JARS v56n2 - In Memoriam: Mervyn S. Kessell

In Memoriam: Mervyn S. Kessell
John M. Hammond and Ian J. Douglas

The news of the sudden death of Mervyn Solomon Kessell at his home in Ardrishaig, Argyll, on Saturday 8th December 2001 at the age of 54, came as bolt out of the blue to all those who were acquainted with him. Mervyn is survived by his wife, Helen; two daughters, Caroline and Debbie; and a son, Stephen.

On completing his training with the City of Glasgow Parks Department, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Glasgow Botanic Garden and the Scottish Agricultural College at Auchincruive in Ayrshire, Mervyn took up a Horticultural Services Manager for Port Glasgow in 1973 and became Principal Horticultural Advisor for Inverclyde District Council after the Local Government reorganisation prior to moving to Argyll in 1980. As Principle Assistant for Recreation & Leisure Services with the Argyll District Council he became well known amongst the community on Scotland's West Coast. His passion for horticulture overflowed into his wider interests and activities.

Mervyn took on many significant community projects within Argyll, but he was particularly pleased with the restoration work he took forward on the gardens surrounding the Kilmory Castle headquarters of the District Council and he was always delighted to have an opportunity to act as tour guide.

For the past few years he organised an audit of the playing fields within Argyll and Bute, the result of which generated funding from various sources to enable the planning of various playing fields within the mainland and islands. These projects are now at differing levels of completion. His work was recognised by The Institute of Playing Fields and Leisure in 2000 by the award of a Gold medal.

Another project of which he was immensely proud came to fruition in 1981 with the publication of his book Rhododendrons & Azaleas, which was reprinted in 1990. Mervyn was an excellent photographer and many of his colour slides adorn the pages in a way that emphasised his love of species in preference to hybrids. Some months ago he was approached by the publisher with the aim of producing an updated edition, but sadly this did not progress beyond the discussion stage.

As a founder member of the Scottish Rhododendron Society, Mervyn was involved in its formative months and became Director of Research shortly after the Society became the Scottish Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. He was an active, enthusiastic and sociable member of the small working group within the chapter and over the years consistently generated new ideas, some of which involved a radical and unconventional approach to get things done. He had an absorbing interest in members' gardens, was heavily involved in the production and reformatting of the chapter's publications and was a key organiser of the Annual Rhododendron Show & Plant Sale. He was awarded the Bronze Medal of the ARS in May, 1997. When the RHS decided to host an annual national gardening show in Scotland it was Mervyn who spear-headed the design, erection and manning of the chapter's display stand, winning a Bronze and a Silver Medal in the process.

A more long-term project came about with the decision that the chapter would host 625 delegates from around the world at the 1996 ARS Annual Convention held in the picturesque port of Oban. By the spring of '96 Mervyn was chapter president and convention chairman; it was also a wonderful coincidence that by this time the ARS president was none other than Herb Spady, who had provided Mervyn with the vital transatlantic "connection" in the chapter's formative months. Throughout the years of planning for the event Mervyn played "Mr. Fixit" via his many contacts within the close Argyll community; several of these contacts found they had got themselves directly involved in the event somehow, but they couldn't quite understand how that had happened!

Behind the scenes he developed a software programme which was able to cope with a large number of convention delegates and a week-long programme of tours and evening functions. When the programme glitched during a document batch production process he worked on the software until late into the night and he was still there early next morning after having resolved the problem. Some of us wondered if he had ever gone to bed. Mervyn had a love of new gadgets and software in the computer and photographic field. To see him strip down a PC when things were going wrong was an experience that left many onlookers lost for words, and he clearly enjoyed a "special" relationship with his machines and his programmes that no one else quite understood.

In between times he and Helen ran a highly regarded nursery specialising in primulas and also grew many other genera, including rhododendrons, as a sideline. Mervyn helped to found a Meconopsis Group to study the hybrids and produce a more rational nomenclature, and he was also an active member of the Arduaine Garden Management Liaison Committee.

More recently he proposed that the Scottish Chapter construct a Millennium Rhododendron Garden for the local community to enjoy at the Atlantis Leisure Centre in Oban. It proved to be a daunting task for a chapter with a thinly spread membership and for Mervyn himself. He produced the design work, successfully requested grant funding towards the cost, obtained much of the materials as sponsorship donations, acted as ringleader to draw in helpers to assist with construction, landscaping, fencing and planting and as the project was reaching completion he arranged for the garden to be opened by Ray Mitchie, the local M.P.

To those who were fortunate to cross his path Mervyn was a good friend whose boundless energy and enthusiasm enveloped those around him. He was always ready to discuss someone's problem be it a computer malfunction, plant cultivation, garden management or perhaps some aspect relating to a personal matter. And then there would be the twinkle in the eye which, when things were going particularly well, would break into a wide happy grin that we all knew so well. He is irreplaceable.