Want the news summarized?
Subscribe to The Morning Report.
Jack E. Williams traveled the world promoting the poinsettia for the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas.
He racked up millions of miles traveling to countries as disparate as England and Mongolia, attracting growers who formed lines to talk to him about the latest varieties and the best techniques for growing poinsettias in sophisticated greenhouses and simple ones. He charmed them with his effusive personality, his toothy smile and his long, flowing gray hair.
Jack Williams knew just about everything there was to know about the poinsettia.
But there was something about Jack Williams few people knew. The man who was the public face of the world’s largest poinsettia company, the company responsible for turning the brilliant red and green plant into a universal symbol of the holiday season, was color blind.
The reds and greens most people see when they look at a poinsettia were foreign to him.
Williams’ family revealed that after he died unexpectedly on Oct. 18 while on business in Australia. He was 54, and the cause was deep vein thrombosis, a blood clotting condition sometimes called Economy Class Syndrome because it affects air travelers, though “he was usually bumped up to business class,” his wife, Cheryl Williams, said.
To most people, the poinsettia is a mainstay of the holiday season, always there, never changing. But that would be a false assumption.
It’s a cutthroat industry, the poinsettia is, and the Ecke Ranch’s dominance of the industry has depended on its constant research and development to produce new varieties and stay ahead of competitors, keeping San Diego on the map as the poinsettia capital of the world. Williams was dispatched around the globe to introduce those new varieties — a poinsettia ambassador of sorts — and to teach producers how best to grow them.
The job exposed Williams to the parts of countries most travelers never see. He ventured away from cities in countries like Kenya, Iceland, China, and India, toward the remote rural regions where poinsettia growers set up their greenhouses and at times struggled to get the flower to flourish, enlisting Williams’ help.
“He could walk into a greenhouse, point to a plant, and say, you can’t grow that variety this far north,” his wife said. In fact, Williams wrote the textbook on poinsettias that’s used in botany and horticulture programs across the country.
But he saw his job as more than a company promoter. He saw it, longtime friend Dell Pound said, as an opportunity to “to find out what made a country tick,” and to understand the complexities of community life among the world’s diverse cultures.
He tried to relate to those around him — in Mexico, by renting an old Volkswagen Beetle to travel, and in San Diego by getting up at 5 a.m. to take Spanish classes, because many of the local poinsettia growers spoke only Spanish. He once accepted an invitation to dinner by rural Mongolian farmers, who made him a guest of honor and offered him the raw brains of a goat.
“He always got to pick his snake, and he got the choicest bumblebee,” his wife said. He was not much in the way of an adventurous eater, however, but always gracious, and so he became a vegetarian, so that he could politely decline the more unfamiliar of his hosts’ offerings.
Jack E. Williams was born July 14, 1956, in Pueblo, Colo. to George and Evelyn Lucille Williams. (The E. stood for nothing. It was given to him by his parents, who’d been expecting a girl they planned to name Jackie). His father was a turf grass specialist and the assistant director of the city’s parks department. His mother was a teacher who went back to school when Williams was in middle school, leaving much of the household chores to her husband and three sons.
The boys drew straws to decide who would assume which household responsibility. Jack got stuck with cooking, and for the rest of his life, was an excellent cook.
He enrolled at what was then the University of Southern Colorado, where he took botany classes and met his wife Cheryl. She’d just dropped a class and was walking toward the school’s new arts building, where Williams danced with a performance group.
He later transferred to Colorado State University, where he got a degree in horticulture before taking a job at a nursery in Texas. It was while in Texas that a former professor, who worked with the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, recruited him to work for the company. He moved to Encinitas in 1984, where he and his wife raised their two children, Steve and Bethany, and where he soon became one of Ecke’s most prized employees.
The job sent him around the country, and eventually around the world, teaching growers about the poinsettia. He was away from home almost half of the year, his wife said, though he always kept his family close, once calling his wife in the middle of the night as he drove through the Swiss Alps. A light snow was falling as he listened to opera in the Mercedes he’d rented, and he wanted her to share in the beauty of the moment.
His passport was so thick with stamps and extra pages that customs officials often reprimanded him because of how hard it was to make sense of them all. German officials once suggested he stay home more often. At the airport in Mexico City, security guards pulled him aside because they were suspicious of a set of hacky sacks he had bought for his son, suspecting they might contain drugs. When he told them his son liked to juggle, they made him juggle, which he did with difficulty, but with a laugh.
He loved everything about his job, his wife said, except the long flights. But he marveled at the way those he interacted with around the world, regardless of race, religion, or political conviction, came together over their shared passions.
“He always said it didn’t matter where you went, plant people were the same around the world,” his wife said. “They all loved plants, and he loved that.”
Even in countries where the poinsettia did not catch on as a holiday tradition, he found a willing audience — like in China, where the poinsettia is popular because red is closely linked with the country’s identity.
His sudden death stunned the worldwide commercial plant community, whose trade journals were filled with the news.
On Thursday, Williams’ wife flew to Copenhagen, to attend the annual holiday party hosted by Ecke Ranch’s European division. She’ll take his ashes with her, and distribute them among some of the many friends he made around the world. The friends will take them back to their respective countries — including Italy, Kenya, Germany, Norway and Guatemala — and scatter them there.