From the time that I was little, I have been surrounded by colorful camellia friends. First, it was by dad’s camellia friends. Later, it was my own band of interesting personalities with insatiable attractions to our favorite plant. Camellias have always been my first love, and these fellow enthusiasts have only made the enjoyment even more exciting. None of these colorful characters could be as unique as my late great friend Jerry Conrad.
It has been over four years since Jerry left us on this earth to head to the big camellia garden in the sky, but not a day goes by that I have not thought about him. I met Jerry almost twenty-four years ago when I visited his camellia nursery in Plymouth, Florida. From the very beginning, I realized that I had met someone that was just as crazy about camellias as myself. I did not realize it at the time, but that nursery visit was the first of thousands of conversations that Jerry and I would have over the years.
Jerry was originally from Paducah, Kentucky. He had been a school teacher and had worked for Disney in Orlando before settling in on his favorite vocation of owning and operating a camellia nursery in Plymouth, Florida. The name of his nursery was Erinon Camellias. I used to describe Jerry’s work as the greatest job of all time. He woke up in the morning and worked all day with the best plant ever created. At the end of the day, Jerry would get on the phone and call all his camellia friends like myself and talk about camellias for a few more hours. After the phone calls were complete, he would get on Facebook and post camellia pictures and view everyone else’s camellia pictures before going to bed and then dreaming about camellias all night long. The next day, Jerry would get up and do it all over again. I still believe that he lived the most ideal life possible.
Jerry and I would see each other at camellia shows. Sometimes he would come up to Savannah for a visit or I would go down to visit him at his nursery. One year, three hurricanes hit his nursery creating a significant amount of damage. It was an extremely stressful time for Jerry, so after hurricane season was over he came and stayed with me for a few days just to get away.
We also communicated by e-mails and on Facebook, but the primary means of staying in touch was by phone. Jerry called and called often. Sometimes, he would call three or four times in one day, but that was just Jerry. He loved to talk, and talking is what he did all the time. If someone called his number and did not leave a message, he would see that they called and then call them back just to find out what they wanted. It might have been a customer, a telemarketer, or even a wrong number. That did not matter to Jerry, because it was someone else to talk with. Jerry could truly have been described as “the mouth of the south”. If you ever need to let all your camellia friends know something, you could make just one phone call to Jerry and it was done.
Jerry never met a camellia that he did not like. At his nursery in Plymouth, he had his own little private collection that he kept for himself. He did not grow these camellias to sell, but he evaluated them to see if they would be worthy of growing at his nursery in the future. He grew camellias from one gallon all the way up to thirty gallons in size. He never would sell his small one gallons to his nursery customers. He was concerned that the plants were not larger enough for his average customer to plant them and have success. At one time, he had over 12 acres in production.
Jerry Conrad had many friends all over the camellia world. Hulyn Smith in Valdosta, Georgia was a mentor to him along with Pearl Terry from Orlando. Clarence and Lillian Gordy in Ocala, Florida were just like family as well. Jerry used to go visit Hulyn and the Gordys and get cuttings from their gardens to grow in his nursery. One camellia that he developed and registered was ‘Midnight Ruby’. He was very proud of this sasanqua, especially when his variety won the Ralph Peer Sasanqua award for this cultivar. He was also very instrumental in getting camellias that he did not develop distributed as well. He was known for growing and selling ‘Early Autumn’ from the Gordys and ‘Tudor Baby’ from Hulyn Smith. Probably, the most famous camellia that Jerry worked with was ‘Sweetie Pie’ that was grown by his first mentor Dale Fitzgerald. Dale’s wife Louise used to call Dale “Sweetie Pie”, so Jerry named Dale’s seedling ‘Sweetie Pie’ and registered it for him after Dale had died. Although this japonica was not Jerry’s introduction, he loved it and promoted it everywhere as if it were his own.
Probably the one thing that I miss most about Jerry was his big heart. He loved dogs and kittens and any living animal, but most of all he loved people. He could meet a perfect stranger and within just a few minutes, they would be friends for life. Financially, Jerry was not a wealthy man, but I believe that he was the richest man that I ever met. He lived his life sharing everything that he loved with everyone else. I don’t think that it can get much better than enjoying every day and sharing everything with all the people that matter.
I have had many camellia friends over the years, and I have lost way too many of them in recent times. Jerry Conrad is at the very top of that list. I will always remember him as a kind man that loved camellias, animals, and people every day of his life. I am certain that Jerry is having the time of his life today in that big camellia garden in the sky. Without a doubt, Hulyn Smith and Lillian and Gordy are all piled into a golf cart riding around to see the newest bloom that just opened. Jerry will be driving wearing that famous safari hat that always could be seen on top of his head. If you didn’t know him, now you have an idea why everyone loved Jerry. Four years ago, the camellia world lost a great camellia grower, and I lost one of my very best friends. Let’s all strive to love and share camellias like Jerry Conrad. He made our world a much better place by just being Jerry!
Gene Phillips is one of the owners of Gene’s Nursery in Savannah, Ga. He is a 2nd generation grower and attributes his love of Camellias to his father, who inspired him to breath in the beauty that they bring to him but more importantly to others. In his ‘free’ time, you’ll find him wandering through old gardens, trying to identify flowers or taking countless number of photos to share with others! He also enjoys meeting people and comparing ‘garden’ stories.