In Memoriam: Dr. Homer Ellison Salley
Dr. Homer Ellison Salley died January 25, 2003. Homer was a longtime member of the Great Lakes Chapter. He
was founder of the Bluegrass Chapter in Danville, Kentucky, and had been president of that chapter for a
number of years.
He graduated from Mississippi College (BA, 1942), Texas Christian University (MA, 1945), and Indiana University (Ed.D.1956).
I first met Homer as a member of the Men's Garden Club of Toledo. He and the late David Parker were already rhodo people. I believe they were discussing starting a nursery. To that end, they were growing many flats of species rhodos. Homer later bought two plots - one 7 acres and the other 11 acres upon which he had a geodesic dome house built. The seedlings were also planted there, from which he introduced a catawbiense variety named 'Roan Mountain', where he obtained the seed, and a smirnowii from seed named 'Glasnost'. He also introduced 'Lee's Dark Purple' X 'Mars' named 'Walter Magor' whom he had met on one of his trips to England while doing research for Rhododendron Hybrids.
Homer was convinced that hybridizers and growers needed background history of plants. He was aware that Harold Greer had compiled information about ancestry of hybrids and had taken the 1958 register of rhododendrons from the R.H.S. and traced back parentages and kept it current but never had time to do extensive research or publish. So, when he retired from the University of Toledo, Homer loaded up his motorcycle with his wife, Sally, and some camping gear and rode to Eugene, Oregon, to talk to the Greer family. He knew that this valuable information needed to be collected and put in the hands of you and me, and it wasn't being done. And thus starteth the journey.
David Leach said, "Homer has an evangelical view toward dispensing knowledge about rhododendrons." Dr. Mark Widrlechner wrote: "At a time in a person's life, when so many would relax, garden, travel, visit family, etc., Homer has devoted himself to massive undertakings, so comprehensive that they would discourage the vast majority of those who might contemplate them." All was not easy in researching history of cultivars. Once in England he had all his research notes in a rented car, and someone stole the car. So he had to start over, researching catalogs of the early 1900s and retracing earlier steps. As part of the 75th year celebration of the American Horticultural Society, the Society published a list of "75 Great American Garden Books," which reads: "The following books were chosen by the A.H.S. Book Award Committee to honor the history of garden book publishing since the Society's founding in 1922. The committee looked first for American books, published in America for American gardeners, and written primarily by American authors. They were further evaluated on the basis of authority; geographical diversity; precedent-setting topic or approach; utility, clarity, and accuracy; originality of writing style; enrichment of the reader's awareness of natural world, beauty and appropriateness of photographs or illustrations, and quality of production. On that list is Rhododendron Hybrids: A Guide to Their Origins, Including Selected Named Forms of Rhododendron Species, 2nd ed.
In the first edition of Rhododendron Hybrids, co-authored by Harold Greer, Homer took all the information compiled by Harold Greer, verified parentages, put it in form acceptable to a publisher and published it. The second edition saw a bit of a change in format and an extensive list of hybrids introduced after the publication of the first volume. His latest work in 2000 was a very popular CD-ROM, the 3rd edition of Rhododendron Hybrids. For this monumental work, he collected 1,405 illustrations of rhododendrons.
Homer always struck me as a selfless person who cared little for the rewards of accomplishment, whose entire concern was to provide information and education to those in need without concern for credit or accolades.
He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Rhododendron Research Foundation. Here he could see the need to make available information on research projects already performed, to avoid costly duplication of effort. Since there was no database on research to refer to, Homer set about to correct that problem and correct it he did in his two volumes, Rhododendron and Azalea Research. Of this research David Leach said, "It was a monumental job to assemble this multitude of scientific papers...which have become invaluable to everyone who wishes to hybridize rhododendrons effectively. ...These two volumes constitute a land mark contribution to rhododendron literature."
Researchers in eleven different countries requested these two volumes. Many recipients wrote back telling of their appreciation of the author and his work - Dr. John L. Rouse of the University of Melbourne in Australia wrote, "One of the prime strengths of the American Rhododendron Society is its commitment to research into the biology and evolution of the genus Rhododendron, the propagation of the resulting expansion in the overall knowledge regarding this and related genera to its large and enthusiastic world-wide membership via the Society's Journal. Dr. Salley has further increased these strengths by producing an invaluable guide to research involving Rhododendrons..."
Homer's dedication to education and his selflessness arose again in doing for the memberships of the A.R.S. that which might otherwise never have been done. The quest for a Gold Medal was based on his work on these two volumes of research and only incidentally on his co-authorship's of Rhododendron Hybrids which was more widely distributed.
In typical Homer Salley fashion, when the escort came to his table to take him to the podium to be awarded the Gold Medal, he said, "Oh, you've got the wrong man, I never did anything to deserve a Gold Medal."
Homer was given an Honorary Life Membership to R.H.S. Rhododendron, Camellia, and Magnolia Group. This, according to his friend the late Ray Redford, had been awarded to only three others: Mr. H. H. Davidian, Major E. W. M. Magor, and Mrs. Jean Rasmussen (wife of the late Frank Kingdon-Ward).
His striving for accuracy is well known. The Royal Horticulture Society readily accepted changes in spelling and parentages of hybrids when Homer presented his well documented information. Walter Smalscheidt of Germany, an expert in parentages of hybrids, told Homer that in reviewing his research and work, found only one hybrid in which he could question the accuracy of - but he was going to do more research to see if he (Smalscheidt) was wrong.
His desire for accuracy was so great that the second volume of Rhododendron Hybrids he and his wife, Sally, set him up on his own computer, to avoid typing and input errors at the printer. He inaugurated a book sales program in the Great Lake Chapter and later started a lending library. Homer was very proud of the fact that grants from the Research Foundation had all been repaid in full.
Perhaps Homer knew the real secret to life - that we are put here to help each other and all the rest of it doesn't matter much.