Reflections on AHS Alex J. Summers Award
Warren Pollock, Glen Mills, Pennsylvania
 
   The Alex J. Summers Distinguished Merit Award is given annually by The American Hosta Society to honor an outstanding contributor to the genus Hosta
   Alex Summers, who passed away at age 95 last year, was the principal founder of the AHS, serving as its president for ten years. His horticultural and gardening foresight, scholarship and guidance, and continual unselfish and untiring devotion of time and personal resources, initiated and shaped the world’s premier organization concentrating on this herbaceous perennial. 
   The American Hosta Society was founded in 1968. That year I moved into a new house in a heavily wooded, suburban development in northern Wilmington, Delaware. It wasn’t long before I discovered that I was severely restricted in my landscaping choices, hostas being among the limited ornamental plants recommended for shady sites. 
   Aiding me were several articles on hostas and shade gardening that Alex and others had written for booklets published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Mentioned was a hosta society. I made inquiries and joined the AHS. 
   In 1977 my wife Ali and I made a special trip to Long Island to visit Alex and wife Gene, who were then living in Roslyn, and Paul Aden, who lived in Baldwin. It was during this visit that Alex and I initiated a friendship. 
   In 1979 Ali and I attended the AHS mini-convention (there was no national convention that year) held on Long Island. Alex’s, Aden’s, George Rasmussen’s and Vic Santa Lucia’s gardens were on tour. My most vivid memory of the event is the Saturday evening’s clam bake. Vic later served as AHS president. 
   In the late 1970’s, Alex was in the process of selling his Roslyn residence and moving to a farm in Bridgeville, Delaware. The new site was in the southern part of the state, not far from the Maryland state line. The area is rural, prominent in raising chickens; Purdue and Tyson companies have large poultry facilities there.   
   Alex wanted to escape the high taxes and congestion on Long Island in his “retirement years.” He found the Bridgeville property when visiting Clarence “Beets” Lantis, a good friend who had moved to southern Delaware from Long Island in his retirement to escape high taxes and congestion on Long Island. Beets was a hosta and daylily enthusiast, active in the AHS in its early years.  
   Alex made numerous moving trips in his car to his future home, crossing the twin-scan bridge over the Delaware River connecting New Jersey with Delaware on Interstate 95. Since I then lived only 25-30 minutes from the bridge, we would often meet on the Delaware side for coffee and a bite. (Alex liked his coffee “high-octane.”) The stop and conversation were a respite from the stressful drive in Long Island, through New York City and then on the New Jersey Turnpike, all heavily trafficked.    
   The friendship grew. I got to know Alex quite well, and Gene too as she occasionally accompanied him. I learned a lot about The American Hosta Society and hostas. I think it fair to say that at the time, Alex J. Summers knew more about hostas then anyone else anywhere. In addition to his having a wealth of practical gardening information, I was always amazed at this knowledge of the scholarly publications of Japanese and European authorities; he could recite portions of their publications almost word for word. I was honored – and greatly appreciative – that he was my hosta mentor.
   Alex J. Summers was a gracious and caring man. He was most generous. He often transported plants to Bridgeville and wanted to give me pieces. I almost always refused because I didn’t have room for them in our small, tightly designed, heavily shaded garden. 
1982 - Alex J. Summers
1983 - none
1984 - Peter Ruh
1985 - Warren Pollock
1986 - Frances Williams
1987 - Diana Grenfell
1988 - Mildred Seaver
1989 - Eldren Minks
1990 - Jim Cooper
1991 - Olive B. Langdon
1992 - Herb Benedict
1993 - Pauline Banyai
1994 - Robert Savory
1995 - Russ O'Harra
1996 - George Schmid
1997 - Clyde Crockett
1998 - Nancy Minks
1999 - Kevin Vaughn
2000 - Mervin C. Eisel
2001 - Mark Zilis
2002 - Van R. Wade
2003 - Bob Solberg
2004 - Bob Olson
2005 - Kevin Walek
2006 - C.H. Falstad III
2007 - Jim Wilkins
2008 - Donald Dean
2009 - Mary Schwartzbauer
2010 - Bob Axmear

   In the mid-1970s I initiated a successful national campaign to have a prestigious professional engineering society name an annual award in honor of my graduate dissertation adviser. He was a distinguished, highly regarded, world authority in his scientific niche, and directly responsible for my obtaining a prominent position with a major industrial company. In years following graduation, he became a close personal friend. 
   In ’79-’80, having this engineering award experience fresh in mind, I realized the AHS had no award prestigiously recognizing a major contributor to the genus. I thought the society not only should have one but it should carry Alex’s name. There were considerable similarities between my technical and hosta mentors.  
   I broached the subject with Alex and he was in favor of such an AHS award – but against its bearing his name. He thought it should be called The American Hosta Society Award. I can reveal that Alex was so opposed to his name on the award that he refused to discuss the subject with me for over six months.
   I continually gave my arguments for an award with his name, and his response always was just a stare. I argued that an award with the AHS’s name alone would not have the international impact and prestige as would one with his name. Furthermore, I strongly personally believed Alex deserved the recognition. 
Alex Summers at Honeysong Farm in 1991
   The award was to include the Alex J. Summers Distinguished Merit Hosta. This hosta would be the recipient’s choice, announced by the recipient at the award ceremony. My aim was for the first presentation to be at the 1982 AHS National Convention with Alex the first recipient.   
   I mentioned the total concept to AHS officers, board advisors and other prominent members. All were positive. Still needed though was Alex’s approval. 
   A plan developed to have Gene try to convince him. I don’t know how she handled the issue and what finally won Alex over, but I received a phone call from him saying he agreed. However, greatly to my surprise, he carefully added that he wanted certain conditions applied that I could not reveal openly. Now with Alex’s passing, I am taking the liberty of mentioning them for the first time:
 
  • He wanted to have approval of who received the award. I thought this odd, as there would be a special award committee and Alex of course would be a key member. But Alex wanted black-balling power. (I will not say more, other than he used this authority several times during my involvement with the award.)

  • He wanted the second award recipient to be Peter Ruh, who was then AHS vice-president. Alex said that Pete was an important, often behind-the-scenes and unrecognized contributor, greatly responsible for moving the society forward.

  • He wanted Mrs. Frances Williams, whose discovery of the large variegated-leaved cultivar bearing her name started the high interest in hostas in the U.S., to be a very early recipient.

  • He wanted Eldren Minks and Robert Savory to receive the award but stipulated they probably should not immediately follow Mrs. Williams. Eldren was then president and Bob was a long time, advisory board member.

   With Alex’s O.K., the award was quickly initiated. Jim Cooper, 1982 president and that year’s national convention chair, asked me to write the award description, design a certificate and make the presentation at the 1982 convention. 
   I bounced my description thoughts off of Olive Bailey Langdon, a lawyer active in the society who followed Jim as president, and this was decided:
 
         " …given to a member of the Society in recognition of having given outstanding  service to the development of the genus Hosta, the Society, or both."

   Repeatedly before the convention I asked Alex to tell me his selection for the Distinguished Merit Hosta, as I wanted to inscribe the certificate with the name. Continually he responded that he hadn’t decided yet. As it turned out, he didn’t decide until during the convention. One of the tour gardens was Bettie Jernigan’s in Dunn, North Carolina, and there Alex saw a group of ‘Pearl Lake’ clumps in full bloom. They so impressed him that he immediately selected this cultivar.
   Alex’s award address was printed in the 1983 The American Hosta Society Bulletin (Vol. 14, p. 5). This annual publication was the precursor to today’s The Hosta Journal. There is a direct reprint of this article here in this issue. In considerable detail Alex described what qualities a hosta must have to suit his taste. They still are timely. I wish more hostas, both sports and seedlings, coming into the marketplace these days met them.

Alex's choice - 'Pearl Lake'

Summers Merit Hostas:

   Pete Ruh of Chesterland, Ohio, was the second Summers Award recipient, receiving it in 1984.  His Summers Distinguished Merit Hosta choice was ‘Antioch’. He is still active with hostas.
   Some other recipients: Frances Williams was honored in 1986; she passed away many years before and her daughter Connie accepted the award, selecting – what else? – ‘Frances Williams’. Diana Grenfell, the British hosta authority and author, received the award in 1987. Her selection was ‘Halcyon’, honoring Eric Smith, the noted British hosta hybridizer. In 1988 Mildred Seaver received the award, selecting ‘Tokudama Aureonebulosa’. 
   Eldren Minks was honored in 1989; he chose ‘Platinum Tiara’. And Jim Cooper was honored the next year; he selected ‘Sum and Substance’. In 1992 Herb Benedict was the recipient, choosing ‘Great Expectations’. Pauline Banyai received the award in 1993, selecting her classic ‘Gold Standard’. In 1994 it was Bob Savory, choosing his classic ‘Golden Tiara’. Russ O’Harra was honored in 1995. He chose ‘Sagae’. 
   In 1996 George Schmid received the award, selecting H. laevigata – not surprising for this species authority. Merv Eisel, the first Hosta registrar, was recipient in 2000. His choice was ‘June’. In 2001 it was Mark Zilis, who selected ‘Krossa Regal’. Bob Olsen was the 2004 recipient; his choice was ‘Bridegroom’. And in 2007 Jim Wilkins was honored, selecting ‘Dorothy Benedict’. Don Dean received the award in 2008, choosing his ‘Silver Bay’. 
   At this writing there are 28 recipients of the AHS Alex J. Summers Distinguished Merit Award. Seven are women. Eight were AHS presidents. Five were Journal editors; one currently is. Two were International Hosta registrars; one currently is. Nine are deceased, one receiving the award posthumously. Mildred Seaver is the oldest living Summers Award recipient.
   An exciting aspect of the award is the recipient is not known until announced at the Saturday banquet. Prior, only a special Summers Award committee, the recipient and his or her family members are suppose to know. Even so, there is an almost sure way of determining who at the banquet is to be honored before the announcement: Family members accompanying the recipient at the dining table are a give-away.
   A notable example was when Bob Solberg received the award at the 2003 convention. His three grown-up and very prominently noticeable children were sitting with him: they were a sure indicator. Bob’s selection was ‘Corkscrew’, his own introduction. 
   I say “almost sure way” because I didn’t recognize the significance of C.H. Falstad III’s wife sitting next to him at the 2006 convention banquet. Early in the evening I went over to his table, introduced myself to her, had some chit-chat with C.H. and went away without a clue that he is the award recipient. H. plantaginea ‘Aphrodite’ was his selection. 
   From 1982 to 1996 I was AHS Awards and Honors chair. At each presentation I always explained the Summers Award; read the list of all the previous recipients; introduced those recipients present, asking each to stand up; and mentioned all of the Summers Distinguished Merit Hosta names. A slide of each hosta was shown – which required a 35-mm. projector and an operator, and the ballroom to be somewhat darkened and then lighted again. In addition to being educational, the production was somewhat theatrical and dramatic, intended to be an exciting build-up to my eventually proclaiming in a strong voice: “And this year’s AHS Alex J. Summers Distinguished Merit Award recipient is (pause for silent drum-roll)….” 
1982 - H. 'Pearl Lake'
1983 - none
1984 - H. 'Antioch'
1985 - H. montana 'Aureomarginata'
1986 - H. 'Frances Williams'
1987 - H. 'Halcyon'
1988 - H. 'Tokudama Aureonebulosa'
1989 - H. 'Platinum Tiara'
1990 - H. 'Sum and Substance'
1991 - H. 'Golden Sculpture'
1992 - H. 'Great Expectations'
1993 - H. 'Gold Standard'
1994 - H. 'Golden Tiara'
1995 - H. 'Sagae'
1996 - H. laevigata
1997 - H. nigrescens
1998 - H. 'Alvatine Taylor'
1999 - H. 'Breeder's Choice'
2000 - H. 'June'
2001 - H. 'Krossa Regal'
2002 - H. 'American Halo'
2003 - H. 'Corkscrew'
2004 - H. 'Bridegroom'
2005 - H. 'Guardian Angel'
2006 - H. plantaginea 'Aphrodite'
2007 - H. 'Dorothy Benedict'
2008 - H. 'Silver Bay'
2009 - H. 'Her Eyes Were Blue'
2010 - H. 'Paradigm'
   Of course this production took considerable time. As the number of recipients increased, the time required increased too. Today with 28 Summers recipients, such a lengthy presentation is not possible.
   Finally, a word about attire: My thinking always was the award presentation should have a professional appearance. I always wore a suit and tie – though once it was a tuxedo. Kevin Walek chaired the 1995 convention and told me he would be wearing a tuxedo at the Saturday night banquet. Not to be outdone, I wore my tux. The word must have gotten out to attendees because their dress at the banquet, in general, was considerably less casual then I recall in previous years. My observations are that recent awards banquets have become more casual.

At right: The author in 1982 

 

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