My good friend Kathy Torgerson of Johnson City, Tennessee, is often posting pictures on Facebook of her 91-year-old mother. These pictures always get my attention as they represent a lovely, vibrant, active woman … one who is still working in her rose garden.
This is the most recent picture posted! Once I saw this picture, I knew I had to know more!
I sent an email to Kathy asking if her mother would consider telling me her story and answering a few questions about growing roses. Kathy answered immediately, telling me Nell was delighted. Nell was not the only one delighted! When I first asked, I had no idea just how interesting things were in the world of Nell.
Learning more about this beautiful woman has been a great pleasure to me. I find that the more I know about Nell, the more I want to know. How many people do you know who spent time working in a “secret city” of war and bombs?
NELL’S STORY: A SECRET CITY, AN ELOPEMENT, A FAMILY AND ROSES…
Nell Phillips (91) was born in Kentucky but grew up in Middle Tennessee. She went to business school in Nashville after graduating high school. She and her best friend worked in Memphis at the McDonald Aircraft factory where bombers were being built for World War II, then they took jobs in Oak Ridge, TN – The Secret City, where thousands of people converged to make a town where one had not been before and where only a very small number of people knew that they were actually working towards the completion of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, to end World War II. She met the love of her life there, fellow worker Joe Phillips, and they eloped to Georgia to be married on August 11, 1945. While on their honeymoon they learned that the war was over and that the Secret City workers had played a huge part in its ending. They had a son, Gary, while still living in Oak RIdge, then they moved near Milligan College, TN in 1948 for Joe to join his brother in ownership of a gas station/grocery store. In 1957 they moved to what had been farmland in the relatively new northern part of Johnson City, TN and built the brick ranch where they added a daughter, Kathy, to the family.
While Joe raised apple trees and had a big vegetable garden in their extra lot, Nell started her rose bed and beautiful phlox beds, tulips, daffodils, geraniums, pansies and all varieties of shrubs. People tell her if she drops a toothpick, a tree will grow. She worked in the medical records department of Johnson City Memorial Hospital while Joe became an appliance salesman. She took care of Joe at home as his health deteriorated due to diabetes and even after he lost both legs, she managed on her own to keep him well loved and cared for till he died in their bed in 2002.
Nell still maintains the house and yard, with the help of her grandson, does her daily crossword puzzle, maintains friends from 16 years old to 86, and despite surgeries, illnesses and falls, lives independently and vibrantly. She credits her yard work, especially her roses, for keeping her going.
ON GROWING ROSES…
How long have you been growing roses?
About 50 years. We built the house in 1957 and I started the rose bed a few years later.
Who was your inspiration for growing roses?
No one. Roses have always been my favorite flowers, so I just wanted to try.
Why have you continued to grow roses?
It’s my hobby. It’s a challenge but I like challenges.
What were some of the first roses you planted?
My first was an American Beauty. Then Double Delight, Mr. Lincoln, and Carole Lombarde. I had a Peace until a few years ago when it froze out.
What would be your top 3 favorite roses of all time?
Double Delight, American Beauty, Mr. Lincoln
What is your favorite rose story?
My favorite is about my only granddaughter, Kathy’s daughter Joanna. She has Down syndrome and she is my “buddybuddy”. After 4 grandsons that I love dearly, I was so excited to have a granddaughter. On her first birthday, I took a beautiful pink bud from my Queen Elizabeth for her party. That started our tradition. Every year for her birthday, even if we’ve had a drought or beetles have eaten them, I have at least one Queen Elizabeth to take to her. And that’s been 31 birthdays so far.
How many roses do you grow today?
I think I currently have ten.
Your biggest success in growing roses?
My Queen Elizabeth and my Mr. Lincoln. They look like florists’ blooms. And Mr. Lincoln was my husband’s favorite, so they remind me of him.
Biggest challenge in growing roses?
Bugs! The Japanese beetles and I have a running battle in the rose garden. I get so mad at them, I pull them off and stomp on them! Except for my Peace, I haven’t lost any. I got a Pink Peace a few years ago, and it’s doing beautifully. The blooms are as big around as plates. Also the weather. In East Tennessee, if you don’t like the weather one day, just wait till the next and it will change. So it’s hard to depend on the weather.
If you could say one thing to the world of rose lovers what would it be?
You have to be committed to grow roses. They take work and worry. But I love them. They are my great joy. Sadly, I am allergic to them. I can’t have them in my house and it’s even hard for me to have them in my car to take to friends. Kathy usually has to deliver them, because I can’t be enclosed with them that long before I get sick. But that’s my favorite thing to do, to cut bouquets of them for sick friends, for friends’ birthdays, or just to share them. Kathy promises that I will have beautiful roses on my casket when I die, to make up for the ones I couldn’t enjoy for myself while alive! I think they are one of God’s most beautiful gifts to us.
I agree with Nell … roses are one of God’s most beautiful gifts to us; right under the wonderful people He places in our lives, wonderful people like Nell.
Thank you Nell for sharing your story! And, Kathy, keep posting those pictures! Now that we know about Nell’s world of roses, we just may need to know more about what was going on in that “Secret City.”