Raconteur par excellence
— Editor’s Note: For the past decade it’s been our delight to include the gardener’s musings of Leon Standifer and Ed O’Rourke, Jr. on these pages. We lost Ed in November on Veterans Day, and he will be deeply missed. Here, Leon remembers his dear friend and collaborator.
Ed was a brilliant man with many talents but he never tried to impress people with them. His greatest pleasure came from spinning yarns—essentially true but occasionally embellished. He used these both in teaching and in entertaining us at the Horticulture Coffee Table. He frequently told about a bar in New Orleans that was getting its electricity through a hidden hook-up to the electric trolley system. It worked fine, except that the lights went dim every time the trolley passed. With his talent for embellishment, it was a great story—that we didn’t believe. But, once when we were at a meeting in New Orleans, he took us to the bar and, without another word, asked the owned to tell how they used to get their electricity. Except for minor points, he told the same story as Ed had. (Note: We should not delve too far into a good urban legend. The logistics of moving high voltage electricity to that of a bar-room light bulb are daunting.)
Then, there were his stories of working in the summer for the talented, slave-driver owner of a plant nursery. Even in high school, Ed was fascinated with plants and learned many sound practices while sweating all day in the very humid and hot greenhouse used for rooting cuttings of various plant species. The man would decide on the right time to cut branches of a species, cut them very precisely, and send Ed to plant them firmly in a sand bed. Every hour Ed would have to stop and spray water throughout the greenhouse to assure high humidity.
Ed graduated from high school, went to war, earned a B.S. degree at Southwestern, and went to Cornell for his doctorate. He accepted a position at LSU to develop fruit plant varieties that would do well in Louisiana. Later, he visited his old plant mentor in New Orleans.
“Well, Eddie, good to see you, what do you do now?”
“Hey fellows. Little Eddie is a Professor now. Tell me Eddie, what do they pay you?” (Back then, LSU was flush with oil money and paid good men very well.)
“That much? They pay you that much just for sitting on your backside?”
Ed enjoyed telling of his embarrassment.
“Ed went to war.”
Absolutely! He took Infantry basic training in Texas and half of his unit was sent to a division that was decimated on the Anzio beachhead in Italy. Fortunately, Ed was sent to England and put in the phantom “First U. S. Army Group,” called “Fusag.” Their assignment was to convince the German leaders that the main thrust of the Allied landing assault was to take place on the beaches near Pas de Calais. This is where the distance between England and France was much shorter than at Normandy. To do this, the very small group that Ed belonged to would move their trucks around, sending out false radio messages. At night, they would occasionally inflate rubber replicas of American tanks and trucks, but not very often because German air reconnaissance was very limited. Overall, the German high command had the impression that there would be a small landing in Normandy on D Day, followed a few days later, by the real Calais landings. It worked well, and the large Panzer divisions were held at Calais while we established our beachhead in Normandy. After the successful landings, Ed was assigned to the Special Troops section of the U.S. Twelfth Corps. This was the infantry unit that would protect the Corps Headquarters in case of a set-back. That came when the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge. During that entire battle Ed was in Luxembourg, ready to protect the headquarters, but living under awfully cold conditions—and coming down with pneumonia. Ed carried his load in that war.
Back to Ed’s Adventures at LSU
His greatest peeve was having to deal with administrators who wanted to have him do something he thought was wrong—or foolish. Once, long ago, the director of the extension service had gotten into a long argument with Ed and was quite angry about it. He then wrote a letter to Ed saying: “You are an excellent worker, but the most irascible person I have ever known!” Ed treasured the letter so much that he had it framed, and it hung in his office for years.
Actually, Ed was much less irascible than the act he often put on. His students always admired his talents but were terrified of his outbursts, the exact result he wanted—they would never forget the point he was making. I remember a time when the conversation at the Horticulture Coffee Table was about the practice of honorary “Chair” awards presented in the name of some benefactor for excellence in teaching or research. We all agreed that Ed deserved one, but the administration would never allow it. We had a small bronze plaque made: Edmund N. O’Rourke, Chair of Raconteurativate’” and fixed it to the chair that he always occupied at the Table. It is a word that we made up and, because it was our word, it meant exactly what we wanted it to. When we saw that he was in slow decline and wouldn’t be able to return to Baton Rouge, we removed the plaque and mailed it to him.
Ed’s outstanding research achievements were with the breeding of better fig varieties. He saw that the short storage life of ripe figs would prevent large-scale commercial development but that there was potential for use in small home orchards and for larger farmers market sales. Over a period of five years he pollinated hundreds of figs and grew several thousands of seedlings (one fig produces many seeds). As the seedlings matured, he culled them down to about twenty-five varieties with potential. He gave cuttings of these to growers throughout the state and asked for their responses. Several of the varieties were lost, but he got good feedback from most and made a large test planting at Baton Rouge, Hammond, and at the citrus station south of New Orleans.
When the man working with floriculture and nursery crops left for a position in Georgia, Ed was offered that program and reluctantly accepted it. He preferred to work for home gardeners but programs without commercial potential had no political support. This is the background for his outstanding work with poinsettias. He published several good papers on the interaction of temperature and day-length for having the plants in full bloom for the Christmas season. He also had some good research on trace element requirements for fertilization of poinsettias.
While teaching courses in greenhouse management and nursery crop production, he honed his teaching skills to the point where his classes were large and he was able to develop the talents of some very bright graduate students who earned doctorates and spread the O’Rourke concepts throughout the state—and to a few foreign countries.
In 1990 we both retired—not from horticulture but to escape the pressure of administrators. To be honest, they gave us titles of Professors Emeritus, let us keep our offices, and let us use a plot of research land. We could finally work for home gardeners and farmers that supplied the farmers markets! (We understood the need for large-scale agriculture to feed urban populations and that the home gardening approach was inadequate, but would never admit it to the administrators.)
Our “Home Garden Research Facility” gave us the opportunity to test innovations we had discussed over coffee. Some were absolute failures but several turned out well. We had a three-year study of heirloom tomatoes that produced juicy and tasty fruit–usually. We demonstrated that most of these selections were susceptible to weather-sensitive disease and insect problems. They were very good for home gardens—if your livelihood was not dependent on the crops. It was easy to say “Well, we didn’t have much luck with that variety this year.” “Not much luck” meant that weather conditions had promoted an outburst of insects or of some disease. The commercial varieties are usually hybrids from several species of tomatoes that had been selected for disease resistance, appearance and with hard rinds that allowed for safe shipping. Our “research” inspired friends Charlie Johnson and Kiki Fontenot to begin a study of grafting heirloom varieties onto the commercial rootstocks that often provided insect and disease resistance. (Unfortunately, the current financial problems put a halt to funding of all such work.) We conducted a long-term study of blackberry varieties that produced interesting results.
In the late nineties the marketing editor at the LSU Press asked us to write a comprehensive book on home gardening down here where it rains a lot. We had fun writing it—jokes and all—but it took us around a year, plus another year of arguing with the various copy editors who wondered if a “Bartle and James” type book like ours could make sense. It went over very well and quickly introduced us to the editors of Country Roads who asked us to write monthly columns on gardening. We made an informal agreement to write as long as we enjoyed it and they could tolerate us. It has now lasted for about ten years and gave us an outlet for publishing ideas and research results that no scientific journal would have even considered. We are deeply grateful for their tolerance.
Back to the passing of Ed. His mind and wit were still excellent, but his body was closing on ninety years and it was time for him to go. Ed loved poetry and could recite any of those by Kipling from memory. He also liked The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I want to close with part of a verse from that collection that we both took to heart:
“And when yourself shall—reach the spot
Where I made one—turn down an
Ed drank deeply of his gifts in life and turned down an empty glass!
Beginning in March, Leon will once again serve as a mentor—this time to Country Roads Assistant Editor Anne Craven. Anne, husband Michael and daughter Julia have just moved into a new house—with a brand new backyard to be wrestled into submission. Follow along in the months ahead as we watch the product of Leon and Anne’s collaboration unfold.