“As We Recall”

A Tribute to West Coast Plantsman, Dick Dunmire

By: Bill Marken
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Bill Marken was editor-in-chief of Sunset and Garden Design magazines. He now is writing for several print and online publications,…

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When Dick Dunmire said, “Well now, as I recall,” we knew we were in for one of his stories. The story would begin who knows where—perhaps with a botanical oddity (“Have you ever seen a caper plant in the wild?”) or a poem he had read forty years earlier. It would end who knows where—maybe with an outrageous pun or an impossible twist. Dick would finish straight-faced, leaving the rest of us chuckling or amazed at his recall or occasionally dumfounded. He had a remarkable ability to entertain and educate—particularly in the world of horticulture.

Dick died in early November, just a couple weeks after a celebration of his 95th birthday. Of course he held center stage at the party, telling several stories that left us smiling and scratching our heads (who are these “Texas aggies” he talked about?), seeming to take a bow and saying farewell in his own style.

It’s now our turn to say, “Well now, this is how we recall Dick Dunmire”—stalwart of Sunset Magazine and Western Garden Book, friend of Pacific Horticulture Society, Western Horticulture Society, and all who met him.

Here are a few recollections:

Annelise Krinsky, Dick’s daughter: “My dad (John Richard Dunmire) grew up around Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and in West Virginia. He was always a good student and bookworm from the start. He graduated from Bucknell and got a Master’s there in English literature. During World War II, flat feet and poor vision kept him out of the infantry, but he served as an administrator on the troopship Oneida. After the war he used his GI bill funds to attend Stanford to work on a Ph.D. in English. My mom (Helaine) was doing some graduate classes at Stanford when she and my Dad met. While undertaking his coursework, he got a teaching job at the University of Kansas in the English department. They returned to California in 1959. He taught courses briefly at Foothill College but came to the conclusion that he neither wanted to finish his dissertation or teach English. That was when he went to work at Montebello Nursery in Los Altos, which deepened his knowledge and passion for horticulture. His connection to Sunset came when editors would come down looking for information on plants. They found him to be particularly knowledgeable and clearly had a certain flair. He freelanced a number of articles for Sunset and they asked him to join as a staff writer and editor.”

He had a remarkable ability to entertain and educate—particularly in the world of horticulture.

In addition to serving on the boards of the Pacific Horticulture and Western Horticulture societies, Dick was a valuable resource for Pacific Horticulture magazine.

Richard Turner, former editor of Pacific Horticulture:  “Dick Dunmire functioned as the magazine’s final checker and was brilliant in that role with an eagle eye that caught the most potentially embarrassing typos and mistakes. With his photographic memory he could quickly identify any errors in nomenclature, particularly regarding cultivars, which my other two editors and I had missed. He was a treasure. Apart from his role with the magazine, I remember Dick for his vast knowledge of the plant world, his gentleness, and his incredible knack for humor—whether jokes, anecdotes, or puns.”

After joining Sunset in 1963, Dick’s first assignment was a big one: editor of the massive 1967 Western Garden Book, working with Joe Williamson, the book’s editorial director and garden editor of the magazine. After the book, Dick continued on as a writer/editor and botanical/horticultural expert with the magazine until retiring in 1989, although he continued to work with Kathy Brenzel on all editions of the Western Garden Book through 2001.

Kathy Brenzel, Sunset garden editor since 1982 and WGB editor: “Dick had an insatiable curiosity about the world around us and was constantly expanding that steel-trap mind of his! What I loved most about his stories were his leads—informative, no-nonsense, but usually with an amusing twist that said so much about his wry sense of humor.  Here are just a few:

“The parsnip is not a universally admired vegetable.

“Man makes artificial plants that look natural; occasionally nature makes a real plant that looks artificial. Fancy-leafed caladium is an exuberant example of the latter.

 “If Isaac Newton had been struck on the head by a bunya-bunya cone instead of a mere apple, the theory of universal gravitation might have died at birth.”

Jim McCausland, contributing garden editor/writer at Sunset: “Dick had a photographic memory. When I asked for a demonstration, he recited from memory a passage from Goethe’s Faust, which he had last read in college, decades earlier. In horticulture, he could recall just about any botanical name and its synonyms for much of his life. But he told me that when he got into his 70s, his recall slowed down, and by the time he was in his 90s, his memory had dropped back to something that I can only describe as normal for the rest of us.”

Jerry DiVecchio, Sunset Food Editor: “Dick was mad for his caper plant. He loved to dine about and come in to share his discoveries. He worked with me on the magazine’s “Chefs of the West” column—which were masterpieces of subtle humor.”

When I applied for a job at Sunset in 1964, Dick was the second person I met. He was incredibly kind, overlooking my general clumsiness, and so generous with his time. I had heard about Dick—among my relatives in the nursery business he was legendary for jumping from a retail nursery to the magazine business. After I joined the magazine, Dick and I shared a workspace and he patiently explained the ways of Sunset and gardening. I always turned to him for answers. There was a trained botanist on the staff but I was afraid of her, mainly because she could sense that I couldn’t remember the difference between a stamen and a pistil (still don’t). Dick shared his many enthusiasms with me—Donald Barthelme, opera, Inverness, rhododendrons. He kindly would ask me about my more mundane interests, such as baseball or Bob Dylan. Today outside my office home I have two pots filled with black bamboo, another of his interests, to remind me of this remarkable guy.

Bill Marken, former editor-in-chief of Sunset, sits on the PHS board of directors.