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As we approach this weekend’s 115th annual Rhododendron Festival, it’s appropriate to recognize and honor the generations of stalwart traditionalists and Flame Keepers before us who have kept our state’s second longest running floral festival alive and relevant to the identity of our community. Gene Cockeram was a Flame Keeper of the highest order, and his ardent devotion to our city’s crown jewel — the native rhododendron — was readily apparent to all who knew him.
I came to know just how fiercely passionate Gene was about rhododendrons, and the importance of keeping them front and center during the festival, during my tenure on the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors. It was the day after the Rhododendron Grand Floral Parade, and Cal Applebee, then executive director, alerted me that Gene had just paid a visit to his office and was extremely upset about the Queen’s bouquet.
“What was the problem?” I asked.
“It was made of roses,” Cal replied. “And he’s headed your way.”
I had never met Gene before, but I knew who he was the moment he came in through the doors of my little café, Mon Ami. For the next several minutes, I received both a “schoolin’” and a history lesson on all things rhododendron.
I learned that for many years Gene had supplied the rare white rhododendron florals for the Queen’s bouquet, but that in the most recent years not only was he not being contacted, but that “alternate” flowers were being used. This was understandably unacceptable. And to make matters worse, he had heard a rumor that our court had made an appearance at Lebanon’s Strawberry Festival, and our very own Queen Rhododendron was carrying a bouquet of red roses! How could this have happened?
“Mrs. Wobbe, this isn’t the Portland Rose Festival! This is the RHODODENDRON FESTIVAL!”
In a word, Gene was apoplectic. And I didn’t blame him one bit!
The following year, Dee Osborne, Jenna Bartlett and I stepped into the role of Rhody Court Coordinators. And just as soon as that year’s theme was announced, Gene called me up to remind me of the previous year’s grand faux pas. I asked him if he’d once again contribute the flowers for the Queen’s bouquet and he enthusiastically offered to bring them to me a day in advance of the crowning.
The year was 2013. Siuslaw senior Jade Herbert was named Queen Rhododendra. And, as is often the case, our local rhodies had bloomed out a bit too soon — we were all struggling to find sturdy blooms with which to decorate.
Alas, when Gene brought me a scant armful of those rare white flowers to take to our local florist, they were long past their prime and showed it. I rushed them down to Bobbi Brubaker and asked her to work her magic. A phone call an hour or so later brought dire news.
“There’s only one stem here that I can use,” said Bobbi. “Do you mind if I add some other flowers to beef it up?”
“DO NOT USE ROSES!” I cried. “Use salal! Find some huckleberry! Anything but roses!”
Thankfully, Bobbi managed to find some lovely pink rhodies to surround that lone white blossom, a grievous wrong was righted, and Queen Jade carried a stunning arrangement in the parade for all to see.
The next year, we asked Gene to be our guest of honor at the Queen’s Coronation at the Florence Events Center. He arrived about an hour early, dapperly dressed in a velveteen suit jacket, and we promptly seated him in the first row, front and center.
I was emcee that year and shortly after the opening number, introduced Gene to the audience and asked him to stand as the audience applauded.
As things quieted down, Gene continued to stand and then announced that he had something important to say. I looked over at Jenna who was standing in the wings and then stepped back. We knew this was important to him. And he was important to us. Gene then proceeded, without a microphone, to educate everyone in attendance about the history of our Rhododendron Festival and his beloved rhododendron — the REAL “queen” of the night and the REAL reason we were gathered there.
During my years of involvement with the Chamber and Rhody Court, I made annual visits to Gene’s beautiful yard in Dunes City to cut the blooms for the annual Queen’s Bouquet, where he grew over 1,000 different species of rare and hybrid rhododendrons. There was almost always something blooming. Gene’s knowledge was vast, his stories fascinating, and he was eager to share. Each visit there, I learned something new.
But perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned of all was the importance of holding true to the traditions that have shaped our identity as a community, traditions kept alive by generations of Flame Keepers, folks we’ve been losing at a rapid pace in recent years.
Change is part of life, its inevitable. But there are some things that really should stay the same and the spirit of community service, honoring and continuing the contributions of our elders who laid the cornerstones of Florence, is chief among them.
Our home-town Rhododendron Festival with its Grand Floral Parade does more than promote tourism and generate revenues. It honors the legacy of generations of queens (and now kings) and courts, coronation participants, grand marshals, float designers, marching bands, pie bakers, flower show participants, Rhody runners, Rhody mosey-ers, slug race participants, parade pooper scoopers, Shriners zipping in their carts, prancing horses, baton twirlers, vintage car buffs and kids big and little who spent their childhoods lining the highway to catch candy. This weekend, we celebrate the very best of Florence and what makes it such a special place to call home.
Gene Cockeram passed away March 1 at the age of 95, a long and well lived life by anyone’s standards. His gifts to us were many. I’m choosing to pay it forward in his honor this weekend by renewing my commitment to be a Flame Keeper in our beloved community. Won’t you join me?
The Florence Area Chamber of Commerce’s Rhododendron Festival is May 19 to 22. The Rhody Court Coronation is Thursday, May 19, at the Florence Events Center. Learn more online at FlorenceChamber.com.