Growing up in Savannah, I soon realized that my home town is a very historic site in America. After all, General Oglethorpe founded our fair city in 1733 and that’s a very long time ago. Every Sunday when I was a kid, we went to Bonaventure Cemetery because there was nothing else to do on Sunday afternoons back then except to visit the cemeteries and then stop back by Baskin- Robbins Ice Cream. As we would wander around the old graveyard, Granddaddy would point out the historical significance of this person or that person. There always seemed to be a lot of important dead people out there. So, I can easily attest that Savannah had a lot of history.
My family was a part of history as well, and it is this family history that takes me into my story. Let’s start with my granddaddy Henry O. Phillips. He was certainly the best grandpa that any kid could hope to have around. He taught me how to play baseball and spent countless hours pitching balls to his youngest grandson when I was growing up. All that baseball time with Granddaddy allowed for me to get to listen over and over again to the stories of his amazing life.
In the early 1900’s my grandparents left Bulloch County and their efforts of making it on the farm, and they moved to the big city of Savannah. Our town was much different then, and one of those key differences had to do with the way people travelled. This was the horse and buggy days. Automobiles were just beginning to come on the scene, so when people back then saw a car, it very well could have been the first horseless carriage that they had ever seen. As it was in most towns, our fire department was a very important part of the community. Savannah’s fire department was one of the first motorized fire fighting units in America, and because of this modern upgrade, it opened a window of opportunity for my Granddaddy.
Very few people knew how to drive an automobile back then, so when Savannah Fire Department began to transition from horse-drawn fire wagons to fire trucks, they needed people who had some experience driving cars. This opportunity was my grandfather’s ticket onto the fire department. He became an engineer for SFD from day one on the job, and he even drove one of the first fire engines to a fire on his very first day. To say that Granddaddy really loved his job on the fire department would be a complete understatement. The fire department became his passion and his career. He ate, slept, and dreamed about the fire department for the rest of his life. Passion is something that makes us love what we do and do what we love, and for my Granddaddy, being a fireman was his complete obsession!
Sometimes, the passion of a parent gets passed down to one of their children, and this fire department thing was something that my Daddy seemed to get from his father. My Daddy was the middle boy. His full name was Francis Eugene Phillips, but most of his friends called him Gene. Granddaddy had two other sons as well, and both of them chose a different road in life, but my Daddy found the thing that made him happy was being a fireman like his Daddy before him. When my Dad was very young, he was able to get a great job working on the fire department at Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah. The pay and benefits of working a civil service job on a military base were much greater back then than working for the local Savannah Fire Department.
In a few years, Daddy had begun moving up the ladder with promotions. He too loved what he was doing, and this quickly got him attention from his bosses. While he was still only in his mid twenties, he had made it all the way to top becoming Chief of the Fire Department. That was quite an accomplishment, and it just shows what can be done when you love what you do that much. When Daddy became Chief of the Hunter Air Force Base Fire Department, my Granddaddy retired from SFD and went to work for my dad. People would ask him how it felt to be working for his son. He would always say “Well I was his boss for a long time, so now I guess it is his turn to be in charge”. Life was good, and the family passion was making every day special for a father and son.
Sometimes all good things come to an end, and the abrupt end came for this dream on December 7, 1941. A date that would live in infamy not only changed the history of America, but it also changed the history of my family and the passion that had fueled it. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America was at war. It made no difference whether you were a janitor or a young upcoming fire chief with enormous potential and passion for your job. Everyone, regardless of their status, was now engaged in the war effort.
My Daddy left his much-loved job as Fire Chief and joined the Navy. He was trained to work onboard the troop carrying ship call Navarro. Daddy became one of the operators of the landing crafts, so when it was time for the troops to hit the beaches, it was his job to get them there. As with most jobs in the war effort, it was extremely dangerous. During one of the invasions of the Japanese Islands, Daddy was bringing the landing craft full of troops toward the shore when it was hit by artillery from the beach. He woke up 12 days later in a hospital in the Hawaiian Islands not realizing what had happened. He was one of the lucky ones. He was still alive, but he had been severely injured in the attack. Most of his stomach had been blown away, and the doctors were making efforts to create a make shift stomach by using his lower intestine. At least, this was the way it was explained to me. He was not out of the woods. As a matter of fact, the rest of his life would have him remain in the woods of uncertainty about his health.
It is a funny thing in life how everything can change in just a moment. Daddy was just like so many Americans doing what they had to do in a war that they never wanted to experience. Hoping all the while that they would make it home again. Another chance to be with love ones and live their own special dream. What soon became apparent was the fact that my Dad would never be able to return to the life that he once cherished so much. His physical disabilities would no longer permit him to do what he loved in being a fireman.
When my Daddy returned home, the doctors were still not quite sure if he would survive, and if so how long he could survive. Several things happened that at least gave him a fighting chance. One was when he met my Mother. Her first husband had died from service related injuries in World War II, and she was doing volunteer work in the Veterans Hospital when they met. Meeting her gave him a reason to smile and a hope that something wonderful was still just around the corner. His doctors had suggested that Daddy find something else in life to do that would bring him joy. It might not ever be the passion of being a fireman, but something that could give him a reason to want to fight to survive everyday was what the doctors prescribed.
My Grandmother was an avid gardener and had many azaleas on the property where she and my Granddaddy lived on South side Savannah. Daddy started learning to root those azaleas and grow them, and he really liked it. He and my Mother build a small modest home on the back of my grandparent’s property, and Daddy started a small nursery to sell his azaleas. He named the new adventure Gene’s Nursery. The business was more of an avocation that a vocation, but it gave him a reason to keep going. Then, one day it happened. Daddy was in the front yard of my grandparent’s property when he saw it, and it was one of the most beautiful things that he had ever seen before. He did not know what it was, but he liked it. He liked it a lot, but little did he know at that moment in time, he had discovered something wonderful that would change his life and mine forever.
What my Daddy had found in bloom was one of his mother’s camellias. She had a few of these plants in her garden, but this particular camellia appealed to him like no other plant that he had ever known. It was an old Japonica variety called ‘Daikagura’, and it was in full bloom. That chance encounter in his mother’s garden became a second life altering experience for him. He found another passion that was equal to his first love. In that instant, the fireman became the camellia grower.
He started reading everything he could about camellias. He went to the local camellia show and met new friends that knew about camellias. He learned much from them. Daddy then learned how to graft camellias, and over time became one of the best grafters in Savannah. His health would never be great again, but his new passion helped him to fight his problems with courage and determination. One of his greatest joys was to share blooms from his camellias with everyone he met.
Daddy built several small greenhouses in the back of the nursery to house his camellias and to protect them in the winter. Many of my greatest childhood memories were formed around his camellias and in his greenhouses. I did not realize it at the time, but my life was beginning to take a course that would lead me to that same passion of a lifetime. When I was only 15 years old, daddy’s health injuries on his body caught up to him. On April 2, 1973, he passed away unexpectedly during the night due to heart failure. The next day and the following week afterwards still seem a little foggy to me even now after all these years. I wish that I had the opportunity to have spent time with him as I grew up into adulthood, but that was not meant to happen. The result of all of these chains of events for me was that I was able to find what I loved just as he did. As Daddy followed in his Daddy’s footsteps and became a fireman, I followed in my Daddy’s footsteps and became a camellia grower. Without this enormous tragedy, I would not have the opportunity to enjoy the greatest plant in the world everyday!
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that passionate fireman that became a passionate camellia grower. After my grandparents had passed away, I bought the front part of the property and developed it into a much larger nursery. I moved that ‘Daikagura’ camellia to the back garden and still have it today. With my two business partners and best friends Debbie and Benny Odom, we have continued to make Daddy’s passion the focus of Gene’s Nursery. We have their daughter Lindsey and her husband Justin along with their two kids Madison and Jacob to carry on the passion that we share about camellias when it is our time to go. What a blessing it is to wake up in the morning and do everything that makes you happy. A fireman and the camellia grower taught me that a long time ago, and that is a lesson that I intend to keep learning for the rest of my life.