Former students, colleagues, growers, family and friends made a pilgrimage to Michigan State University (MSU) on Sunday to pay their last respects to Will Carlson and celebrate his lasting legacy. In addition to being the visionary champion of the bedding plant industry in North America, he was the driving force behind making MSU the powerhouse in applied floriculture research and Extension. He also founded Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister in 1983 after being the bedding plant contributor to American Vegetable Grower magazine. He never missed a column in 36 years!
Will died Jan. 20 at age 68 following a terminal illness. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, sons William and Wayne, six grandchildren, brother Robert Carlson and sister, Dorothy Albee.
Visitation was from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at the Gorsline-Runciman Funeral Homes in East Lansing. The evening reception at MSU was appropriately in the atrium leading into the greenhouses at the Horticultural Display Gardens. Will was the aggressive fundraiser who raised the money for the gardens, greenhouses and research programs at MSU.
The grower who traveled the farthest distance to pay his respects to Will was Egon Molbak of Molbak’s in Woodinville, Wash.–a destination garden center near Seattle. He fondly recalls working with Will in the early days of Bedding Plants Inc., the national organization Will founded in 1969. “Will’s contribution to the production of bedding plants and the excitement he created around this product cannot be described in just a few words,” he said. “As executive director of Bedding Plants Inc., he was the driving force that led this part of our industry to the top. We spent many years working together and we think back to those exciting years when bedding plants were No.1.”
Molbak especially appreciated the international tours Will organized. “One of the best things was the BPI tours around the world. No one is doing that anymore,” he said. “They were truly unbelievable. In those early days, growers did not travel outside the United States. We had an unbelievable time in France. We were invited to visit the horticultural society in Paris. It was a big thing. The director was there greeting us with a translator and we had a big formal dinner. The international tours were a great inspiration for me to start planting mixed containers.”
While Sunday was a reunion and a time to catch up and reminisce, the next day Allan Armitage delivered a touching eulogy full of beauty and humor during Will’s funeral service at University Lutheran Church in East Lansing. Allan received his doctorate under Will at MSU in the late 1960s.
“It was August and I had just finished my master’s at the University of Guelph. I decided working in Ottawa was not for me,” Allan recalled. “I had a wife and two children and nowhere to go. I called a man who was doing research with light and temperature on these little things called geraniums. He said come for a visit and the next thing I knew, I was walking the hallowed halls of MSU in September.
“I will always be thankful. He changed my life. Working with Will was like a windstorm, tsunami and earthquake all in one. Getting my doctorate was the easy part. Surviving Will Carlson was hard! But my horizons were broadened, I met great people and learned there was nothing I cannot do.”
Will’s belief in these “silly little things we call bedding plants” is the thread that unites us all, Allan said. “Not only did he see bedding plants as the next wave, he made sure they were the next wave. Many in the audience were the beneficiaries of this vision. Many may not be enjoying the lifestyle they are today. He changed the landscape at MSU but more importantly the landscape of horticulture forever.”
Will will be remembered as both a mover and a shaker. “He moved the present dreams of the future and moved people to believe in his vision,” Allan said. “But he was also a shaker and shook things up. Some of the shaking was uncomfortable. Knowing when to stop shaking was not his strong suit. While he may have lost a few fights, he never lost respect.”
Allan was able to visit Will at his home on Jan. 3, when he was speaking in Grand Rapids. “The man was laying in wait to order me around again,” Allan laughed. “He had me go downstairs and pick a lemon. Then he made me peel it. What a moment it was. The two of us were like little kids sharing sections of this delicious fruit, juice rolling down our chins and laughing. At that moment, all was right with the world. Will, we’re not here to leave you but to regale in your spirit to be touched one last time by your presence. You’re not going anywhere old friend. There’s too much of you left behind in all of us.”
While Will was in hospice care, he was able to choose the readings and hymns, which made the service even more personal. Before being laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery in Lansing, he was driven one last time through MSU’s campus. Will rests in a plot next to his mentor at MSU, John Carew.