In Memoriam – Lillian Gilchrist, Walt Long, Gay Smith
The industry lost several icons this winter. Canadian Florist reflects on their lives and legacies.
Lillian Gilchrist, beloved wife, mother, and grandmother, passed away on Tuesday, February 13, at the age of 96.
The first female recipient of the prestigious Cecil Delworth award, Gilchrist spent nearly the entirety of her career working in the floral industry, most notably serving as the office manager for Flowers Canada. In the organization’s early years, she ran the office out of her own home.
Gilchrist started out as a secretary for the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, and then moved onto her office manager position with Flowers Canada. She also worked as manager of industry relations for United Flowers by Wire Canada (a precursor to Teleflora Canada) and as office manager for Ivey’s Wholesale.
At United Flowers, Gilchrist produced marketing materials and calendars for florists. “She was quite proud of the ‘Made in Canada’ selection guide,” recalled Lynn Freeman, former owner of Martin’s the Flower People in Toronto. “She was very keen on knowing what was going on in the floral industry. She learned best practices from different florists and growers, and was eager to pass on the information.”
Gilchrist, who was a working mother during the height of her career, was a master juggler, said her daughter, Claudette Westbrook.
“She was a woman ahead of her time. No one’s mother was quite like mine. She really did seem to do it all,” Westbrook said. “She always worked her schedule around us. When we did carpool, nobody really liked it when my mother was the driver, because we were rushing around to get in the car. My mom wanted to get to work.”
Westbrook says her mother’s passion for the floral industry was ignited by the people she got to know over the years, whether it was working together in the office, travelling around Canada on Flowers Canada business, or preparing feasts during the yearly Flowers Canada meetings she would host in her home.
Gilchrist was an ardent gardener who loved geraniums and enjoyed searching alongside her husband, Jack, for “rocks with character” to put in their rockery. Friends recalled her sense of humour, as well as her sense of style. She had a penchant for wearing outrageously colourful outfits and bright red lipstick and paying the beauty parlour a visit once a week.
“She was fun and interesting, and she was interested in everyone and everything,” said Freeman. “She had high standards for her work and expected the same from everyone else. And she certainly could laugh.”
Walter Long, husband, father, and grandfather, passed away on Tuesday, February 13, at the age of 92.
Long spent his career working on the hard goods supply side of the floral industry for a small company in Port Dover, Ontario, where he made lifelong friends. Additionally, he served as a director and president of Flowers Canada. For his dedication to the industry, he received the Cecil Delworth award.
His brother, Merritt, described Long as the life of the party, particularly after floral conventions.
“Walt was a friend to many people in the industry,” he said. “The partying would start at the business end of it when we would all go out to dinner together.”
Long was also extremely dedicated to his community, where he served as chairman on three school boards, held seats on the City of Nanticoke Council, served as chair of the Port Dover Harbour Marina board, and was voted Citizen of the Year. He also received the Queens Jubilee medal, the Melvin Jones award, and was a lifelong member of the Port Dover Lions Club.
Ann L’Ecuyer Musselman, a professional floral designer in Port Dover, spoke of Long’s kindness. After Long heard her daughter passed away, he showed up at her store after hours to comfort her.
“Just before he went into the hospital and we lost him, I was parking behind him downtown and I got out I and teased him, saying he’d driven right past my driveway and hadn’t waved. He laughed and expressed concern that he’d perhaps not left enough room for me to park,” L’Ecuyer Musselman said. “That was Walt. Always a smile, always a kind word.”
Gay Smith, the longtime technical manager for Chrysal Americas, a popular speaker for most industry groups in North America, and a Canadian Florist columnist, died March 1, after a long battle with cancer. She was 63.
In her nearly 50-year tenure in floristry, Smith worked with professionals from every segment of the industry and made connections across several continents. News of Smith’s death prompted an outpouring of comments from the numerous friends from across the globe she made during her fruitful career.
“We knew the end was coming—and I am happy her suffering is no longer—but heaven took one of the best from us,” said Rob van der Sluis, a Chrysal colleague in Kitchener, Ontario. “I’m thankful for all I learned from her, not only about flowers but also about life. She will be sorely missed.”
“Really sorry to hear of her passing,” said Doug Munro of Growers Direct in Edmonton, Alberta. “Gay was such a positive and knowledgeable individual—a real asset to our industry. She will be missed.”
“This is a loss for all flower-minded people,” said Bjorn Bierman of Bercomex, a Netherlands-based company that specializes in automated cut flower processing. “She had a great spirit!”
“It’s infrequent that we come across someone with so much passion,” said J Schwanke, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, of uBloom.com. “Gay was always digging to get new information that could help the entire industry. I knew I could count on her research when it came to care and handling.” In addition to her intelligence and ambition, Smith possessed remarkable wit and kindness, “a special combination of traits,” he said.
Smith began working for a florist in San Francisco in the late 1970s, following her studies in environmental horticulture at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, where she grew up. On the heels of that retail experience, she worked at the San Francisco Flower Market for Kitayama Brothers. By 1981, Smith had made a name for herself as the first female manager among the male-dominated world of growers and wholesalers at the market.
Smith introduced to the market the innovative idea of importing flowers from Holland, Israel, and South America. At the same time, she marketed Sonoma County-grown garden roses (long before “Buy Local” was a common mantra) and established herself as an expert on unusual, unique blooms and their post-harvest needs.
Due to her keen eye, attention to detail and success in working across cultures, she was hired to open a small export business at the flower auction in Aalsmeer, Netherlands, in 1983.
Smith returned to the U.S. in 1986, and settled in Portland, Oregon, where she honed her knowledge of marketing and care and handling at Melridge Inc., one of the world’s leading breeders of new varieties of lilies and one of America’s largest growers of bulbs and flowers at that time. Smith also led tours to farms throughout Central America and Europe, educating her floral industry colleagues about postharvest techniques, care and handling, and how to market unique floral products.
Smith joined Chrysal in 2001 as the technical manager for North and South America, travelling to wholesalers, retailers and supermarkets country-wide, dispensing care and handling techniques, proper hydration methods and the importance of PH levels to maximize shelf life.
Smith was a strong advocate for the industry, volunteering with numerous organizations, such as the Wholesale Florist and Florist Supplier Association and the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. She also gave presentations at conventions and wholesale houses around the world.
“We lost a valued colleague and a dear friend,” said Jim Kaplan, president of Chrysal Americas. “Gay meant the world to our international organization and will be missed greatly worldwide.”