One of a Kind By Tim Hodson

Anyone who ever met Jack Williams will always remember his laugh, his smile and the twinkle in his eye — but what everyone appreciates is his dedication and commitment to advancing the horticulture industry. That’s why Jack Williams is GPN’s 2011 Hort Hero!

Unselfish. Persevering. Loyal. Nurturing. Authentic. Compassionate. Determined. Creative. Fun loving.

These are the types of words that are often used to describe a hero. They are also words that describe Jack Williams.

The horticulture industry lost a hero last October when Jack died unexpectedly at the age of 54 while traveling in Australia. Officially, Jack was the international product manager and technical support representative for Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif. Unofficially, he was an ambassador for and to the horticulture industry. He is also GPN‘s 2011 Hort Hero.

Jack was the industry’s go-to guy. He was an expert plantsman who could communicate at all levels. His empathy and compassion he exhibited for people, plants and our industry was remarkable. During Jack’s career he left a lasting and positive impression on nearly everyone he came in contact with.

“No one exhibited more enthusiasm on a daily basis than Jack. He is literally known the world over, and I have always called him a ‘rock star’ in our industry,” Paul Ecke, Ecke Ranch, remarked at the time of Jack’s death.

When you were around Jack Williams you were guaranteed to smile, laugh and always learn something. His positive attitude, vast knowledge and resourcefulness were unlike any other. Williams joined Ecke Ranch in 1984. For more than a quarter of a century, he was involved in the evaluation, selection and introduction of Ecke Ranch’s new products and the company’s international crops divisions, Ecke Europe and PLA.

His focus included not only Ecke poinsettias but all of the company’s annual bedding plants, geraniums, kalanchoe and other vegetative annual crops produced and sold by the Ecke companies as well. In addition to working with product development, production and the sales and marketing groups for new plant introductions, he also supplied technical support in the form of production documents, magazine articles, crop production books and grower seminars.

Jack also served on the editorial advisory board of GPN for nearly 15 years as well as for our sister publication, Lawn & Garden Retailer.

The Communicator/Educator

Jack Williams was a person that helped people “get it,” whatever “it” was. He could communicate with people at so many different levels, but his goal was to always help them be better. His mother was a master teacher and according to Jack’s wife Cheryl, that’s who inspired him to teach.

“Jack had such a passion for this industry. I know that other people have a passion, but Jack had the innate ability to communicate that passion in such a way that he inspired other people to be equally passionate,” declares Faith Savage, Syngenta Flowers.

“He always talked to people as if he were their friend. And he just had the uncanny ability to really hit the point that would help them be better. He could take his knowledge, and instead of just communicating his knowledge, he would communicate it in a way that related to the person he was talking with or doing the seminar for — and then they could take that knowledge and as a result be better for it,” Savage says, “and he did it in such a friendly and positive way.”

“He was the best communicator, whether it was one-on-one or in front of a 1,000 people,” says Lloyd Traven, owner of Peace Tree Farm. “He had endless knowledge at the tip of his fingers and he always knew exactly how to answer someone’s question.”

“He never lectured but asked questions and helped you to discover an answer, he never tried to tell you an answer,” remarks Lori Ball at Ecke Ranch. “I have seen him walk crops with growers and he first asked questions and skillfully steered the conversation to help a grower understand the issue, not to walk a crop and lecture about what his opinion was of the crop.”

“Last October, he and I visited a trial location and he used the same technique with me, asking what our goals were for the day and with his questions and guidance we were able to read the trial and make some good selections,” Ball says. “He was so good that my last vision of him was in my rear view mirror as I drove out of the parking lot thinking to myself that he was the sly one, sneaking a lesson into what for me had been a fun day.”

Contributing to the Industry

Ask anyone who knew Jack and they will tell you he was probably the most unselfish person in the industry. “It was what he was all about. It wasn’t about Jack. It was about the industry and helping others succeed,” Savage says.

Snow Maestas, formerly of Ecke Ranch, says “Jack would say, ‘If I can help you be better, it is better for the industry. It is better for the planet. It’s just a better world.’ That is how he lived his life.”

“I think that Jack’s real genius, though, was the instinctive way he had of letting others know that he valued them and their ideas while at the same time transplanting within them a passion for plants and the industry. I watched him work his magic on more than one occasion, planting a seed of an idea in an infertile mind, helping the individual cultivate the idea, evaluating its potential fruit, and then stepping back as the idea took root — allowing the individual to take credit for the idea,” says Steve Carver at OFA.

Jack “was not limited in his range of where he constantly contributed to our industry’s success,” Andy Higgins at Ecke Ranch says.

Growing Growers

Jack had a deep and vast knowledge about all things horticultural and loved helping others learn and grow.

“He was a genius plantsman,” Traven says. “Jack knew how important and crucial it was to give back to the industry. He believed he owed something to the next generation [of growers.]”

“Jack knew plants and had a brilliance for sharing that knowledge with others,” states OFA’s Steve Carver. “He was imaginative and persuasive.” GPN’s editorial advisor Jim Barrett from the University of Florida liked the two different Jacks — “the fun loving guy that enjoyed being around people, talking and having fun. But Jack’s technical side — I enjoyed many long conversations about poinsettia varieties and the details of crop culture. Jack truly enjoyed interacting with growers and helping solve problems and encouraging them to become better growers.”

“Jack made a difference as his overriding drive was to make the grower more successful. He was vigilant in his quest to provide grower support, often going the extra mile to help someone with a crop problem,” says Ecke Ranch’s Andy Higgins. “He was relentless in his conviction to do what was right overall.”

Family Man

No matter where he was in the world, no matter what he was doing, his family was always his top priority. Williams leaves behind his wife of 30 years, Cheryl, and children, Stephen and Bethany who were everything to him.

“He was truly blessed — he loved his family, and he loved his work. No one exhibited more enthusiasm on a daily basis than Jack,” shares Paul Ecke. “Family is what counted to him the most,” Traven says. “No matter what he was doing, no matter where he was, that is where his heart was ALWAYS É with his family.”

“Jack was very passionate about life and everything he did, especially his family and friends,” Maestas says. “He lived life to the fullest. He lived each moment fully and each moment was important to him. He made it count.”

It will be a long time (if ever) before this industry sees a person like Jack Williams. But his contributions will live on in the “students” he helped educate and the industry that he helped promote.

Barrett sums it up very well when he says, “Jack did not have to put in the hours that he did traveling the world, talking to growers, working on Short Course programs, answering questions and saying ‘yes’ to every request for his time or assistance, but he did. And he did make this industry a better place!”

The Creative Side

Jack Williams knew the technical side of growing incredibly well, but he was also very creative. Jack’s passion “combined with a huge out-of-the-box creative focus allowed him to envision solutions or concepts well ahead of his time, or that of the grower’s,” Ecke Ranch’s Andy Higgins states.

He adds, “Jack could switch instantly from providing growth regulator rates and recommendations to developing creative concepts for color trends or marketing messages in our catalog.”

Lloyd Traven, Peace Tree Farms, says Jack was a pioneer when it comes to combination plantings. “He was so far ahead of the curve” when it came to creating unique and innovative combinations that growers could grow and grow profitably. Traven says Jack was always able to produce a mixed combination that had the right timing, the right varieties and the right look that growers could grow and consumers would buy.

“[Jack’s] creativity and passion for our products, our company and our industry were truly far reaching. The only limits were those of his creative mind. He was able to convey these ideas in ways that we could understand and execute. He connected all of the dots for growers and marketers alike,” Higgins says.

A Hero’s Legacy Lives On

Jack Williams’ desire to help advance the horticulture industry and continue to learn will live on thanks to a new scholarship fund.

OFA — the Association of Horticulture Professionals has created the Jack Williams Scholarship fund in Jack’s memory and “to support the college education of future horticulturists.” Jack’s devotion to plants and his enthusiasm for our industry is something to pass on to emerging professionals.

OFA will manage the scholarship fund as part of its OFA Scholars Program. Williams played an integral role in grower education at OFA, where he served on the board of directors and the grower committee during his career. He spent 15 years on the grower committee, including about 10 of which he served as either chair or co-chair.

“Jack made ample use of [his] skills and traits in his involvement with OFA, helping it to grow in relevance to our industry in a way that few others have,” says’ OFA’s Steve Carver.

As a member of the grower committee, Williams was instrumental in developing new concepts, keeping programs fresh and introducing new talent to the OFA Short Course roster of speakers.

Williams wrote articles for the OFA Bulletin and chapters for the OFA Tips book series. He also spoke at Short Course on numerous occasions, as well as other outreach education workshops on behalf of OFA.

If you would like to contribute to the scholarship fund, you can send donations to The Jack Williams Scholarship Fund c/o OFA, 2130 Stella Court, Columbus, OH 43215 or visit