The Tommy Bright Award is presented annually to a member of SAF’s Professional Floral Communicators – International. The award signifies lifetime achievement in floral presentation and is named in honor of Ethyl “Tommy” Bright.
Tommy Bright began her career in the floral industry in 1932, when she and her husband Bill opened a retail flower shop in downtown Chicago. Her thirst for knowledge and her desire to help others led her to open the Bright School of Floral Design in the early 1940s.
In 1951, Tommy decided to devote all of her time to teaching, commentating and consulting. She was a powerful creative force that changed floriculture forever. She instilled a new pride in being a florist and inspired her audiences to reach for new creative heights.
In another industry, had she chosen it, Tommy Bright might well have rivaled the fame and wealth of names such as Chanel, Dache or Valentina. Tommy Bright elected instead to follow her heritage as a third generation florist, devoting a lifetime to the world of floriculture.
The honors that came her way were many, the experiences were rich and the friends were everywhere. The hours were also long, the tangible rewards limited and the memories often bittersweet.
Tommy Bright abandoned early ambitions to become a gym teacher to work as a floral arranger in the family-owned business, Paul J. Krausse Florist, on the far south side of Chicago. Thus began a career that would ultimately win her election to the SAF Floricultural Hall of Fame, and the dedication of those who knew her to perpetuate her inspiring example of service through the Tommy Bright SAFE Memorial Fund.
As a budding designer, Tommy had no schools of floral design available to teach her the techniques of her craft. One simply learned by observation, trial and error and often disaster. On one occasion, a bride clutched the handle of her bouquet too tightly and sent 150 lilies of the valley, with their individually wrapped stems, spewing all over the aisle!
Tommy’s vow to “learn more and teach others” was made on the spot.
In the early 1940s, Bright’s School of Floral Design became a reality, drawing students from all over the world. Today, Tommy’s “children,” as she loved to call them, can be found in all strata of the floral industry.
Married in 1926 to William G. Bright, Tommy and her husband opened their own shop in downtown Chicago in 1932. Tragedy struck Tommy and her daughter, Lynn, in 1943 when Bill was killed in the crash of his army plane. Tommy continued to run her school until 1951 when nationwide demands for her services forced her to close it in order to devote full time to her other commitments as a commentator, teacher, publicist, designer and promotional consultant.
The special glow and force of the Tommy Bright personality was not limited to the spotlight. She knew people behind the scenes as well as those in the front office. A favorite in wholesale houses, she is clearly remembered by the men who packed up her flowers for her and shared the latest family snapshots.
Though her travels took her all over the country and even as far away as South Africa, Tommy was never comfortable on planes; she always preferred her favorite trains in and out of Chicago where the porters were old friends. It was not unusual to see Tommy and one of her train porters on a jaunt into a nearby field during a stopover. Tommy would gather wild flowers or a weedy bouquet of dried materials, which she might later identify to an audience, eyes twinkling, as Roadsidiana or Supurba or, if especially “rare,” as Supurba Gloriosa Elegance!
Tommy’s affection for the young was warm and genuine. She often spurned convention parties in preference to an informal exchange of ideas with students, frequently joining them along the way in making centerpieces for the evening banquet or setting up chairs.
Tommy Bright loved elegance in design whether in flowers, fine antiques, classical music or paintings. She also loved thunderstorms, ice cream and the floral industry which she “scolded” like a mother hen. Growers were urged to develop better flowers with good colors and longer lasting qualities. Wholesalers were reminded to keep containers clean and handle flowers with care. Suppliers were enjoined to develop better containers, candles, preservatives and advertising programs. Retailers… her children… were inspired to expand their talents and raise their standards.
It has been said that Tommy Bright ennobled her profession. Her personal magnetism unleashed a new creative force in floriculture and instilled new pride in being a florist. This small, blonde bundle of effervescence and energy leaves a living legacy, not only through the knowledge which she shared so willingly, but through the warmth of a gentle and loving spirit which touched all who knew her.