John G. Seeley was one of the last of the great floriculturists of the 20th century. He was one of a select group of land grant college scientists who combined research, Extension and teaching to propel floriculture to astonishing market growth during the 1900s. It is one of the great success stories of plant science.
As head of the Department of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture at Cornell University, Seeley had great influence over the development and adoption of new practices, which included day length and temperature programs to control flowering, soil mixes that revolutionized plug production, indexing to control viruses and plant growth regulators to control height and growth. He was a prolific writer and was energetic in presenting research results through lectures, Extension programs, short courses and the floriculture trade press.
He had a becoming way about him, was very approachable and friendly and always had a smile on his face. In his later years, he would joke how he used black shoe polish to keep his hair from turning gray. Although he had a disarmingly unassuming presence, he was a man of steel in his desire to get things not just mostly right, but 100 percent perfect. He was known to write and rewrite papers, and woe to the student who misspelled words.
At Extension meetings, whereas the Extension agent would instruct growers with recipes for production, John would go into the principles involved for deeper understanding.
At an early age, John knew his future was in plant research. He got his Bachelor of Science in horticulture at Rutgers University in 1937, where he was a member of Alpha Zeta and judged the best ag student in the senior class. He became a research assistant and received his master’s degree in 1940 at Rutgers. He went on to Cornell for his Ph.D. with Professor Kenneth Post, which he completed in l948, after wartime years researching the production of rubber from plants. Following an associate professorship and chair of floriculture at Penn State, John returned to Cornell in 1956.
Bob Langhans, who joined the Cornell staff the same year, remembers that Seeley was a very important person to him in his research on flower production and controlled environment plant production. “Those were the best years of my life,” Bob remembers. “I worked long hours on some pretty far-out stuff, and every time I needed help or a new piece of equipment, John almost always came through.”
Langhans repaid that debt to Seeley by organizing the Seeley Conference on Seeley’s retirement in l986. It is a think-tank-type meeting of leaders from floriculture across the country who meet every year in late June. They discuss, off the record, the big issues facing floriculture. No action is taken but it provides a forum for networking, where different and differing views can be put on the table to see the light of day. Up until his death, Seeley never missed a meeting.
Seeley received one of horticulture’s highest honors when he was elected president of the American Society for Horticultural Science in l986. He gave unsparingly of his time to the New York Flower Grower’s Association, and was for many years secretary of the International Horticultural Association. He also was president of the Fred C. Gloeckner Foundation, overseeing grants to floriculture researchers.
John was an emotional person and showed his love for floriculture in many ways. “Gardening is a partnership with God,” he was fond of saying. “You do your part, and God does the rest.” He left instructions that his ashes be buried in New Jersey with his beloved wife, Catherine, under a “glorious geranium.”