Tribute To Jim Wilson

Tribute To Jim Wilson by Eddie Rhoades

Janie and Jim – photo by Eddie Rhoades

I just received news that Jim Wilson passed away at home in Columbia, MO on Sunday, August 1st, at 5pm. He died peacefully in his sleep after succumbing to congestive heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis.

Jim will be remembered by most people as the host of the Victory Garden at Callaway Gardens for many years. But he was much more than that: he was a past president of the Men’s Garden Clubs of America and past president and Fellow of the Garden Writer’s Association of America and Hall of Fame member. He will forever be a legend in the gardening world and I am one of his biggest fans. I never told him but he reminded me of my dad, quiet but extremely knowledgeable not to mention handsome to boot. Women jostled each other to be near him.

I recall his speech years ago at the Georgia Master Gardener convention in Augusta which I truly enjoyed. You mentioned how it got away with you when a lady came up to you once and said she loved you – but we all do. When people saw you on TV and speaking before an audience they came to feel they knew you. And of course you can’t know everyone in your audience. You were a national treasure and people just liked to be in your presence. Besides being a gardener I think you are best defined as being a Southern gentleman. Your story of how a teacher demeaned you for the work you turned in for writing an assignment where she deemed it was too good for the likes of you, remains with me. It is a shame some teachers do things like that to embarrass students and do not recognize talent early on and encourage it. I also remember how you said “We weren’t poor but we shot every rabbit and caught every fish and picked every berry and poke salad for miles around so we would have something to eat.”

Jim’s lifelong love of gardening — especially vegetables — had its start when he was a teenager during the Depression. He helped his father and older brothers grow and sell vegetables to feed their family. “we ate lots of vegetables, including roasting ears, from the food garden. Mother canned vegetables when the garden produced more than we could eat fresh.

At the last Garden Writers symposium I meant to ask you questions about publishing but when we were together I couldn’t think of what the questions were. I was fortunate to sit beside you on the tour bus and you told me stories of how you were drafted and became a pilot. When our paths crossed at the Native Plant Conference in Cullowhee, NC you invited me to sit at your lunch table and introduced me to the entire Steering Committee. I know with your move to Columbus, Missouri you simplified your life and did some of the things you wanted instead of trying to satisfy the demands of everyone else. I am glad you found Janie Mandel to share your life and bring each other joy, you certainly deserved it. One of the highlights of my life has been knowing you. I still have the sweet bay magnolia tree named after you planted in my yard. It was my great pleasure to have known you. I was shocked when you would call out my name across the Trade Show aisles to give me a review copy of your latest book. In his own words
Jim writes:

Jim was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served on active duty from April 1943 to November 1944 as a fighter pilot. Returning from service, Jim used the GI Bill to attend the university of Missouri. He recalled, “I graduated on Aug. 4, 1948, with a degree in Agriculture — cum laude, despite having crammed a four-year course into two and one-half years.

“I sent out 21 letters of application and got back 19 positive responses, which speaks more to the scarcity of men with college degrees than it does to my desirability to employers.

“My graduation was scheduled for August, but several employers urged me to cut short my education and come to work in June. I elected to join Ferry-Morse seed Company in Detroit. I had worked up from an agronomist with the seed Production Department to Advertising Manager after the company discovered that I could write.” Kudos to whoever made that discovery; Jim’s writing and garden communication (TV and lecturing) have enriched millions of Americans over the years.

Jim said, “I had begun writing garden articles to make extra money. My first was “The Patient Gardeners of Carville,” published by Flower and Garden magazine in 1956. it concerned my visit to the Men’s Garden Club of Carville. I helped Sunset magazine with several of their books, fact checking and writing the text for annuals, vegetables and herbs, which I knew pretty well.”

To many, he was the face of the south — with his ever-present wide-brimmed straw hat — on PBS’ The Victory Garden. Jim recalled, “in 1982, while I was working with All-America selections, my friend Bob Thomson asked me to be a guest on the program in Boston. They agreed to plant a model AAS trial for Bob and me to evaluate during a program. Producer Russ Morash was apparently impressed with my ease in front of the cameras. They decided to “regionalize” the show and asked me to host programs from Victory Garden south at Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, Ga. Thus began a new career for me. Gradually, the TV exposure led to lectures, which led to garden books. Together, they made a nice package.” Indeed. Until his “official retirement” in 2004 at age 79, Jim pursued his work as a horticulturist, moving with jobs to nine different states and from coast to coast. His career included working in public relations and advertising, representing the seed industry, running an herb farm (gourmet herbs for specialty restaur ants — way ahead of its time), television (he also hosted HGTV’s “Great Gardeners”), lecturing, writing innumerable articles, and authoring 14 books. Cathy Barash was lucky enough to co-author The Cultivated Gardener with Jim, and his last book, Home-Grown Vegetables: A Bountiful Garden for Lean Times with photography by Walt Chandoha, came out last fall — definitely post-retirement.

Jim’s public honors are many. In 1965, the white House chose him as a delegate to President Johnson’s Conference on National Beauty. in 2000, ‘Jim wilson’ sweet bay magnolia was named in his honor. in 2005, the Ray Rothenberger and Jim Wilson Missouri Master Gardener endowment was established at the university of Missouri. Jim was national spokesman for the GWA Plant A row for the Hungry program from 1995 to 2003. in 2002, the American Horticultural society named him Great American Gardener, and in 2004, he received the Medallion of Honor from All-America Selections for lifetime achievement.

In addition to his prolific professional contributions, Jim donated his expertise to volunteering and mentoring, especially to community gardening. Traveling in the United States and throughout the world, Jim remained a lifelong learner. He was a proud participant in the Honor Flight program for military veterans to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C.

At the end of My Life and Times, in the section he titled “Examining My Own Navel,” Jim wrote, “I’ve never been asked, ‘Who are you?’ by a person who was interested in more than my name. I could come up with cosmic answers such as, ‘I am a human being,’ and misleading answers such as, ‘I am a Christian.’ I see myself as a serious person, but one who enjoys laughter and a good joke. I have rough-hewn facial features that people remember, and a voice that people call ‘unique’ for reasons I can’t understand. Few have ever called me ‘handsome’ and no one, to my knowledge, ‘ugly.’ I have an overdeveloped sense of fair play, dating back, I suppose, when life dealt me shoddy hands of cards. I am not among the intelligentsia, but one doesn’t finish a four-year course in two and one-half years with honors if he or she is average. For most of my life I was a bit taller than average, which does give one a psychological advantage.

“I suppose I am more creative than most, adept at summing up ideas verbally or writing, quick to come to conclusions by mysterious routes rather than by linear thinking. My vocabulary is large; it contains many words I seldom use because of fear of losing or confusing listeners. Nevertheless, I get a certain wicked satisfaction out of extracting from memory and using a word that is exactly right for the context even if it does cause a certain amount of consternation. Words, to me, are like good tools in the hands of an artisan.

“In trying to define who I am (how I see myself) I usually fall back on what I do, what I enjoy, how I react…. I am curious about every living thing, am not afraid of snakes, and love plants and most people. it falls to my friends and family to decide who I am. I am not concerned about ‘Judgment Day.’ it isn’t hubris that emboldens me to utter such blasphemy, but a growing mistrust of the clerics who imprinted me with the typical guilt-ridden southern protestant ethic. Life can be almost unbearably beautiful, but having to constantly avoid transgressions can produce a myopia that narrows such opportunities for joy to mere glimpses of paradise.”

How does garden writer Cathy Barash sum up Jim Wilson, the man? Many GWA members have written that he was the first “celebrity” they met who talked to them one-on- one and gave sage advice — on gardening and careers. He always had time for anyone, and then remembered his/her name year after year. He is remembered by some for his fine-timbered voice at karaoke and by others who had “the honor of dancing with him” at the same yearly event. To me, he was the ultimate southern gentleman with a wonderful sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. one of the most valuable lessons he taught me was, “it costs nothing to thank people who help you; give credit to everyone who helps you along the way.” other “Wilson Pearls of wisdom” were: “Write about your passion; treat your audience as equals and never talk or write down to them; and always remember that what you say or write may have a profound effect on someone.” I will miss his friendship and wisdom, his caring, and just knowing that he was just a phone call or e-mail away.

The family suggests donations to the Rothenberger/Wilson Missouri Master Gardener Endowment Fund, c/o Darcy wells, 2-4 Agriculture Bldg, univ. of Mo, Columbia Mo 65211 (573-882-9003); or Plant A Row for the Hungry, Garden Writers Association Foundation, 10210 leatherleaf Ct., Manassas, VA 20111 (or

There must be a garden in heaven that needs you.The world of horticulture is a smaller place with Jim Wilson gone.
—Gerald Burke

Jim was the very first celebrity person I interviewed when I started writing my weekly garden column in 1989. He was gracious, warm, personable and put my rookie jitters at bay. What earned him high marks for me was that he always remembered my name.
—Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The amazing Mississippi native son, Jim Wilson, was the first person of his stature that I ever interviewed on the radio live. I lost my media virginity and my heart at the same time. He was kinder than he had to be, as is the case with the greats in this business. Dancing with him at GWA karaoke was a treat I will miss.

My Jim story began in 1997 when I attended my first GWA symposium in Boston. He encouraged me to spread the word about growing vegetables, as I had just begun my stint as garden editor at woman’s Day magazine. When I moved to Illinois from Texas the next year, I plunged into organizing PAR statewide.
—Doreen Howard

One of my favorite moments came from something Jim said regarding PAR to an audience “and if you grow flowers, but no vegetables, think of contributing these to your local soup kitchen. For how often do those who frequent a soup kitchen have the opportunity to dine with flowers on the table?”
—Rose Marie Nichols McGee

Memorial plans are still being decided, but his family in California and Janie hope to have a memorial service here in Columbia in a couple of weeks and then, per his request, have his ashes placed in the Veterans’ Cemetery in Memphis, TN near his brother who was killed in WWII. I will be happy to let you know about services as those plans firm up. Thank you all for your kindness and friendship over the years.

Janie Mandel

1 thought on “Tribute To Jim Wilson

  1. The program “The Victory Garden” and especially Jim Wilson’s soft-spoken voice and gentle manner as the southern host, helped develop and increase my love of home gardening. I miss the old show and I miss Jim. I think of him and his influence on occasion. I wondered where he was now. Then I saw this post and realized Jim has been enjoying the “Perfect Garden” for many years. I never knew him personally, but I miss him.


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