For years I’ve admired the yard of Glenda and Raymond Gross. Last week, seeing them at work, I stopped to admire their work up close and visit. I first met Raymond years ago at the YMCA when we both played handball.
Raymond Gross grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, the son of a coal miner and a mother who tended the needs of her nine children, which included milking the family cow.
As did most kids growing up in the mid-century rural South, Raymond spent much of his childhood immersed in nature. “We did what country boys did,” he said. Each summer he and his buddies made their own swimming pool by damming Wallins Creek — also the name of the small community he lived in. He foraged in the woods for ginseng, mayapple root and bloodroot, which they sold — $2 a pound for the ginseng — to a man Gross calls “our resident millionaire.”
Following the lead of an older brother, Gross enlisted in the Air Force after graduation from high school in 1959. By the end of 1963, the young jet aircraft mechanic found himself at Columbus Air Force Base.
At the time a new base gym was under construction and Bob Keys, recreation director of The YMCA, invited base personnel to use The Y’s facilities. While working out at The Y, Gross noticed a group of men playing one-wall handball in The Y’s old gym. Soon he took up the game.
One of his handball cohorts was Billy Vaughan, the choir director at First Baptist Church. Vaughan enticed Gross, who had been singing gospel music since he was knee-high, to come to his church and join the choir.
There he met and started dating Glenda Comer, a fellow choir member. Like Ray, Glenda, who grew up on Old Macon Road, spent much of her childhood outdoors. “I always liked to plant things and stay outdoors,” she said.
The two married three years later and have two children. Glenda and Raymond are both retired and spend most of their waking hours “planting things and staying outdoors.”
To see the fruits of their labors, one only has to drive down Seventh Street North. Their house — purchased 27 years ago from another of Ray’s handball partners, John Russell — is easy to discern at the three-way intersection at Highland Circle The profusion of flowers wrapping around their front yard would do any botanical garden proud.
Presently on display are yellow coreopsis, lavender spiderwort, the feathery white of Queen Anne’s lace and red roses.
Recently, I heard on Felder Rushing’s radio gardening show that 16 million Americans have taken up gardening since the start of the pandemic. Mary Tuggle of Walton’s Greenhouse nodded her head when I cited that statistic, as if to say she’s counseled a sizable portion of that group.
If you are one of those newcomers and your inclination is toward flowers, I encourage you to cruise by the home of Ray and Glenda Gross. There you will find living example of what is possible with constancy and a passion for growing things.
Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.