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Clem Gaydos 1929-2011

I guess it might be said that my father’s horticulture experience could be traced to a duo of early adventures. The first was a tale of when he was anywhere from the age 3 to 12, depending on when he told the story, and about how he used to hide behind Mrs. (insert any number of Slovak or Polish sounding names)’s tomato plants where he’d smoke cigarettes that he and (insert any number of Slovak or Polish friend’s names) would find half-smoked and discarded on the streets. Perhaps those tomato plants were huge…or perhaps the smoking stunted his growth.

The second story also involved (insert a number of Polish or Slovak friend’s names).  This “banda” would roll down a hillside of poison ivy – maybe naked… and I feel like that seems like a possibility… but then……… as if that’s not story enough…… Clem reports grabbing some poison ivy leaves and eating them.  EATING. THEM. Now, he swore it was 100% because of this, which he also swore was 100% true, that he had never had an allergic reaction to poison ivy since.  Well, I can at least tell you that I never saw him with an outbreak, and his apparent immunity was clearly NOT genetic, due to frequent infections visible on ALL other family members.

With no formal horticulture education, but with this “vast” “hands-on” experience, in 1974 Clem answered an ad posted by a very large wholesale plant nursery called Greenleaf, who was seeking a salesman for the Mid-Atlantic region. After a single interview, he was offered and took the job.  Clem moved his family of 5 children and my mother from Long Island, NY, and returned to the area where he was raised.  He had strayed for only a few years in order to find good work and support the family.  This time, however, in lieu of the steel mill small towns along Pennsylvania rivers with which he was familiar, he chose a small neglected farm, that he could fix-up, operate, and on which he’d raise his family, with a totally different experience in mind….

And what an experience he gave us….

All seven of us lived in a single-wide mobile home while we rebuilt the 1908 farmhouse.  We used station wagons as tractors, and manure spreaders as trailers.  We mowed paths for bikes with our brush hog.  We carved ¼ mile sled trails with tractor inner-tubes.  In summer, we canoed on our creek with Ralph the pig swimming beside us.  In winter, we rode ice flows like rafts, while from shore our dogs barked warnings that we shouldn’t. We rescued neighbors from floods with our red-carpeted 1979 Ford Bronco.   We pulled strangers from ditches during snowstorms.  A picnic bench-come-plow attached our John Deere 20-10 cleared roads that the PEN-DOT trucks couldn’t.  And with a rope behind either of those vehicles, we’d snow ski while delivering Butler Eagle newspapers.  We planted Christmas trees we never sold.  We harvested maple syrup in colostomy bags.  We made pickles in farm-auction-bought crocks that could never be eaten.  We built a 2-story tree house that eventually became 4.  During all this time I thought I was learning these skills: woodworking, cement laying, roofing, plumbing, even electrical work- and I was… but I realize now that I was learning it all just slightly behind my Dad.  This all was as much about him growing as it was about the rest of us doing the same.

Meanwhile, somehow in addition to this life he built, he managed to sell plants in a multi-state territory that is now covered by 4 different sales people.  I have grown to understand that his life as a “bush pusher” had little to do with the bushes, and was really an extension of everything else. In summer, or sometimes when I was “sick”, I’d travel with my dad to see customers and to trade shows.  These memories make it all very clear…. His success was about his relationships, his honesty, and his stories.  Not that he didn’t love plants, but what he really loved most was being able to bring his own level of ethics and even class to the idea of “selling”.   To this day, I continue to meet my own potential customers who often give me a moment to talk, despite how busy they might be, just because of my last name.   Stories of my father’s laugh, his smile, his tall tales, and shorter ones, always precede any business talk… and every once in a while, I still get the gift of something new….or something slightly different….and it’s like the legend of my dad remains….

And I have a feeling it always will.

Clem Gaydos: father, husband, friend and nurseryman.  Rest in Peace.