Guiding Lights

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As I was working on our tribute to Metrolina Greenhouses’ Tom Van Wingerden (page 14), I received sad news that our own Dr. Will Carlson was placed on hospice care for a terminal illness. Will is older than Tom, who was taken from us suddenly, but both were visionaries who contributed greatly to making the bedding plant industry what it is today.

As a grower, Tom led with a drive for excellence and never-ending investment in innovation in a quest to produce the best quality plants as efficiently as possible. He also set an inspiring example through his values, putting people first and giving back.

“He was a good husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend,” his brother-in-law Jim Gapinski of Heartland Growers says. “His desire to help the underprivileged and poor of the world will also be a testament of a man who let his actions speak louder than his words. We will miss him very much, but the memories that all of us had with him will help carry us through this difficult time. Tom would want us to ‘get back to work,’ ‘grow good quality,’ ‘watch those input costs’ and ‘have fun.’ So, Tom, we have a lot of work to do.”

Will emerged from the ranks of academia, when he became Michigan State University’s (MSU) floriculture Extension specialist in 1966. Although most of his research had been on roses, he saw great potential in vegetable growers converting to bedding plants. In addition to conducting research to create recipes for bedding plant production, Will founded Bedding Plants Inc. (BPI), a national association that brought bedding plant growers together for 30 years.

Groundbreaking research focused on key crops, like seed geraniums, and later extended to new crops, like purple fountain grass, and forcing perennials into flower. But above all, he was determined to make growers good businessmen.

When Will retired in 2002 and was reflecting on the early days in grower Extension, he said, “Things growers take for granted today were a major challenge back then. Production information was so critical in the early days, because there was none. But by the late 1980s, I found most of the problems growers were encountering were no longer technical in nature, but were people, business and money problems–areas that I could not provide scientific answers to. So I then seriously started getting more interested in the business side of things.”

Will took courses from American Management Association to understand business strategies and principles. In addition to developing a required business management course in horticulture at MSU, he helped growers one-on-one with strategic planning. Last spring, when I visited Jack Van de Wetering on Long Island, he smiled when he told me Will helped him write his first business plan. Thousands of growers owe a debt to Will Carlson.

When leaders and visionaries as influential as Tom and Will complete their circle of life and cycle out of our industry, it’s time to reflect on who will lead the charge forward.  I don’t think we are going to see the iconic individuals that we saw in the past. Instead we will see talented teams from progressive companies and organizations making the investments necessary to strive for excellence.

The biggest challenge is going to be the ability to devote time, which is becoming increasingly difficult to share. All of our great leaders gave of themselves and devoted a considerable amount of time outside their businesses and day jobs to the greater industry good. Organizations at the state, local and national levels provide the opportunity and framework to give back by fostering unity and supporting research, education and collective initiatives. It’s up to us to step up and be those leaders, get involved and give back.

Delilah Onofrey directs Flower Power Marketing for the Suntory Collection. She can be reached at

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