‘I sang and spoke to the flowers and they repeated back.’

There are no more humble words to summarize 33 years of eloquent public service than those spoken by George H. Lewis himself last week on his retirement from Los Angeles County.

“I stand in awesome wonder at all the things that have happened,” Lewis said melodically, standing tall and reserved in an earth-toned suit.

“It was a good job,” he said. “I was good to the county. In turn, the county was good to me. I had a job to do, an obligation. I worked weekends, late evenings, overtime. It made no difference. It was my job.

“I love working with people and, for some reason, people like me. That is part of life and I think it is the best part of life.”


At each pause, 500 people standing before him burst into applause.

They were smartly dressed, finely mannered and, generally, not too young. Among them were relatives of Lewis, county employees, friends and emissaries from politics. But mostly, they were the women, and fewer men, of the Descanso Gardens Guild.

After 16 years as superintendent of the 160-acre natural reserve and floral paradise in La Canada Flintridge, Lewis put in his last day of work Monday, his 69th birthday.

Those whose lives Lewis had drawn into the rhythms of Descanso--plant propagation every Tuesday, wreath-making at Christmas, the planting of tulip bulbs in the fall--gathered around him a last time last Thursday evening in a standing-room-only soiree at Van de Kamp Hall, the rustic exhibition and assembly hall built by the guild with money it raised during Lewis’ administration.

For 90 minutes before the formal program began, Lewis stood outside under a trellised wisteria receiving old friends with handshakes, hugs and kisses.

Later came the tributes, beginning with letters from President Bush, Gov. George Deukmejian and Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). An aide to Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) presented an American flag flown for a day at the White House. State Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale), who came in person, deferred the reading of his whereases.

But Barbara Crowley, wife of the Pasadena city director, couldn’t resist reading the words sent by the city that Lewis calls home. They’re “so nice,” she explained.

They also told the George Lewis story in decent prose.

“Whereas George H. Lewis has earned his degree in ornamental horticulture at Virginia’s Hampton University School of Agriculture in 1951;

“Whereas, he began his county career in 1957 with the Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens and became superintendent of Descanso Gardens in 1974;

“Whereas he’s a member of the Los Angeles Men’s Gardening Club, the California Assn. of Nurserymen, the Southern California Camellia Society, the Southern California Daffodil Society, the International Lilac Society, the Pacific Rose Society and many other horticultural organizations;

“Whereas he is most knowledgeable about pond and water ecology, including knowing to the last drop the amount of rainfall, and each week introduces to his plant propagation classes a new plant, its name, where it came from, how to plant it and care for it;

“Whereas he is a famed rosarian and has long been responsible for the planting of flowering trees and flowering shrubs, including at least a million or two tulips each spring;

“And whereas he is dapper, much-loved and hard-working, and can spell any Latin word for any plant;

Now, therefore . . . .”

Therefore, only a few moments later, George Lewis received a gift that nearly left the erudite retiree speechless.

It came after the giant staghorn fern from his former boss, the money tree from the plant propagation group and the combination VCR-TV, which elicited a playful two-fisted salute. Guild President Mary Ann Arnett handed Lewis the envelope.

Opening it, he reported its contents as “a check for . . . $6,000?”

Then he collected himself to speak.

“First of all, I must thank God for keeping me this long and giving me good health,” Lewis said.

He attributed his good health to a daily routine:

“Turn in the gates and all the lovely flowers, all of the greenery on the trees, the grass, the birds were singing. I listened to them. I sang and spoke to the flowers and they repeated back. They do understand what you say.”

This year’s tulip bloom was the best ever, he said, but confessed that the number was some 970,000 short of the proclamation’s boast.

He said a visitor recently asked if he knew who hybridized a yellow tulip with a red stripe.

“I said, “No I don’t but that just goes to show you, mister, that there is a God. Man couldn’t do that.’ ”

He concluded by reciting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Republic.”

It echoed a poem read earlier by a member of Descanso Gardens’ plant propagation group.

Lewis’ presence, said Clarence (Dutch) Veltman, had given “souls who seem slightly lost a place to find their souls again.”

Anyone who has seen George Lewis at work would know that it was just his job. And he never tired of it.