When the call came last week from my good friend Katie Jackson Lee, daughter of Ann Jackson, I was unprepared when she disclosed their Aunt Margie Yates Jenkins had died the day before, on Wednesday, January 29, at the age of 98. Ms. Margie - a veritable pioneer in horticulture - informed me years ago that she prayed she would never have to retire. And she didn't.
Nearly a century old, Ms. Margie ran circles around folks half her age. Having spent the day with her not long ago at her Jenkins Farm and Nursery and her home, I had trouble keeping pace. And it wasn't just physical strength she was blessed with - she had spirit. I may have called it gumption when I last wrote about her. In addition, she was genuinely kind. When my daughter married, Ms. Margie offered on the phone, out of the blue, anything I needed - told me to bring a truck. I didn't take her up on it, but knowing I could was a godsend. Generosity, kindness, and gumption - all three Ms. Margie had in spades.
The granddaughter of John Mousley Yates who came here from England in 1867, Margie Louise was born in 1921 to Frederick and Camille Yates on the family farm in St. Tammany Parish. At the age of one, she moved with her family to Washington Parish where her parents bought a large farm, where they raised Margie with her siblings Doris (Magee), Lyda (Wood), Frederick, John, and Dixie (Gallaspy).
Her mother Camille maintained an immense garden and also grew flowers - annuals, hollyhocks, and touch-me-nots. I believe it was then and there, with her forebears, that Ms. Margie's future was rooted. She reminisced, "All my people had always loved flowers."
Growing up in the Great Depression, young Margie was educated at Southwest (through the sixth grade) and then at Franklinton where she took sewing in the eighth grade, helping her mother make the family's clothes. In 1938, Margie graduated from Franklinton High School. Taking extra course work, she began work with the National Youth Administration. Then, she worked for the Farm Security Administration (later Farmers Home Administration), where she and my mother cemented their friendship in the 1940s.
Margie Yates and Bryant Jenkins married in October of 1946 and in 1949 purchased the property on Highway 16 just west of Franklinton, where they moved in 1951. In the early 1950s, Ms. Margie and Mr. Bryant started their family - having Freddy, Margie Ann, Tim, Jeff, and Mark - and established a dairy farm. Ms. Margie fed the calves, did the farm bookkeeping, and filled the freezer from the garden, all while raising the children.
With relatives in the nursery business, it was a natural fit for the Jenkins. They started with wax Ligustrums, which were a success, and expanded to azaleas, which according to Ms. Margie failed from overfertilization. She cautioned me, "Azaleas should be fertilized sparingly." Undeterred and encouraged by the beginning of container nurseries, Ms. Margie began rooting from cuttings, which she parlayed into a burgeoning business that thrived until the 1970s. Then, she turned her focus toward her new home which she and husband Bryant completed in 1976.
That summer, daughter Margie Ann encouraged her mother to take a course taught by Dr. Neil Odenwald of LSU. And Ms. Margie was galvanized by what she learned. She resolutely returned to the nursery in the spring of 1977. With a penchant for unusual plants and particularly old and native plants - her province - she told me, "There was no turning back. I knew I wanted to grow. Our native plants had been overlooked."
At the age of fifty-six, Ms. Margie ardently embarked on a remarkable journey in horticulture. For forty-two years, it was her life - tiny in stature, she was huge in horticulture. With a revered reputation in the nursery business, Ms. Margie earned acclaim not just locally or regionally but nationally and internationally for her contributions to horticulture. Groups from China and Japan came in droves for tours of Jenkins Farm and Nursery.
The awards Ms. Margie received are mind-boggling. Among them are the Louisiana Tree Farmer of the Year (1985), Sidney B. Meadows Award of Merit (2011), the 21st Annual Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence (2007), and the Karlene DeFatta Award by the Louisiana Native Plant Society (2002). Her awards recognized her innovation, leadership, conservation, preservation, generosity, patience, unassuming nature, and service - all in propagation, promotion, and use of plants. And they deemed her a "pioneer in Southern Horticulture." But the honors were never Ms. Margie's focus. As great-niece Katie Lee reflected, "She loved people, not recognition." And she enjoyed sharing with them her passion for plants.
Her passion for plants was, indeed, contagious. Ms. Margie tooled around the verdant acres of Jenkins' land on her golf cart, with family and friends. And she loaded us down with gifts to take home and plant. I can't turn left or right - from the sweet olive outside my bedroom window to the Freddy (named for her beloved late son) White azalea at our farm - without seeing some spectacular plant of hers.
It was Billy Graham who said, "When we all reach the end of our earthly journey, we will have just begun." This quote came to mind when I read Ms. Margie's obituary in which I learned that she informed daughter Margie Ann "that she looked forward to growing azaleas in the Garden of Eden." Fertilized sparingly, they will be splendid.