Last week, the industry lost an international expert in floral care and handling, an enthusiastic educator, a devoted volunteer and a friend to many.
Gay Smith, the longtime technical manager for Chrysal Americas and a popular speaker and writer for most industry groups, died Thursday, March 1, after a long battle with cancer. She was 63.
“The Society of American Florists is but one of many organizations who will feel an enormous void with Gay’s passing,” said SAF CEO Kate Penn. “Gay was a prolific contributor of practical, easily relatable and accurate content about how to care for flowers, both in publications and in live education. In more than 20 years of working with Gay, she never said no to SAF, whether we were asking her to write an article for Floral Management magazine, present a program or provide quality control over SAF’s Outstanding Varieties competition. Our industry’s product — and its practitioners — benefited greatly from Gay’s expertise.”
In her nearly 50-year tenure in floristry, Smith worked with professionals from every segment of the industry and made connections across several continents. For her dedicated service, she received the 2016 Society of American Florists’ President’s Award during the association’s 132nd Annual Convention in Maui, Hawaii.
“Presenting her with that award was one of my greatest honors,” said former SAF President Martin Meskers, AAF, of Oregon Flowers in Aurora, Oregon. “The look on her face when I announced her name was priceless. She was completely shocked and without words — which, as we all know, was very uncharacteristic for Gay!”
News of Smith’s death prompted an outpouring of comments from the numerous friends she made during her fruitful career.
“We knew the end was coming — and I am happy her suffering is no longer — but heaven took one of the best from us,” said Rob van der Sluis, one of Smith’s Chrysal colleagues. “I’m thankful for all I learned from her, not only about flowers but also about life. She will be sorely missed.”
“This is a devastating loss for our tight industry,” echoed BJ Dyer, AAF, AIFD, of Bouquets in Denver, Colorado, who met Smith years ago at an SAF convention, “and she went from icon to personal friend.”
“‘Brilliant’ hardly describes her depth and breath of knowledge, which she generously shared,” Dyer said. “She was patient with newbies and always had something new to offer experienced florists.”
Many members got to know Smith through SAF’s Outstanding Varieties Competition, an event featuring thousand individual stems of fresh cut product and plants, which, for years, she helped coordinate with Frank and Sarah Mischler, of Mischler’s Florist in Williamsville, New York.
“Gay was a tireless worker who knew the backrooms of flower shows better than anyone I knew,” said Frank Mischler. “We often left the Outstanding Varieties room with Gay still toiling away, and then she would already be there in the morning when we returned.”
Jody Whitekus, technical manager for Golden Flowers, always looked forward to catching up with Smith while prepping his company’s entries for the competition. “She was passionate, smart, easy to talk to and always so helpful,” he said. “Truly a beautiful person.”
Former SAF President Harrison “Red” Kennicott, AAF, a member of the Floriculture Hall of Fame, called Smith “a true professional in every sense of the word.” “Throughout her career, Gay projected a laser focus on finding ways to deliver a better flower experience to American consumers,” he said.
“It’s infrequent that we come across someone with so much passion,” said J Schwanke, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, of uBloom.com. “Gay was always digging to get new information that could help the entire industry. I knew I could count on her research when it came to care and handling.” In addition to her intelligence and ambition, Smith possessed remarkable wit and kindness, “a special combination of traits,” he said.
Smith began working for a florist in San Francisco in the late 1970s, following her studies in environmental horticulture at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, where she grew up. On the heels of that retail experience, she worked at the San Francisco Flower Market for Kitayama Brothers. By 1981, Smith had made a name for herself as the first female manager among the male-dominated world of growers and wholesalers at the market.
Smith introduced to the market the innovative idea of importing flowers from Holland, Israel and South America. At the same time, she marketed Sonoma County-grown garden roses (long before “Buy Local” was a common mantra) and established herself as an expert on unusual, unique blooms and their post-harvest needs.
Due to her keen eye, attention to detail and success in working across cultures, she was hired to open a small export business at the flower auction in Aalsmeer, Netherlands, in 1983.
Smith returned to the U.S. in 1986, and settled in Portland, Oregon, where she honed her knowledge of marketing and care and handling at Melridge Inc., one of the world’s leading breeders of new varieties of lilies and one of the nation’s largest growers of bulbs and flowers at that time. Smith also led tours to farms throughout Central America and Europe, educating her floral industry colleagues about postharvest techniques, care and handling, and how to market unique floral products.
Smith joined Chrysal in 2001 as the technical manager for North and South America, traveling to wholesalers, retailers and supermarkets country-wide, dispensing care and handling techniques, proper hydration methods and the importance of PH levels to maximize shelf life.
Smith was a strong advocate for the industry, participating on numerous SAF committees and attending SAF’s Congressional Action Days each spring. She was active with many other industry organizations, such as the Wholesale Florist and Florist Supplier Association and the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.
“We lost a valued colleague and a dear friend,” said Jim Kaplan, president of Chrysal Americas. “Gay meant the world to our international organization and will be missed greatly worldwide.”
On behalf of Chrysal’s staff, clients “and the entire industry,” Kaplan established the Gay Smith Memorial Tribute with the American Floral Endowment. “It is a fitting salute to her dedication, not only to our company, but to the industry she loved,” he said.
If you would like to honor Smith’s legacy with a contribution, click here.