Jo Ellen “Joey” Schwanke, AAF, NAFD, PFCI, dedicated her life to flowers. From a childhood spent playing at — and later operating — the family greenhouses and flower shop, to her leadership at several floral organizations, her world revolved around the floral industry.
“She always lived her life in the flower industry,” says her son, J Schwanke, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, host of the public television show “Life in Bloom.”
Schwanke died March 10 in Omaha, Nebraska. She was 91.
Born into a family that was the second-generation running Greens Greenhouses in Fremont, Nebraska, Joey rang up her first order at the flower shop at age eight and continued to learn the art of design and the fundamentals of running a business. She married Mel Schwanke, AAF, whose passion for flowers matched that of his wife’s. Together, the pair built a life around flowers. They took on leadership roles in several floral organizations , including the Society of American Florists, and earned a reputation for their dedication to the industry — and each other.
The Schwankes ran their business all while advocating for flowers on Capitol Hill, leading the Nebraska Floral Society and NeMoKan (the Nebraska Missouri and Kansas Florist Association Convention), and taking on leadership roles at SAF. Their son recalls that growing up, he and his sisters accepted early on that their lives, too, would revolve around flowers.
“Nothing was more important than flowers,” he says, recalling the story of his birth at a Nebraska hotel where Joey was snowed in while running a flower conference, and later, family “vacations” to SAF conventions, which his parents attended for 46 consecutive years.
The couple were a regular fixture for more than two decades at SAF’s Congressional Action Days, where they met and befriended former Senator Bob Dole, and visited with first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.
Joey served on SAF’s Retail Council and was part of the PFCI Board of Trustees. In 2003 she was awarded the Tommy Bright Award, honoring her for a lifetime achievement in floral presentation. Mel, who died in 2018, was SAF president from 1977 to 1979.
“As a couple, Mel and Joey were this incredibly charming, iconic floral industry couple — once you met them, you never forgot them,” says SAF CEO Kate Penn. “And they each made an indelible mark on the industry, especially when it came to the role of associations in elevating education and peer-to-peer networking.”
René van Rems, AIFD, PFCI, was a close of friend of the Schwankes. He remembers Joey for her “sheer will and ambition,” and says she is a shining example for others in the industry that hard work pays off.
“If you pay attention to stories like [theirs], you’ll realize the more you put in, the more you get out,” he says. “You just give it your all for the greater good — and it’s amazing the ripple effect. It comes back when you least expect it. That’s what they did.”
After selling family business (now known as Green’s Florist) to their delivery driver, the Schwankes continued working at the shop, often delivering flowers to churches and mortuaries.
The couple was also known as the “Famous Matching Couple.” They had 146 coordinating outfits — a dress for Joey with a matching tie for Mel. They dressed to complement each other for more nearly 40 years, a sign of affection that drew attention from the Today Show, AOL, HuffPost and Readers Digest.
J Schwanke finds comfort knowing that his parents, who were married for 70 years, are together again.
“All she ever said was, ‘I just want to be with dad,’” he says.
Amanda Jedlinsky is managing editor of SAF Now.