JARS v9n1 - Footnotes to the ARS History, 1944-1994

Footnotes to the ARS History, 1944-1994
John Henny, Brooks, Oregon
Howard J. Slonecker, Milwaukie, Oregon
Alfred S. Martin, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

The three authors of the footnotes were asked for their comments on the retrospective appearing in the Journal. As senior members of the Society they happily contributed some recollections and observations from their perspective.

John Henny, First President of the ARS (1944-49) and Founding Member:
When I was president, I usually opened the meeting with a story. Here's one: At a meeting where some expert was telling how to grow rhodos, fertilize, etc., he mentioned the use of old cow manure to provide mulch and nutrition. In the question and answer period a little old lady asked, "How old does the cow have to be before using the manure?"

Manure aside, four of us, George Grace, E. R. Peterson, my brother Rudolph and I felt there was a need for a rhododendron society. This was a very serious group of people, to say the least. George Grace was a building contractor and E. R. Peterson an electrical engineer. Rudolph and I lived next door to each other at Lake Labish where we farmed onions together. Rudy got the rhody bug from me after I brought home a few wild plants of our native rhododendron and started hybridizing. Rudy had graduated from college and read all he could get his hands on about rhododendrons.

We knew that many people were making hybrids across the U.S. and a society could establish a method for registration that would avoid duplication of names given to plants. Such a society would enable lines of communication to be established between members. Also the confusion in the public's mind about planting, fertilizing, spraying and other cultural practices could be clarified.

We had several meetings [between 1942 and 1944] to lay a foundation and then met with 10 or 12 others to get a wider perspective. The four of us made trips by car to meet with Endre Ostbo, Ben Lancaster, Hjalmer Larson, Halfdan Lem, and Lester Brandt. (I had gasoline available because I had a farmer's ration book.) Then on to California, meeting with John Drucker and Dr. Bowman at Fort Bragg, Roy Hudson at Golden Gate Park, Ev Farwell in Oakland, Jack Osegueda from Berkeley, and P. H. Brydon who was assistant to Dr. Goodspeed at the University of California at Berkeley. Then there were several meetings in Portland with Ruth and Ted Hansen, John Bacher, Wales Wood, Joe Johnson, Dr. Carl Phetteplace, Dr. Overstreet and Merle Saunders. We had correspondence with Joe Gable, Donald Hardgrove (who became our first vice-president), Clement Bowers and John Wister. All of these people we knew as hybridizers, collectors, or propagators, and we were very pleased to receive such a warm reception and their offers of help.

We decided on a meeting date for the organization of the society, which we decided to call the Rhododendron Society, not daring to be brazen enough to call it the American Rhododendron Society at that time. Our first meeting to all interested in the rhodos was held in Portland in an auditorium of one of the schools. I was elected president; George Grace, secretary; E. R. Peterson, treasurer; and Rudolph Henny, editor of the Bulletin whenever we had enough money to print it.

After one of our meetings I was walking down a street in Portland and saw a man ahead of me step out of a bar a bit unsteady on his feet. When we reached the next intersection, the traffic was stopped for a funeral procession. We watched it together and noticed that the last car in the procession was an armored car. The drunk looked at me and said: "Gee, they must have found a way to take it with you!"

Pretty soon the auditorium at the school was getting too small to accommodate everyone. We were fortunate in having a Mr. Churchill as a member. He was the attorney for the Oregon Journal, a newspaper published by the Jackson Estate. Churchill got permission for us to use their auditorium at no cost. Mr. Churchill suggested very strongly that we incorporate. He offered his services pro bono and the Jacksons paid the incorporation fees. It was then we decided to name us the American Rhododendron Society [early 1945].

After five years in office as the first president of the ARS, I decided it was time to step down and bring in some new talent to the organization. I had my eye on Claude Sersanous (pronounced Sir-sin-oooh). He was a very successful businessman in the Northwest, where he sold Caterpillar tractors and Letourneau graders in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. I asked Howard Slonecker (a technical engineer with Southern Pacific) to chair the nominating committee. He was successful in getting Claude to agree to be the second president. The vote was unanimous.

All of the above is from memory of 50 years ago. The chronology is correct. However, there no doubt are names that were left out for which I apologize. It was not intentional!

My parting story is about the Texan who visited Ireland in midsummer where everything was a lovely green, with cool and pleasant breezes. When he got back to Texas where the climate was so hot and dry and dusty he thought: "Why didn't I buy a farm while I was in Ireland?" So he flew back to Ireland, where he hoped to bring his family one day. He rented a car and found a nice looking farm and parked by the road to get a better look. An Irishman was walking up the road and said, "Top of the morning to you, Sir."

The Texan said, "That's a nice looking farm."

The Irish: "Aye, that it is!"

The Texan: "Do you own it?"

The Irish: "That I do."

The Texan: "Would you sell it?"

The Irish: "That I might."

The Texan: "How many acres do you have?"

The Irish: "Oh, about one hundred."

The Texan: "On my ranch in Texas I can get into my car at 6 o'clock in the morning and not get to the other end by that night. What do you think of that?"

The Irish: "Sure I can be sympathizing with you. I had a car like that once!"

Howard J. Slonecker, Almost Charter Member:
Soon after I had discovered Clement G. Bowers' book on rhododendrons in the Portland Public Library (the war was nearly over), I learned that the ARS had come into existence with a small membership from throughout the U.S. but particularly from the Pacific Northwest, and it was based in Portland. John Henny was president; Jock Brydon, vice-president; George Grace, secretary; and Earl Peterson, treasurer. Of course I was already hooked and promptly joined the Society and attended all the meetings I could and started getting acquainted. My professional engineering duties took me to Eugene regularly, and I found that to be a hotbed of rhododendron culture, one reason being the Barto project was nearby. Barto had died and his family was disposing of the nursery stock, which was 95 percent species grown from seed from the expeditions of the time, particularly Forrest and Ward. In Eugene I was fortunate to spend at least one evening a week for nearly 15 years with Del and Ray James. They were both rabid rhody fans. We had many hot bull sessions on that subject. Only to live those days again!

About 1948 our first president, John Henny, decided it was time for him to step down, and he appointed me as chair of our first nominating committee to come up with a slate of new officers. John had done a conscientious job in getting us started off on a good footing. Several members came up with the name of Claude Sersanous, who was well known as head of his own business organization and a keen rhody fan. I had met him only casually prior to this time, but with all the high praise from the other members, I decided he was our man. I called his office and his staff set up a meeting for me at his office. He was a man much older than I and much more worldly in his experience and knowledge. Here was I, a brash young upstart trying to convince him that he was our savior! I look back on that day as my luckiest and the day I'm most proud of in the service of the ARS. Not that I had much influence on the outcome, as he knew beforehand why I was there, and I think he was prepared to accept. He welcomed me very warmly and immediately put me at ease. We must have spent a couple of hours discussing the Society and its problems and where it should be going. It seemed only incidental that I wound up with his acceptance. As it turned out, I was never more proud of a man in my life. He was extremely well liked by everyone. He could never be accused of riding roughshod over anyone. He instituted many of the programs still in use to this very day - such as Society honor medals, plant ratings and plant awards. He came up with the idea of the quarterly (instead of the yearbooks) and appointed Rudy Henny (John's brother) as the first editor. He conceived the Crystal Springs Island rhododendron garden, negotiated with the city of Portland for the use of the land and appointed John Bacher and later Ted Hansen as chairman of the garden committee.

Thinking about the 50th anniversary convention in Portland in 1995, our first president John Henny is still around and looks pretty spry to me. I saw him last spring. If it weren't for him there might not have been an organization started in 1944. Our second secretary, Ruth Hansen, is an indefatigable gal who promoted and defended the Society with sprightly enthusiasm. She and Claude made a great team, and sometimes it was difficult to tell who actually was president!

Alfred S. Martin, Seventh President of the ARS (1973-75):
I do not claim to be even a remote authority on the early history of the ARS. I only go back to the '50s. There were some real characters then, likewise real giants. When you could see the likes of the elder Mr. Van Veen, Joe Gable, Jock Brydon and Rudolph Henny all in a bar together - or you could be friends with Halfdan Lem, Lester Brandt and Larson all at once - that was like the second coming!

When I met Brandt he was in the Seattle area, along with Hjalmar Larson and Halfdan Lem. One could never admit friendship with all three - the risk was losing one! I knew Lem and Larson best and frequently visited both. Lem was my favorite. He wrote absolutely magnificent letters and was the real "character" of the three. Brandt I met only once, with Edward Dunn. Rudolph Henny was a man without peer - a kindly, gentle soul and an excellent editor and plantsman.

The people I knew best among the founders were Ruth Hansen, John and Rudolph Henny, Art Wright, Jock Brydon, Ben Nelson and H. L. Larson. I really did not become interested in the ARS until the late '50s and actually knew more people on the West Coast than in the East. I think I joined the Philadelphia Chapter about 1958. Back in those days the wheels in the East were Sid and Clara Burns in New York, the Haags in New Jersey; in Philadelphia John Schamenek, Betsi Kelius and Jim Beury; in Middle Atlantic Tom Wheeldon was king and Austin Kilham a really fine person. In fact I met Kelius, Beury and Schamenek along with Joe Gable at the big international meeting in Portland. Imagine, if you will, sitting down at the same cocktail table with Brydon, the elder Van Veen, Joe Gable, and Edward Dunn - having met none before that time!

On Claude Sersanous, I only heard his name pronounced more than a few times - I think it was "sir-san-o" with the emphasis on the "san." I never met him in person.

I served six years as Eastern vice-president (the first) because the powers in the West just honestly and sincerely believed that the Society wasn't yet ready for an Eastern president, and how could I argue with that? I loved Carl Phetteplace except for all the 8-10 page letters I used to have to answer! After all, I was the first Easterner in several roles: representative, director, vice-president and so on.

Parts I and II of the history (Journal issues spring and summer 1994) evoke a lot of good memories (exclusive of the "Great Controversy"). Most of the early members I knew and some very well - such as Everett Farwell, Bob Bovee, Don McClure, Tony Shammarello, Henry Skinner (he was one of the true gentlemen of the plant propagators' world), Howard Slonecker, and Cecil Smith (he and Molly were among the finest people I ever knew). Others of that class of 1948 were Paul Bosley, Fred Robbins, Wales Wood, the elder Van Veen and Guy Nearing. I never met Leonard Frisbie who went out and started his own society.

The mention of P. H. Brydon - one of my all-time favorites; not too many people are aware that it was his work for a few years to keep alive the Rhododendron Species Foundation plants at his cherry orchard in Salem that allowed the collection to survive. I saw it there frequently. (This was between Milton Walker and the actual establishment of the RSF arboretum at Federal Way.)

The history doesn't say too much about one of the real significant events of the decade - mainly the October 1963 executive shake-up. When Harold Clarke became a paid editor and executive vice-president a real firestorm was let loose. About the only person the Eastern chapters knew was Ruth Hansen, our national secretary. At this point she resigned and it was accepted. Eastern leadership in general was so incensed that it looked definitely as if a new ARS would be created in the East and the Western chapters left to stew in their own juice!

Fortunately, as was mentioned, Ed Dunn became the president and he, I believe, visited all the Eastern chapters, and because of his magic charm the storm died down and East and West remained one. Bitterness remained, though. After I presented Ruth Hansen the Gold Medal (while I was president) all was relatively serene.

Back in 1963-64 only 10 percent of the membership voted about the dues increase which was surely minimal. Even at that early stage some of my famous and glorious battles began with my most beloved opponent, Esther Berry. What a wonderful person!

I believe the record will show that until the '70s about 10 percent was about the most that ever voted. When I became vice-president and even president, Marie Grula and I worked very hard at response - even provided postage-paid reply cards - but never went over 30 percent. We did learn a valuable lesson though. One election we had a couple of chapters that "selectively" voted in order to elect certain people. In short, by only voting for a few on the ballot, others were denied votes. This led to the rule that the ballot was only valid if it contained the same number of votes as the number of directors to be elected. The very elaborate survey put together by Hank Schannen and mailed with post-paid return envelopes also only got a 30 percent return.

Radcliffe Pike joined in 1955. He was a wonderful character and was popular as a TV personality in upper New England. Rad knew a lot about R. maximum in upper New England and lived in Lubeck, Maine.

The next year came Clive Justice, Art Wright and Ernest Yelton! The latter was one of my very favorite people whom I visited more than once in North Carolina. In 1957 came Bob Ticknor and Bob Commerford who used to ship thousands of Exbury azalea seedlings. What a wonderful sight his nursery was in blooming season! I used to meet with Bill Curtis and Bob Ticknor at ARS meetings. I never failed to visit Commerford, Ticknor and Curtis on visits to the West Coast where the magnificent Cecil Smith garden was, and dinner with Cecil and Molly was often on my itinerary.

The next year, 1958, was a good class since Mary O. Milton and I joined that year! And in 1961 was the International Rhododendron Conference. That was a great one, despite Governor Mark Hatfield's opening, "Welcome to the City of Roses!"

If there were 321 members present at the Winterthur annual meeting, they must have come in shifts! One of the high spots of that meeting was a panel with Bowers, Vossberg and Joe Gable. The first two took all of the allotted time, and when it became Gable's turn, which all were looking forward to hearing, he stepped up and with that saintly smile said: "They said we weren't to speak too long and I find that it doesn't take long to do that, so I think I'll just sit down." and he did!

I believe at the New York meeting in 1965 Milt Walker announced the formation of the Rhododendron Species Foundation. One time visiting a [West Coast] regional meeting at Milton Walker's place, I remember seeing a very large number of fairly tender plants with special markings. I asked Bob Commerford about them because they were his markings. He said they were all being shipped east to Edward Marshall Boehm of porcelain bird fame. I said they'd never grow there. He said that Boehm planned a 1-acre house for them. The project was never completed because Boehm died that year.

The '66 Tacoma convention was a good one. I really got to know Jack Evans for the first time, and Curt Huey was always a delight. That year we began to hear about [Hermann] Sleumer and New Guinea.

At the Pine Mountain meeting Ted Van Veen reported to me that Britt Smith had five full carousels of slides of R. occidentale . I said it was impossible, but it wasn't! We got all 170 varieties, rain, clouds and mist included. After 15 slides, Alfred Fordham and I slipped out the back of the room and joined the Georgia Undertakers, who were meeting on the same level. They were considerably livelier!

The three greatest plantsmen I've ever known were Alfred Fordham (no one stood higher than he in this field), Gustav Mehlquist and Henry Hohman. Surely the saintly Henry Skinner was not far behind. And the most colorful was Halfdan Lem, who had no competition as far as I'm concerned. In his quiet way Lanny Pride did much for the rhododendron family.

The years 1981-82 pretty effectively ended my active participation in the ARS. As usual I have gone on far too long and should have followed Joe Gable's sage advice.