Joseph F Williamson, Jr — 1925–2000

Joseph F Williamson, Jr, died April 10, 2000, at his home in Corte Madera, California, after a gallant battle against cancer. Joe was born in Oakland, the great-grandson of Richard Williamson and Nancy Graves, who came to California in 1847 as a member of the Donner Party. He was proud of his California roots and loved to talk about native-son organizations such as Sons in Retirement and E Clampus Vitus.

Joe Williamson. Photograph by Norman Plate

Joe Williamson. Photograph by Norman Plate

Joe attended Santa Rosa Junior College and UC Berkeley before serving in the US Navy. After returning from service, he enrolled at Stanford University, graduating in 1949. While in school he began working at Sunset magazine in 1947, and worked there until his retirement in 1990. During his last years at Stanford, he studied journalism, learned about gardening at Elsa Upmann Knoll’s Garden School in Menlo Park (Elsa was then garden editor at Sunset), and absorbed the knack of writing convincing prose from Walter Doty, Sunset’s editor.

As garden editor and later managing editor, he was one of Sunset’s most influential writers and editors. He demanded two things of any story: it must be specifically addressed to the Western reader, and it must lead to action on the reader’s part. Airy generalities did not interest him. His job was to advise home owners how to experience, appreciate, and cope with all that is distinctively Western—especially our scanty and seasonal rainfall.

It was Joe’s Western tilt that interested him in Pacific Horticulture, to which he contributed several lively articles. His critique of lawns in western gardens provoked a warm response from the producers of grass seed. Joe was a member of the Board of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation from its founding until 1998, serving as president from 1991 to 1993. During his presidency, he engaged the services of a professional consultant for promotion and worked to increase the number of subscribers.

He had no specialties in gardening, but he had the rare talent of becoming passionately and overwhelmingly interested in any subject he decided to write about. Among his favorite topics were eucalyptus (he researched the topic here and in Australia), palms, the Central Valley, chickens in the back yard (Buff Orpingtons were his favorite), and alternatives to DDT (he led the magazine’s campaign to ban this insecticide).

In 1963 he undertook the editorship of the Sunset Western Garden Book, which appeared in 1967 and broke new ground with its encyclopedic treatment of Western garden plants and its carefully plotted breakdown of the West into twenty-four climate zones. This book and its subsequent editions have sold nearly six million copies (and have spawned a Sunset National Garden Book and a Sunset Southern Garden Book.).

Around the magazine he was loved as a straight-talking, passionate supporter of all things Western. He had strong opinions, and he expressed them forcefully. His attitude toward fledgling writers was “Whom the Lord loveth he chastiseth.” He helped to mold a number of garden writers, including Bill Marken, Bob Smaus, and the undersigned. His avocations included hiking, especially on Mt Tamalpais, and one-man shell rowing.

John R Dunmire