Who Needs Shoes?
By Jock Demme
Jean Iseli, besides being a superb plantsman, was eclectic by nature. One of the traits that set him apart from others was his stand on shoes (no pun here). He did not wear shoes—summer, fall, winter, spring—ever. He had bad feet, especially the nails, so being unabashedly practical he gave up fashion and propriety for comfort. Seemed funny to most, especially to those that visited in the dead of winter, and watched him venture out onto the nursery in freezing weather and snow with his feet bared to the elements. Actually he wore flip-flops. They were the cheap rubber and plastic kind you could buy at Kmart for a song. He wore them till they wore out, and then sprung for a few dollars and a new pair.
This somewhat strange appearance was just fine for home and around the nursery, but looked a little odd and out of place when attending events off-site. In the summer of 1985, Jean agreed to accompany me to the Southern Nurserymans' Association Trade Show in Atlanta, Georgia. A pretty big show even back then. We were trying to expand our market in the mid-south, so it was an important event. Because we came from afar, and Iseli Nursery had earned a reputation of being a high-quality grower of unusual conifers and Japanese maples, we were invited to a Tea to be held at the Governor's mansion, and hosted by the First Lady of the state of Georgia. What an honor. I explained to Jean that this was truly an important event and that the suggested dress code was better than just casual. You know, coat and tie, in spite of the 90 degree (plus) weather, if you could stand it. Jean, of course, said that it sounded like fun, but he would not submit to the wearing of shoes, even for teas with the First Lady of the State. What a dilemma. I told our nurseryman host that we looked forward to the event, even though not all of us had come to Atlanta with the proper attire for the Governor's mansion. Our host was gracious and said to come ahead and not to worry, as the First Lady was a kind and understanding person.
Well, we made the outing, me in my coat and tie, Jean in his thongs, gray work pants and sport shirt. The First Lady did a quick double take during introductions, but never once indicated that anything was out of place. Neither did Jean. I figure, for them both, nothing was.
Originally published in the November/December 2004 issue of Garden Compass magazine. Reproduced with permission.