When Sten Crissey, AAF, walked into the White House in the spring of 1990, he looked around the room and took a deep breath.
Crissey, then president of the Society of American Florists, and a group of SAF members had been invited to the Yellow Oval Room to induct Barbara Bush into the American Academy of Floriculture. Mrs. Bush was a lifelong lover of flowers and plants. The designation is a high honor in the floral industry, and Crissey felt intimidated by his surroundings. Then, he saw the First Lady.
“Whatever thoughts I had about being overwhelmed disappeared when I saw her smile,” he said. “She was so gracious. She made us feel like we were walking into her personal home.”
During his remarks, Crissey drew a parallel between Mrs. Bush’s efforts as First Lady to improve literacy with the work of SAF members. “I spoke about the commonality we had, in caring for the welfare of families,” he explained. “She expressed that through her literacy campaigns, and we expressed it by helping our industry’s small family businesses.”
Crissey also remembers telling Mrs. Bush how much he admired her commitment to her values and her family, invoking a phrase made popular by her husband. “As the president envisions a thousand points of light, for us in the floral industry, you are a prism of inspiration,” he said.
Before and after the presentation, Mrs. Bush chatted amiably with the SAF members, displaying both warmth and humor: Earlier that same day a group of farmers had publicly donated boxes of broccoli to Washington, D.C.-area food banks in a good-hearted rebuke of President Bush’s well-known disdain for the vegetable. Mrs. Bush said she was delighted by the stunt.
The AAF presentation at the White House happened during SAF’s annual Congressional Action Days; it was the first year Terril Nell, Ph.D., AAF, attended the event. Like Crissey, he was struck by Mrs. Bush’s kindness.
“She greeted everyone personally and was very gracious talking about her love of gardening,” said Nell, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida, former SAF president and the current research coordinator for the American Floral Endowment. “When she got to me and saw ‘University of Florida’ on my name tag, her whole demeanor changed. She said, ‘Do you know my Jeb? I had to tell her that no, I didn’t know her son, and then she immediately said, ‘Well, I really hope you get to meet him some day.’ I’ll never forget how genuine she was, how her whole face lit up when she talked about her family.”
Red Kennicott, AAF, another former SAF president, shared a similar memory. Kennicott traveled from Chicago for the event, bringing along his youngest daughter, Sarah, a high schooler at the time, to meet the First Lady.
“Mrs. Bush was extremely generous and kind to all of our group and especially to the younger people, both with her time and interest, and in allowing photos,” he said.
SAF coordinated the floral decorations for the public events of the inaugurations of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
After Mrs. Bush died last week at the age of 92, mourners at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston gathered to celebrate her long life, and flowers played a central role in the services. Pictures of the First Lady’s casket, adorned with an elegant spray of roses and other cut flowers in springtime hues, ran on news shows and in publications around the globe.
Bill McKinley, the director of Texas A&M’s Benz School of Floral Design, created two wreaths near her gravesite. He used pink roses, sprigs of cherry blossoms (a reference to the Bush family’s time in D.C. and China) and foliage intended to honor her gardening love. He also draped a string of faux pearls along the stands.
“Obviously it was an honor and a privilege to be able to pay tribute to such a well-respected, iconic almost, personality in our country,” McKinley told The Eagle, a local publication.
Charity Reel of Mayesh said local florists were sourcing peonies, garden roses, lilacs and garden-style flowers for sympathy design work. “The trend was a blush color and feminine, high-end flower requests,” said Reel, sales manager for the wholesaler’s Houston location. “We had retail floral businesses and event companies all coming to us for the last-minute flower orders.”
Mark Ruisinger of Mark Anthony Florist in Houston said he imagined “just about every florist in Houston received orders.”
“It was a frantic morning for our wholesaler, but the funeral was very well organized,” Ruisinger said. During the service, he was at a client’s home, prepping for a separate event, when he saw some of the buses ferrying people to the church.
Mory Azadi of Tanglewood Flowers & Garden said customers who called his shop wanted “very specific” flowers and colors — in particular, people wanted a yellow rose, in honor of Texas.
“We had customers calling in from all over, it wasn’t’ just Houstonians,” said Azadi, who also hosted a news crew during the busy period.
As for the funeral itself, “I’ve never seen anything like it here, with the road closures and blocked streets, but it was very organized and very efficient, and for local florists, familiar with Houston and the sites, it was easy to get in and deliver our designs,” Azadi said. “I was honored to be a small part of this. She was an important and beloved person.”