born in 1957 while their second son, Rodney Scott Harl, of Bedford, New Hampshire, wasn’t born until 1971.

Harl first pursued post-secondary education at the then named Iowa State College, earning a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and serving as cadet colonel in the Army ROTC. After attaining his bachelor’s, Harl went into active duty as an artillery officer in August 1955 at Ft. Bliss Texas. In his class, which was populated equally by West Point grads and ROTC alumni, Harl again outperformed many of his peers, being ranked second in the class. Harl was assigned to the Chicago-Gary Missile Defense from 1956 to 1957. There he was awarded a commendation ribbon and promoted to first lieutenant.

After his military service, Harl served as field editor for Wallaces “Farmer Magazine” until he was accepted into Iowa College of Law in 1958. Harl graduated yet again near the top of his class, ranking in the top three in the class of 1961.

Harl went on to once again attend Iowa State, earning a doctorate degree in economics in 1965. Harl then joined the faculty at Iowa State as an associate professor in economics, becoming a full professor in 1967. Harl would spend the next 50 years as a faculty member of Iowa State, achieving many accomplishments and recognitions.

Harl’s impact was felt by students, farmers and even struggling nations in a post-Soviet era. Publishing nearly 30 books and giving thousands of presentations throughout his career, Harl kept busy working to find solutions to problems shared by millions of people.

Harl was named Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in 1976, one of the youngest to receive this title. 

Harl filled a variety of roles and led many efforts throughout his career, from the debt crisis to attempts to stop the sale of an ISU-owned television station, Harl was always deeply involved in his environment.

Harl also founded the Center for International Agricultural Finance, which worked to provide legal and economic guidance to the nations left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union. This work was impactful in helping governmental leaders and businesses to lay the foundation for a healthy economic system. Harl served as the director of the center from 1990 to 2004.

In 2005 Harl began his shift to emeritus professor, while continuing to publish works, give lectures and consult with business and farm owners until 2016.

Harl and his wife made sure to leave a physical impact on campus on top of their many contributions. They wanted to create a sanctuary for students to gather and rest between lectures and classes. To this end they provided financial support for the creation of the Neil and Darlene Harl Commons in Curtiss Hall, which was dedicated in 2013. 

Harl is predeceased by his brother, Richard and his wife, he is survived by his two sons and five grandchildren, as well as his sisters, Marjorie and Merna.

A visitation was held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, and the service took place on at noon on Saturday, at the United Meredith Methodist Church, where Harl and Darlene were long time members. Harl was buried in the Iowa State University Cemetery in Ames.

Harl’s family has requested that instead of gifts to the family, people should donate to the scholarship fund that Harl created just before his death. To donate to the Dr. Neil Harl Opportunity Award, follow this link to the ISU Foundation website.