Once upon a time, there lived in the Kansas Panhandle a twelve-year-old boy named Elvin McDonald.
Like most twelve-year-olds, he had an abiding interest in something interesting. His interest? Raising plants.
In the late 1940s, he read an article in a magazine called Flower and Garden, about a type of flowering plant called a Gloxinian. A Gloxinian is a kind of cousin to the African violet,
and can in some species produce amazing indoor flowering plants.
Elvin's effort to cultivate gloxes arose when he read the article, but success eluded him. When he was fourteen, he ran an advertisement in the back of Flower and Garden. He suggested that
folks start a Gloxinian society. People got attached to this idea, including adults who were willing to share Elvin's vision. By the time he graduated high school, the magazine they started, the Gloxinian, of which Elvin was co-editor, had some 3,000 subscribers.
Larger things awaited Elvin, as he began to spend time in Kansas City. By age 19, he landed a job on the editorial staff of Flower and Garden. He moved to New York City and launched his career. He wrote some fifty books about hanging gardens and indoor plants and orchids, among other things. His avocation was singing, and he took college courses in voice avocationally. He married, had children, and one day became a key garden editor for Better Homes and Gardens.
Some term him the "dean" of garden editors, and he lectured and promoted gardening extensively. He became a Secretary Emeritus for the American Horticultural Society, among other titles, labels, and honors.
The Gloxinian Society, by the way, is now the "Gesneriad Society", and is still going strong.
After this burst of reading, I do not know if Elvin, who must be 69 or so if he is still alive,
is a good guy or a not-so-good guy. I don't know what challenges he faced, or what compromises he made or avoided. I do not know what longings he had that were not fulfilled, and what fulfillments he achieved beyond his wildest longing.
But I do have in my mind that image of a young teen in the Kansas Panhandle, trying to grow a tropical-ish near-Gloxinian in a greenhouse on the prairie, watching his mailbox as people all over the country wrote in to join his garden society. I imagine the thrill of being 19 and working at the magazine one only read articles from years before. This fellow lacked notable family connections, an Ivy League education, or any of the other natural advantages that reputedly accompany success--or so I believe, not really knowing much about Elvin at all.
I am unabashedly on the side of those who go and not only dream but do. They don't always succeed, and sometimes they have to redefine success. When they do succeed, sometimes the things they thought would be successful are unimportant, and the things they discounted as unimportant they believe to be success.
I have a weakness for house plants because it lacks omse of the rampant consumerism of other hobbies. One can get into the pursuit in a worthy way with a little empty space, some fluorescent lights and windows, a jar or two for terraria, and bulbs, cuttings or seeds. The hobby rewards patience, a good eye, and disciplined attention. Sadly, one has to bury one's mistakes.
Although I don't know Elvin at all--and certainly not well enough to call him by first name--I admire Elvin a great deal. I believe that one can get places with pluck, courage, and hard work far more often than one might imagine. There's no one "silver bullet" to success, but it makes a good story when a fellow like Elvin comes along and shows it can be done.
I think today's generation is different than Elvin's--it's easier to find opportunities now than in his time. Elvin is an antidote to the consumerism of status and degree, even if, in fact, one of his best friends was a now-departed socialite. For all I know, Elvin may (or may not) be a snob, and I am certainly no assiduous reader of Better Homes and Gardens.
Yet I hope and believe that Elvin is still the 14 year old who wrote an ad in a national garden magazine, hunting fellow enthusiasts for what was then a mildly obscure family of plants. It's like the O. Henry story, about how these are the Magi, except that sometimes you don't need the O.Henry twist. The people who give of themselves to a pursuit, and end up giving to others--those people never cease to impress me. I am not much for meeting celebrities, and yet I'd write a fan letter to Elvin, I think, talking about miniature begonias, and cacti I have known.