“Young man, would you like to grow a man’s flower?”
That’s the question that got Union resident Ron Pollinger into the art of growing Dahlias some 70 years ago.
His backyard in St. Andrews Subdivision in Union was full of dozens of the delicate flower in early October, just a week after all of the blooms had been clipped for the dahlia show at the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis.
As a child living in Crestwood, Pollinger, now 79, remembers his grandmother growing African violets. At 10 years old, Pollinger yearned to garden.
“I was always stealing her African violet leaves and planting them, trying to grow other African violets,” he said.
When she got tired of it, he said, she sent him to a neighbor up the street, Mrs. Beckmann. Her husband, Fred W. Beckmann, grew dahlias. Pollinger quickly went to the Beckmann home, only to be told to go away. Sometime later, he went back and ended up winning over Mr. Beckmann, who took him under his wing.
“He looked up at me and he said ‘Young man, would you like to grow a man’s flower?’ I was too young to refuse,” said Pollinger..
The dahlia was known as a “man’s flower,” Pollinger explained, because of the intense labor involved in growing them. The ground has to be tilled and fertilized, and stakes have to be driven to hold the taller flowers, which can get up to 6 feet tall.
Pollinger said anyone can grow the flowers, but they do take a lot of work to grow in Missouri, where they typically have to be dug up each year because of the frost.
Pollinger began visiting his neighbor’s greenhouse nightly to watch him and help tend his flowers. The two spent the winter preparing the flowers.
“We didn’t have color photography back then that was used a lot,” Pollinger said. “So I saw black and white pictures, and I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
When the summer came and the dahlias bloomed “I was absolutely amazed.”
There are many varieties of the flower, from the big, plate-sized flowers to those as small as a fingernail.
“I enjoy the thought of anything growing from a seed into something wonderful. It doesn’t make a difference (what it is). All of these things, to me, are like a miracle in the spring,” he said. “They bloom and then they’re gone . . . it’s the memory of something wonderful.”
The Dahlia Society began in 1938, the year Pollinger was born. Due to low membership, it may close down next year, after 80 years, Pollinger speculated.
He has been a part of the society, in some way, since 1948.
Pollinger said the possible closing of the society has him concerned. He would love to see it live on.
There currently are about 20 members, but there used to be three times that amount, he said.
Beckmann always took part in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s dahlia show every September and was a member of the Greater St. Louis Dahlia and Chrysanthemum, which is now the The Greater St. Louis Dahlia Society. It is under the American Dahlia Society (ADS).
Pollinger began going to the monthly meetings and took part in his first dahlia show, where he won the sweepstakes for the novice section when he was 10 or 11 years old.
Not long after Ron Pollinger became interested in the flower, his twin brother, Don, did too.
Don Pollinger “has kept the White Rose Cafe festooned with dahlias for years,” Ron Pollinger said.
In fact, Ron said his twin brother is better known for the flower in this area because Ron lived out of state for many years.
His wife Shirley’s job required them to move to California, where they lived for 30 years. The couple also lived in Denton, Texas, and Palm Springs, Calif.
Pollinger and his wife grew dahlias in each of those places.
“We grew them in the desert in 120 degrees,” he said, adding that he created a cloth house and a misting system to keep the plants hydrated.
For all those years, the twin brothers continued to enter the dahlia show together. Ron would fly to Missouri every September to take part in the show. The brothers would bring an entire, large U-Haul truck full of flowers to the show.
They won grand sweepstakes in the show for eight years in a row.
Ron moved back to Union in 2000 to retire near Pollinger’s brother.
“There’s nothing like the greenery and the farmland here. It’s in my veins,” he said.
The same man who taught Pollinger to love Dahlias, also got him into rifles. The two shot rifles together and he took part in a government arms readiness program, designed to help make civilians ready to go to war.
Beckmann also shared his love of opera music with Pollinger. And though he’s nearly 80 years old, Pollinger has powerful lungs and a booming singing voice.
He took part in community theater over the years.
“I sing all the time. I am a living recording,” he said. “I sing anywhere, whether I’m asked or not.”
He’s sung in restaurants, at funerals and weddings.
He listened extensively to singers like Enriquo Caruso, John McCormick and Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
He eventually gave his antique record collection to Pavarotti when he met him in Las Vegas, Nev.
Pollinger’s parents weren’t gardeners, but his mother had a victory garden during World War II. After his graduation from Lindbergh High School, Pollinger went to Greenville College, in Illinois. He was a minister for about 10 years before he became a teacher.
He served as the principal at Clearview Elementary and Marthasville Elementary, both in the Washington School District, under then-superintendents Don Northington and Bill Adkins.
He then went to the Morengo School District, near Palm Springs, where he worked until his retirement in 2000.
Shirley Pollinger directed a home health service and then ran the nursing department for the county where they lived.
The couple have been married for 55 years and have two sons, Craig and Kevin. Craig and his wife, Kelly, are more involved in taking care of the dahlias. At this year’s dahlia show, the two won two prizes for best of show, for baskets of 10 and 15 flowers. Now, the flowers serve as nostalgia for Ron Pollinger.
“It’s all for the joy of remembering how we used to do it and got a big kick out of it,” he said.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Palm Springs, Fla., when it should have read Palm Springs, Calif. The error has been corrected above.