Olive Johnson was born on the family farm at Smiley’s Mill, near Franklin, Indiana. As a child, she particularly enjoyed helping her father; she loved to ride on horseback to bring in the cows for milking or to the fields where plowing was needed. Her memories of childhood on the farm remained vivid throughout her life: the smell of alfalfa and of honeysuckle growing through an old pear tree; getting lost in a field of tall corn; looking for the first skunk cabbage each spring.
Olive graduated from Franklin College with a Bachelor degree in English literature and, for a while, worked as a journalist for the Franklin Star. Much later, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Master’s in Education. Between these academic ventures, she was married to Charles Rice and raised a family of three, living, in turn, in Indianapolis, Berkeley, Los Alamos, West Lafayette, Washington, DC, and Los Alamos, before returning to Berkeley.
At some point in these peregrinations, Olive began gardening and met Ed Zickler, a neighbor with a special interest in irises and their breeding. Through Ed, she acquired a deep love of irises that colored the rest of her life. She joined the American Iris Society and soon became active both locally (editing a bulletin for members in California, Nevada, and Hawaii) and nationally (serving on the AIS board of directors and publishing, for twenty years, a calendar illustrated with fine iris photographs for sale by the society).
Olive’s involvement with the Pacific Horticultural Foundation began about 1974, when its publication was called the California Horticultural Journal. She and her second husband, George Waters, volunteered to collect each issue of the journal from the printer, apply the mailing labels, sort the copies (about 2,500 of them) according to zip codes into official Postal Service bags, and deliver them to the postal annex in San Francisco. As “directors of distribution,” they were members of the Foundation’s board of directors. At a meeting of that board in early 1975, a revamping of the journal was proposed. Olive became the de facto secretary of the format committee, charged with revising the publication, and, eventually, filled that role for the board itself.
The first issue of Pacific Horticulture, the Foundation’s new, enlarged, full-color publication, appeared in January, 1976, and earned a warm mention in Sunset magazine. New subscriptions came in quickly—so quickly that the established distribution arrangement could not keep up with the pace. Speedy action was needed to avoid the wrath of impatient subscribers.
Olive, always a woman of action, found a company in Oakland that specialized in maintaining address lists on a mainframe computer. She arranged for addresses and records of the existing supporting society members and individual subscribers to be transferred to the computer. The development of the desktop personal computer allowed the subscriber database to move into the Foundation’s office, and Olive worked with the computer consultant to devise a database that would be used for nearly twenty-five years.
With the whole operation conducted from her home on Napa Avenue in Berkeley, and with little assurance of the funds essential for promotion of Pacific Horticulture, determination was needed to make the magazine succeed. Olive had this in plenty, handling subscriptions in a makeshift office in the basement, and typing hand-written manuscripts for her husband, who had become the journal’s editor early in the first year of publication. The husband and wife team prepared grant applications and promotional materials, attended horticultural conferences and garden shows—wherever the magazine could be shown, from British Columbia to Southern California. Displays for these events were home-made, but, when tended by Olive, they were effective in attracting new subscribers. Olive also recruited staff and volunteer helpers, many of whom were friends from the American Iris Society.
When space at home became inadequate, Olive spoke to friends in the Berkeley Cooperative and arranged to rent an office adjoining their supermarket on University Avenue in Berkeley. Pacific Horticulture hung its logo in the window for the first time, and distribution of the magazine continued smoothly from the new address. When the Cooperative needed more space, Olive found the present office, still in Berkeley but more convenient to public transit, through another friend.
For more than twenty-five years, Olive supervised a small office staff and helped maintain the subscription database on the office computer. Olive cultivated subscribers, nurturing and befriending them as few other magazine distributors have done. She often wrote them personal notes and received many in reply from grateful readers in many parts of the world who appreciated her humanity and kindness.
When it became clear that subscription and advertising revenues would likely never cover the costs of producing the journal, Olive worked with board members in seeking additional funds from readers who contributed to the annual Friends of Pacific Horticulture campaign. She worked closely with Mary Lynn Cox, Friends Chair, to maintain the records of these contributions and to assure that donors were properly thanked and acknowledged.
Olive saw Pacific Horticulture as quite apart from mass-market publications, which are dependent upon the advertising income that massive circulation numbers can bring in. Nonetheless, the young magazine won wide recognition, including laudatory words in Royal Horticultural Society publications. Despite this, Olive felt that the journal’s readership was, inevitably, limited, and because of that, readers’ devotion should be recognized and treated accordingly. The relegation of subscribers to mere numbers in a computer was anathema to her; she, instead, lavished on each and every one of its readers all the personal attention they required, whether in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, or the Americas. Many are the plaudits she received from readers for this devotion; few were the complaints of neglect.
Late in 2002, Olive and George moved from their longtime residence in north Berkeley to a new home in Oregon City, Oregon, closer to her son and his family. She continued to produce the AIS calendars through the 2005 edition and, though no longer serving on the board of Pacific Horticultural Foundation, followed the activities of the organization and the production of Pacific Horticulture, to which she had devoted so many years of volunteer work. Failing health kept her increasingly at home, where she died on April 24, 2005.
WGW and RGT
W George and Olive JR Waters Endowment Fund
The board of directors of Pacific Horticultural Foundation is pleased to announce the renaming of the Foundation’s endowment fund in memory of Olive Waters and in honor of George Waters.
The endowment fund was established by the board in the mid-1980s, when it became clear that revenue generated by subscriptions might never fully cover the costs of producing Pacific Horticulture. Over the years, the fund has grown slowly, thanks to the generosity of a small group of dedicated readers. The fund’s capital generates a modest annual interest, which is put toward maintaining the high quality of the magazine.
There could be no more fitting tribute to George and Olive than a healthy endowment fund to assure the continued publication of Pacific Horticulture, to which they were so devoted. You can contribute to the endowment fund by calling the business office at 510/849-1627; all gifts are fully tax-deductible. With your help, the Foundation will be able to continue its mission to “stimulate and inspire gardeners in the art and science of horticulture on the West Coast.”