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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
He gathers his rosebuds where he may and then gives them all away. Now be off, there are visits to keep, and miles to go before he will sleep.
By Jeff Klinkenberg
Published July 22, 2007
He's a freehearted florist. What else would you call a man who tends 224 rosebushes, picks the flowers, trims their thorns and whisks them for free to dozens of folks around town? That indeed is Willard Campbell, 85, the Rose Man of Lake Placid. "It does give me some pleasure," he says.
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Willard Campbell starts his day an hour before dawn. Could be you can't take the military out of the man. Or his passion for roses.
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The Rose Man stops at the office of Sarah McDannold. Got to go. Tight schedule.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Willard Campbell, the Rose Man of Lake Placid, has been known to sleep. The other day he went to bed at midnight and slumbered five hours. He also napped 45 minutes after lunch.
His reason for being is the cultivation and distribution of roses. For two decades he has grown and given them away by the thousands. That's given away as in free - at a time when a good florist might charge anywhere from $20 to $100 for a dozen.
The Rose Man gives them to hospital patients and to residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. He gives them to bank tellers, waitresses, dental hygienists. His wife, Opal, receives a daily rose, too.
In Lake Placid, population 1,700, the Rose Man is regarded as a kind of Santa Claus. His likeness is even on one of the Central Florida city's celebrated murals.
"I don't know anyone who is more beloved in this community," says Eileen May, the Chamber of Commerce director, after receiving her weekly allotment of roses.
"Well," allows the Rose Man without a smile. "It does give me some pleasure."
The Rose Man, who is 85, isn't much of a talker. He's taciturn by nature, and besides, he doesn't hear well. He spent World War II in a tank only inches away from blazing artillery. Even with state-of-the-art hearing aids he is likely to sound bewildered from time to time. How often does he sprinkle his noses? Why would anyone need to sprinkle a nose?
In his work as do-gooder, talking and hearing are overrated qualities. The same might be said about his olfactories. "I got the sinus problems," he admits. Even if he took the time to slow down, he couldn't smell the roses.
The roses need him, though, and he needs them. "If I set around doing nothing I'd be a dead man," he says. "I got to keep busy."
The Rose Man is less a bloom than a mature blossom. He ambulates through his garden and through his life on artificial knees. Two quadruple bypasses keep his ticker ticking. He doesn't like to tend his spectacular, though low to the ground, miniature tea roses.
But tend them he does.
- - -
Before he became the Rose Man he was a coal miner. Born in Kentucky, he sounds like Loretta Lynn's daddy in Coal Miner's Daughter. "Tired" comes out "tarred," not that he ever is. He calls his rose bushes - 224 await his TLC in his sprawling back yard on Lake June-in-Winter - "my fellers."
He grew up poor but always felt rich. His folks were known for their Jack-in-the-Beanstalk vegetable patch, and what food they couldn't grow Willard supplied with his shotgun. Even now he wouldn't mind fried rabbit for supper.
He joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, serving in Africa and Italy. He stayed in the military for 23 years, then became a home builder. After he retired he moved to Florida and became the Rose Man.
In Kentucky, his wife Opal - they have been married 65 years - grew the roses. But she has a bad back and it has been years since she could bend painlessly. So he took it up. When he takes up a hobby, the hobby ceases to be a hobby.
After his first heart attack his doctor ordered him to give up everything strenuous, especially hunting. So he began fishing for speckled perch. Speck fishing for most mortals is a relaxing, cane-pole, just-what-the-doctor-ordered kind of activity. Willard Campbell made work of it, customizing his pontoon boat into a speck-catching machine complete with lights and bait wells and comfortable seating.
For some folks, growing beautiful flowers is a similarly relaxing hobby. Plant, fertilize, water, retreat to the house, watch television in air-conditioned comfort, go outside after supper to see how the roses are doing.
Nothing wrong with the minimalist approach to rose growing. But nobody will ever accuse the Rose Man of taking a short cut.
- - -
The Rose Man likes to be up an hour or so before dawn. As soon as it's light enough to see, he heads into the yard.
He wears gloves. He carries clippers. He doesn't talk to the roses; he doesn't sing to them. He's not a crazy man, after all.
He clips one rose from this bush, another from a different rose variety. He operates what has to be the most organized rose garden in the state. The bushes are lined up in ridiculously neat rows. The earth below them is hidden under flawlessly arranged plastic to keep weeds in check.
"This here fella is a Marilyn Monroe," he says, inspecting his bushes like the master sergeant he once was. In life, the real Miss Monroe likely was never called a "fella." The rose variety that bears her name is blond, however, with many thorns.
He fertilizes, herbicides, frets about manure, peat, black mildew. Says "Thank God we don't get Japanese beetles, though we do have thrips," and gives his roses something to drink. He carries harvested roses into the house, places them in vases - they are lined up on neat shelves by the hundreds - and puts the vases into the fridge.
Around 9 a.m. he packs the Rose Mobile, a 2007 Lincoln Town Car. It has a cavernous trunk and long back seat. The Rose Man being the Rose Man, he designed special carrying crates for his roses. Each crate hauls a dozen vases without spilling water and hurting the roses.
He drives to Wachovia Bank. He carries in the roses - from the rear he looks something like an old-fashioned milkman making deliveries - and places a vase at each teller window without ever saying a word.
At the Heartland National Bank, teller Teresa Trujillo jokes, "It's always a pleasant surprise when a man brings me roses."
The Rose Man doesn't crack a smile. "Where are the vases?" he asks. He has trained everybody in town to recycle vases. They are supposed to have them ready for pickup when he arrives.
In the car he explains his no-nonsense philosophy, "If I spend too much time talkin' my roses are gonna wilt."
At Florida Hospital every nurse station receives a vase. So does every patient. The ones in the psych ward get plastic vases, just in case.
The Rose Man doesn't sweep into a patient's room like Errol Flynn, bowing from the waist and announcing "Greetings, milady." He's not a swashbuckler. However, he likes to hear "Thank you."
Not everybody accommodates him.
"One time this patient, she said to me, 'I don't want no rose. Take it out of here.' The nurses told me she was a little squirrely."
Jeanne Fortier, who owns Home and Office Essentials, is thrilled to receive her weekly gift. "Here's one of them good-smellin' roses for you," says the Rose Man.
"Usually he isn't happy with his roses," Fortier whispers. "He'll tell me, 'marginal roses today' or 'wind-blown.' "
He still laments Hurricane Charley's charge across Central Florida in 2004. "Charley 'bout tore me up," he says, marching out of the store. After Charley he had to replant his roses.
In the parking lot, a woman gazes in wonder at the roses inside the yawning car trunk.
"Do you sell them?" she asks.
"I give 'em away."
"How can I get some?"
"Well, you got to be a patient in the hospital."
- - -
At home, he washes vases sometimes into the wee hours. He prepares equipment for the morrow. Ask him about mortality and he isn't sure what you mean. He won't say, "You know I'm a little worried about what's going to happen to my roses when I'm gone. I'm sad that the people who depend on my roses won't get them anymore."
He's no sob sister, mister.
When he's gone, the tradition of the Rose Man will die with him.
"This is expensive," he says, calculating aloud. Let's see. He spends about $15,000 a year on his roses, plus equipment and gas and his own valuable time.
"Who's going to do that?" he asks.
Mail arrives. He has a rose for his carrier. At the kitchen table, the Rose Man's wife sorts through the day's delivery.
Opal opens a letter from a South Florida woman named Norma Attardi. Norma's aging mother was a patient in a nursing home, where she received roses from the Rose Man.
"My Mom passed away a couple of weeks ago," Norma writes in the letter. "But I can only say thank you for the lovely roses you gave her and the pleasure she got from them."
"Isn't that a lovely letter?" Opal says to her husband.
"Oh, we got boxes of letters like that," says the Rose Man. Then he goes off to find some clean vases.