Melvin H. Schwanke, AAF, former president of the Society of American Florists, member of the association’s exclusive Floriculture Hall of Fame and enthusiastic flower evangelist, died Monday, December 17 at his home in Fremont, Nebraska. He was 92 years old.
“He had an incredible life — filled to the brim with flowers and friends,” said his son, J Schwanke, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, founder of uBloom.com. “He loved our great industry so much and all the people in it.”
Famous for his ever-present smile, red carnation on his lapel and colorful ties and pocket squares (always perfectly coordinated with his beloved wife Joey’s dress), Mel Schwanke was a fixture at various industry events, including SAF’s annual convention and Congressional Action Days, for much of the last century. Emphatic that flowers make the world more wonderful and that more people should enjoy them more often, he relished these occasions as opportunities to boost his business acumen, strategize with his peers and share his message.
SAF CEO Kate Penn recalled tagging along for the Schwankes’ congressional office visits during CAD back when she was a staff writer.
“Watching Mel and Joey walk into those meetings, I’m sure the young congressional staffers saw this sweet older couple in matching outfits and thought there’d be some light small talk and they’d be done. Little did they know!” she said. “Anyone who’s sat on the other side of a table from Mel knows, when he felt strongly about something, he was very focused and clear about it. I’m sure he can take some of the credit for the progress we’ve made on legislative issues over the years.”
Anyone who met Schwanke quickly discovered “his profound belief in the power of flowers to express emotions, as well as his dedication to doing whatever he could to help our industry sell more flowers,” Penn said.
Schwanke’s devotion earned him membership into SAF’s Floriculture Hall of Fame, the industry’s most prestigious honor, in 1990. Additionally, he was the executive director of the Nebraska Florist Society for more than 50 years and the longtime leader of NeMoKan, the Nebraska Missouri and Kansas Florist Association Convention. He served on numerous committees, including SAF’s Retailers Council, and helped form the American Floral Endowment to fund research and scholarships in floriculture for the benefit of growers, wholesalers, retailers, allied industry organizations and the general public.
Lynn Lary McLean, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, TMF, recipient of the 2011 Tommy Bright Award for lifetime achievement in floral education, described Schwanke as her mentor. “I remember him from my earliest involvement in the industry,” she said. “He was always there to lend support and offer advice. He made an incredible difference and truly was a friend to all he met along the way.”
Dianna Nordman, AAF, executive director of the Texas State Florists’ Association, echoed these sentiments. “Mel was always so kind and inclusive,” she said. “He introduced me to many. This industry will miss him dearly.”
“He was a floral industry ambassador to the max,” said fellow Hall of Fame member Dwight Larimer, AAF, PFCI, president of DESIGN MASTER color tool, inc., in Boulder, Colorado, who had “too many memories” from his decades-long friendship with Schwanke to pinpoint a favorite. “He held a special place in my family’s heart because he could have been an identical twin to my wife Dawn’s father — both in his good looks and his gentle manner!”
A relative newcomer to the floral industry, Michael LoBue, CEO of the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers, never had the pleasure of meeting Schwanke — but he has felt the icon’s influence.
A few years ago, when chatting with J Schwanke, LoBue mentioned that he thought his organization needed an aspirational slogan. “For decades, they saw their role as ‘delivering flowers faster and fresher to the market.’ To me, that seemed incomplete,” he explained. “It was a necessary condition for success, but insufficient by itself.” The way he saw it, unless the market for flowers expanded, that speediness was moot. “J said, ‘that’s one of my dad’s favorite sayings — we need to have more customers enjoying more flowers,’” LoBue recalled. “Within seconds, we had our message: ‘More Americans, enjoying more flowers more often.’ It was all Mel’s idea and vision.”
At age 17, Schwanke enlisted in the United States Marine Corps — to the initial chagrin of his father, an Army officer in World War I. He served for nearly two years in World War II, before sustaining multiple injuries from a grenade during the Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault and bloodiest campaign in the Pacific Theater. He was hospitalized for 11 months and awarded the Purple Heart for his experience.
Upon returning to civilian life, Mel Schwanke married his sweetheart, Joey Green, AAF, PFCI, on May 12, 1948, and joined her family’s business, Green’s Greenhouses (now Green’s Florist) which he helped modernize tremendously.
“Mel brought us into the 20th century. He was willing to — and could do — anything,” Joey Schwanke recounted in a 2013 blog post celebrating the business’s 117-year history. “He learned to do electrical work, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, as well as floral design. He learned propagating, fumigating, harvesting, seeding, planting, benching, potting — you name it!”
A man of faith, deeply thankful for his safe return from war, Schwanke was an active member of Trinity Lutheran Church, which will host his funeral service, Friday, December 21 at 1 p.m. His visitation will be Thursday, December 20, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Ludvigsens Funeral Home in Fremont, Nebraska.
Mel is survived by his wife, Joey; his children, Jo Heinz, Cindy McKown and J Schwanke; four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Katie Hendrick Vincent is the senior contributing writer for the Society of American Florists.