An Icon Is Gone

An Icon Is Gone

Dr. Henry Marcellus Cathey died on Oct. 8, 2008 after 79 years here on earth. His life is a great contribution not only to ornamental horticulture but to our whole society.

In the past few years, there have been many articles, notes and blogs describing his many accomplishments to our industry and the general public. But all the information written about Dr. Cathey is well known and shows the great depth of knowledge and skill he had in the fields of science, communications, consumers and people. So rather than repeat his accomplishments, I would like to share several stories that show how Dr. Cathey was an icon in our industry.

Marc Cathey–The Mentor

When I was working on my Ph.D. thesis on plant nutrition of ‘Better Times’ roses, my adviser, Dr. Ernest Bergman, and I decided to research the effects of 16 essential plant elements on the yield of this plant. Computers were just beginning to be used in plant science, so we could now do simultaneous equations with all 16 factors in which we were interested.

I spent two years on the project and I met Dr. Cathey at that time. He was very interested in the project and encouraged us to continue in this area. Dr. Bergman and I wrote a paper about our work and submitted it to the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS). The editorial board rejected it. We were very disappointed. We made several corrections and indicated to the board this was the first paper where computers were used to solve and interrelate the effects of many essential plant elements.

Dr. Cathey learned about the paper and helped get it published. He was on the awards committee when, in August 1968, Dr. Bergman and I received the Kenneth Post Award for outstanding graduate student research in floriculture, ornamental and landscape horticulture from the ASHS.

Were it not for Dr. Cathey’s mentoring and support, this would never have happened.

Marc Cathey–The Researcher

Dr. Cathey was one of the first ornamental crop scientists to look at growth regulating chemicals. A compound called Amo–16/18, obtained from German scientists–was noted to reduce the height of ornamentals. Dr. Cathey worked on poinsettias. He provided the material to our group at Penn State, where we did experiments on Easter lilies and chrysanthemums.

Another chemical we looked at, first named B-995, was also shown to have growth retarding effects. It worked well on chrysanthemums and many other flowering plants. It was marketed as B-9 and is still in use today.

Dr. Cathey’s research also included the specifics of light-induced flowering. He developed the exact schedules necessary to have crops bloom at a desired time, using light quality and temperature to time a crop for a given day or week. His work in this area led other researchers to develop controlled temperature forcing and action plans for precisely scheduling crops to flower. He would often say, “It’s all about timing and tailoring.”

Dr. Cathey knew the answer was in observing the plants and duplicating their needs. He would often say to me, “See the plant. Be the plant. The plant already knows the answer. It is up to you to duplicate what the plant already knows.”

Marc Cathey–The Teacher

I’m sure Dr. Cathey could have been an actor, probably a great one! When he entered a room, he could get everyone’s attention in a very short period of time. He was a showman.

Dr. Cathey could take a very difficult scientific concept and present it in a way growers or consumers could understand. I invited him to be the keynote speaker at three or four Bedding Plants Inc. meetings over a 20-year period. Every time he spoke, he would draw the largest crowd, many times 500 people or more. He always had great visual aides, and he knew not only how to teach but also how to entertain people.

He had great exposure on his national radio show from Washington, D.C. and television appearances on the major networks. Dr. Cathey truly was a strong voice for consumer horticulture. He made learning not only educational but also fun.
Marc Cathey–The Horticulturist

Dr. Cathey developed the National Arboretum in Washington D.C., from something that was almost obscure to a focal point for horticulture in the nation’s capital. He knew how to get people excited about projects he embraced. He truly got excited about every job he had. He attracted a great deal of funding for the arboretum through his contacts with many gardeners who had the influence and the funds to support his efforts.

He was held in such high regard that he was elected president of the American Horticulture Society (AHS). He started with the group in 1959 and was on the Board of Trustees for 18 years. He first served as president from 1974 to 1978 and then again from 1993 to 1997. He remained president emeritus until 2005.

On a personal note, Marc always gave people close to him–his family, friends and colleagues–nicknames. For example, “Too Tall Terril” was his nickname for Terril Nell, former president of the Society of American Florists. All his children and grandchildren had nicknames. His grandmother, who taught him about horticulture, was called “Miss Nannie.” I was proud to receive a nickname from Marc also. I was called “Uncle Will.” I’m still called “Uncle Will” by my close friends and growers.

In recent years, Marc gave himself the nickname “Dr. Purple.” I thought it was because of his love of the arts and colors and his flashy style of dressing, always wearing a suit with a pocket handkerchief that was usually the same color as his tie.

A few years ago, AHS sent its members 20 crocus bulbs to plant to thank Marc for all his contributions. They were all purple.

I did not understand that his choice of the word might have much more meaning than in color. While I was writing this article, I received my monthly Bits & Pieces booklet in leadership and there it was: the reason I think Marc chose purple.

I’ll paraphrase the little story.

A man had a terminal illness that left him blind. A hospital worker brought in a friend to meet him. “Are they treating you well?” the friend asked. “They sure are,” the man replied and smiled. “They make me feel purple.”


“Yes,” the man said. “They tell me stories. They listen to my questions. They get me what I need, and they give me a big hug. It makes me feel like a king–all purple.”

Great leaders are purple makers. They know how growers feel and how consumers feel. They know how much passion is put in to our work.

Dr. Purple loved people as much or more than he loved plants. He took the complicated and simplified it. Dr. Purple was a rare person–a real icon.

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