My dad’s early life sounds like a good country song-“Born dirt poor in a farm outside of town; Lived in a tobacco barn ‘til they tore it down.” He was literally born in a converted tobacco barn to parents who were tenant farming in efforts to provide for their growing family. My grandparents, Gentry and Florence Davis, lived right outside of Roseboro, in Sampson County. My dad, Richard, was the fourth in a family of five, the third to make it alive outside of infancy. Dad’s family didn’t have much-a few pieces of Sears & Roebuck furniture which included an old iron bed that I inherited along with the family Bible. They lived humbly, but happily. My grandparents were a really handsome couple. Sometimes Gentry was a little too good looking and it got him in a bit of trouble. My grandmother Florence was the real dynamo. If she had been born today, she would probably be running Amazon or EBay or maybe even the country. Gentry was handy and hard-working. Florence was thrifty and crafty with a knack for stretching a dollar with style. (I like to think that I inherited this from her along with my Irish features and freckles.)
When Dad entered school, his family moved into town. The busy little town of Roseboro offered lots of opportunities for him to make friends and explore small town life. It was on one of these afternoons after school at Roseboro Elementary that Dad and his classmate Allison wandered into Miss Thelma’s flower shop. Thelma, Allison’s aunt, had opened a flower shop when her husband passed away years before and she needed to support herself and her two children. Her children were now off in college, so Thelma welcomed the thought of youngsters like Allison and Richard coming around the shop in the afternoon to help with simple jobs. One day Dad picked up a few flowers and asked Miss Thelma if he could make a little bouquet for his mama. It didn’t take long for Thelma to see that he possessed an innate artistic talent. Before long he was helping Miss Thelma in the flower shop every day after school and by the age of 10 he was helping sew casket sprays and make wedding bouquets.
Miss Thelma became a mother figure to my Dad and after discussing the situation with Florence, she took Dad into her home so that he might have educational and financial opportunities she could more readily provide. For my dad it was often confusing as to who his mother was. He has said that for a long time he felt as if Florence had given birth to him but Thelma had given him life. Age and wisdom and becoming a parent taught him that it was Florence who made the greatest sacrifice.
My dad’s ability as a budding designer (no pun intended) paralleled his academic ability. A curious student, his interest in public speaking and leadership earned him a place of respect among the faculty and student body of Roseboro-Salemburg High School. He participated in a wide range of activities from editing the yearbook to serving as captain of the bowling team. When the senior superlatives were announced, he was Most Dependable and Best All Around-traits that have continued into his adult roles as a business owner, husband and father.
Dad met my mom, Sidney, in 1966 at a church convention. Like my dad, my mom came from very humble means. Once a week Dad would travel to Clarktown to visit her. On his first visit, my mom met him at the door, purse and coat in hand, anxious to leave. Dad knew it wouldn’t do if he didn’t speak to Ruth, my grandmother, and he had just driven more than half an hour, so nature was calling. Dad didn’t know that Mom was keeping her fingers crossed that he didn’t ask to use the facilities, since it was a luxurious wooden house down a path. There was even a big black snake serving as the restroom attendant. My mom said she was mortified and was sure my dad would never come back. But he quickly assured her that he didn’t care what her family had or didn’t have; he only cared about the life they could build together and how rich and wonderful it promised to be.
My parents married in 1968. For awhile they made their home in Roseboro. They both worked in the family flower shop with Dad handling the design work with Thelma and mom greeting and helping customers when she wasn’t working at the local bank. In 1972, I arrived followed by my brother, Carmen, in 1975.
Around this time, my Granny B, aka Thelma, expressed a desire to retire. Dad contemplated continuing on with the florist in Roseboro, but when the opportunity to buy a larger shop in a market with greater opportunity presented itself, my folks made the move to Benson. My grandmother Florence, using money she had just won in a lawsuit over a pig, (I kid you not!), loaned my folks the down payment to buy City Florist of Benson in 1977.
They found a charming little bungalow for our family and settled us in. I started school at Benson Elementary while Dad and Mom worked on growing their business.
In no time at all, they had grown the florist to a point where a new location was needed. City Florist moved into the Kelly Department Store building, a big showy building in a prime spot on Main Street. The new building offered the opportunity for the florist to expand and offer giftware and china and more wedding services.
My parents always seemed larger than life when I was little. They were a popular couple around town often hosting fun dinner parties with unique themes. People in Benson still talk about their international dinner night where Dad dressed up like Shogun and Mom was a geisha girl. And then there was the “Redneck Soiree.” Mom and Dad covered all our furniture in plastic, planted the front yard with concrete pigs and chickens and greeted guests with champagne in Mason jars and silver trays of fatback.
Around this time, my dad was really active in the florist industry serving on the NC State Florist Association Board of Directors and as a frequent guest panelist, designer and commentator at industry trade shows. In 1979, he won the NC Designer of the Year competition. He and Mom danced the night away at the awards banquet dressed in their Saturday Night Fever best.
Following this recognition, Dad went on to compete regionally and nationally while also serving as a popular design panelist and commentator. Over the course of his career, he has been a pivotal industry member speaking frequently to civic groups, garden clubs, and professional organizations. He has been a frequent contributor and judge at the NC State Fair. Dad has also promoted the growth of his industry and the professional development of young designers by working as an educator within the community college system.
In the early 80s with their parents aging, my parents decided to move back to Roseboro to help care for our families. After selling City Florist, Dad was a much-in-demand freelance designer throughout the Southeast. He also worked with several large purveyors of silk florals and housewares as a product designer and showroom coordinator. This new career endeavor took him to Atlanta, Charlotte and New York to work in the bustling gift and flower markets. On one trip to New York, he and Mom had their first experience eating unrecognizable parts of a pig and a bear in Chinatown.
In 1981, our family grew with the addition of my sister, Lora Constance. She was named for Lora Cameron who worked for years with my family at City Florist and also for Morgan Fairchild’s character on Flamingo Road, but that’s a whole other issue. For a long time, Lora thought her name was OOPS! We had lived in a great old farmhouse, my Granny B’s home place that mom and dad had restored, but with the addition of Lora we built a new house better suited to our needs.
A few years later, Dad tired of traveling and opened Floral Gardens in Roseboro. This was a new venture for my parents as it was the first business they had opened from the ground up. It was quickly a success and provided us with the means for us to attend private school and go to college. (This was a real milestone for my folks as only two other family members had gone to college before Carmen and I did.)
Following my grandparents’ passing, Dad and Mom decided they wanted to be closer to the big city. Raleigh felt too big, but their old stomping grounds in Benson fit just right. In 1991, they opened Four Seasons Florist & Interiors. The business is now in its twenty-first year.
About fifteen years ago, my parents bought a historic building on Main Street, the Woodall Department Store building, to house their growing business. The store is a popular destination for shoppers coming to enjoy the unique stores of Benson’s charming Main Street. The business has received repeated accolades including being voted best florist in Johnston County by the Smithfield Herald. Guided by a focus on great design and superior customer service, my parents have built a business that has weathered the tough economic times not only surviving but thriving.
My parents are incredibly proud of the role they have played in Main Street’s renaissance. They continue to support the town’s growth. Dad has served as the Chamber of Commerce President and was just honored as the 2012 Small Business Person of the Year. His store is as frequently filled with friends as it is with customers and they are generally one and the same. He is always willing to lend a helping hand or a listening ear. And everyone in town knows he always has a great joke to share.
A small business owner and busy volunteer does not have a lot of free time, but when work is not calling, Dad enjoys cooking, reading, directing shows for Benson Little Theater, taking in a show at DPAC or Memorial Auditorium with mom, and occasionally playing the slots in Cherokee. But his favorite pastime is being a husband, father and grandfather spending time with his family on every possible occasion.
Despite his talent and success, Dad remains a humble man known for his humility, selflessness and desire to help others. When we were growing up, he used to encourage us to go into a career in medicine, saying, “A doctor is really able to help someone, to heal and care for people.” What Dad failed to realize is that his great gift as an artist and his selfless desire to share that gift with others has “healed” and “touched” hundreds if not thousands.
From helping brides capture their perfect vision of a wedding day to helping those in mourning express their love and respect through a display of flowers, Dad has touched the lives of his customers, his friends and his community while setting an example for his family that honesty and hard work have their rewards.