‘There Is Too Much Of You Left Behind’

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'There Is Too Much Of You Left Behind'

If he was your major professor, you are either very good or very bad!

This statement was uttered during a job interview of a young man upon graduation from Michigan State University. The young man was me. The major professor was Dr. Will Carlson. That was a few decades ago. In January, Will Carlson passed away.
 
I am sure every one of you reading this remembers someone who played a positive role in your life. Parents and family aside, if you were lucky, you found yourself in the shadow of a mentor or friend who helped you climb a stair or two toward the stage for which you were striving. I was fortunate Will Carlson was there for me.
 
In 1980, I had just graduated from the University of Guelph and had accepted a job in Ottawa. With my wife Susan and two children, we needed to get on with life. This miserly existence was getting old. For many reasons, however, we decided not to take the job and in July of that year, we were without a home or a job. We considered our options carefully, and although we were broke, the idea of continuing for a Ph.D. actually made sense. The problem was I had no place to go and application deadlines to graduate school had passed months ago. 
 
I had read a number of research papers during my master’s work at Guelph and had cited a couple by a W. Carlson at MSU. So I picked up the phone and asked if he was in the market for a grad student. No other place and no other person would have even seen me at that late date, but Will invited me to East Lansing and, as they say, “the rest is history.” 

A caricature of Allan, left, with his mentor, whom Allan
describes as an industry mover and shaker. 
 
I have always been thankful for his willingness to take that risk. It surely changed my life. It was certainly not a picnic, and being with him at that time was like being in a windstorm, a tsunami and an earthquake all rolled into one. Earning my doctorate was the easy part; surviving Will Carlson was far more challenging. But because of him, my horizons were broadened, and I learned there was nothing I could not do. So, like my mentor, I did it.
 
Will was a mover and a shaker. He moved people to give for projects like research greenhouses and the MSU Gardens. He moved the present forward by thinking of the future. He saw the future more clearly than anyone I met, including the future importance of these wimpy things called bedding plants.
 
Make no bones about it: Will’s foresight changed the landscape of the floriculture industry. In the late 1970s, he started a tiny grower organization called Bedding Plants Incorporated that soon became the cheerleader, the fundraiser and the research arm of the bedding plant industry. The early days were heady and I was indeed fortunate to see its rise–those people who worked with Will still talk about those days in almost spiritual terms.
 
Will was also a shaker–and although he had many attributes, learning when to stop shaking was not one of them. He was so focused he sometimes made unpopular decisions and without doubt upset some people and made others uncomfortable at times. I guess that is why people greeted me as they did during my memorable job interview. But what great leaders have not ruffled feathers along the way?
 
I was so fortunate to have visited Will in his home in East Lansing a few weeks before his death. He was certainly ill, but what a time we had. When his wife Barbara walked in on us, we were like little kids, eating one of Will’s prized lemons, juice running down our chins and laughing like all was right with the world. I wish you could have been perched atop my shoulder; you would have loved the view. 
 
He could relate stories, tell a joke, and oh my, could he write a column. We have all been the richer for Will’s thoughts in the magazine alone, and his overall contributions to the industry are priceless. He was a giant of a man and he shall be missed. However, as I attended his funeral, I looked over to him and thought: “You are not going anywhere, old friend. There is too much of you left behind in all of us.”

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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