Saluting Will Carlson

Saluting Will Carlson

Shortly before he died, I had a talk with Will in which he said “My work is done.” What a “work” that was!

Will was one of the foremost floriculturists of our time. He was a leader whose enquiring mind, energy and drive changed the face of floriculture and brought untold millions of dollars of wealth to the industry and to countless thousands of growers.

He was the person with a new idea every day, and the nerve and audacity to change the status quo and the uncanny ability to sense trends before they happened.

Will was tough. He ruffled the feathers of those in the path of change. He had no patience for bureaucracy and red tape and was impatient for results. He could be scathing, but his objectives were always to benefit floriculture and the grower in a very direct way.

Will was a product of the Land-Grant college system. He graduated from Penn State and in 1966 became a member of the Michigan State University (MSU) faculty, where his mentor, John Carew, encouraged him to call a meeting of bedding plant growers. Soon hundreds of growers were attending these meetings and Will helped organize them into Bedding Plants Inc., a national organization for which Will was executive director. Will was a wonderful educator and teacher, and he inspired growers to adopt the new technology. He led research to cut down production time and lower costs. He was Mr. Bedding Plant, and in 1988 bedding plants became number one in sales over fresh cut flowers and potted plants.

Will had a knack for solving complicated problems by breaking them down into parts, finding answers through research, and communicating the results in an easy to understand way. For 36 years he wrote a monthly column, “One to Grow On,” first in American Vegetable Grower and then in Greenhouse Grower, when we started that magazine in l983 with Will’s strong encouragement. He never missed an issue and wrote right up to the end, the most widely read column in the industry, because he was continually teaching new innovative methods and encouraging and expanding the horizons of growers for their benefit.

He led the establishment of the MSU Horticulture Gardens, with a 4-H Children’s Garden, which is the finest in the country with thousands of visitors each year. He was also faculty coordinator for the Michigan Master Gardener program that has trained more than 10,000 master gardeners over the years.

Will was a generous person. When we built a new headquarters, Will along with Penn State professor Pete Feretti drove all the way from East Lansing to Willoughby, Ohio, with a load of bedding plants, which he and Pete planted by hand to make sure the appearance of our new building was graced with the best in bedding plants.

Will was a horticulturist of great vision. He had a positive and aggressive policy of not standing still, but growing and improving. You can find Will’s philosophy in his often-repeated warning, “Keep your head down and keep moving.” Now, Will’s work is done and the legacy he leaves is a shining beacon for commitment and passion that will light the way far into the future.  

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