Pink petals and seeds floated past Roger Lawson’s hospital window when he died on April 30, 2021, in the embrace of his wife of 63 years, Mary. It was a fitting tribute to a man who’d devoted more than eight decades to cherishing flowers and family.
Born on January 21, 1937, Roger began cultivating tuberous begonias when he was 8 years old and started a business, Roger’s Greenhouse, in his backyard in Portland, Oregon. By the age of 11, he was featured in the Portland Oregonian for becoming the youngest licensed “nurseryman” in the state.
After attending Oregon State University, where he and Mary received degrees in floriculture, Roger earned a doctorate in plant pathology and won a postdoctoral Fulbright fellowship to the Netherlands. During his 36-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he directed the florist and nursery crops laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, served as a national program leader, and traveled the world to meet with other scientists and search for new species for the floral trade.
Named Outstanding Scientist of the Year by the Agricultural Research Service, Roger developed new technology for detection, diagnosis and prevention of virus diseases of orchids, carnations, tulips, lilies and chrysanthemums. He developed new floral crops for U.S. markets, collaborating with growers, the Society of American Florists, and researchers all over the world. Among his many scientific achievements, he was the first to show that monoclonal antibodies could be used in quantitatively detecting a purified plant virus. Roger published more than 250 papers on floral and nursery plants and virus diseases. He was associate editor of Phytopathology and Plant Disease Reporter, senior editor of Phytopathology, and a columnist for Greenhouse Manager.
Roger was a recognized leader in microbial germplasm collection and preservation, serving as chairman of the board of trustees of the American Type Culture Collection, a global biological materials resource and standards organization; he was also chairman of the National Work Conference on Microbial Collections of Major Importance to Agriculture, which served as a model for the National Institutes of Health in developing policy on germplasm conservation. He was a fellow of the American Phytopathological Society and the Washington Academy of Sciences, an honorary life member of the American Orchid Society, and a leader of global symposiums for the International Society for Horticulture Science.
In addition to floral research, Roger worked with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria in developing a cooperative research project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to study virus diseases of sweet potato and yams. He also worked with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to investigate virus diseases of rice. As accomplished as he was in his scientific endeavors, Roger displayed a rare dedication and encouraging, soft-spoken leadership style that earned him much admiration from his collaborators.
“I expected him to live forever,” said a longtime colleague and friend. “He was that kind of force of nature—very gentle, but so full of life.”
Roger’s passion for his work was exceeded only by his devotion to his family. He was a constant and positive, encouraging presence, trying every day to make sure his loved ones had everything they needed to be happy, comfortable, and safe. His beloved dogs Inca, Gigi and Tasha stood at the door or perched on the stairs at 4:45 p.m. to await his arrival home by 5:15, when he would pour a drink and unwind from the day with Mary and their three children. Sunday mornings meant blueberry pancakes and Vivaldi on the record player. Every summer he and Mary planned camping trips, sometimes taking a month off to pile the whole family into a Chevy station wagon for a cross-country trek to Oregon.
In his retirement years, Roger continued to travel the world with Mary but still found time to pick his grandchildren up from school almost every day. He taught himself to make tables, bookshelves, chests, carvings and other precious pieces that now grace his family’s homes. Always curious and up for a new challenge, he became interested in butterfly gardening with native plants during the last decade of his life. His delight in the many wild visitors to his flowers inspired him to make beautiful painted butterfly carvings in his basement shop.
Though a bit shy by nature, Roger was nevertheless a fierce plant advocate, sometimes embarrassing his children at shopping malls and other public spaces by seeking out property managers to let them know their pots needed watering. His jokes were as punny as any you’ve ever heard, sometimes causing his family to cringe affectionately but always cracking them up in the end. “I’ll miss watching him pretend to be Mrs. Claus in our Christmas plays, watching him down a slice of chocolate cake in a second, and especially holding his hand,” says his granddaughter, Elise Crouch. She and her brother Ryan remember spending many hours trading stories with him.
In addition to Mary, Roger is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Jeff and India Lawson; daughter and son-in-law Janet and Jeff Crouch; daughter and son-in-law Nancy Lawson and Will Heinz; his brother and sister-in-law Russ and Bette Lawson; his four grandchildren; three nieces and a nephew. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date, and it will be filled with flowers. Though many obituaries end with a request for donations “in lieu of flowers,” Roger would have wanted the opposite: Nothing in the world can replace flowers. In honor of Roger, please plant flowers, give flowers to others, buy flowers for your dinner table, and take time to notice and cherish the plants wherever you go in this life.
Due to Covid-19, all services will be private at this time. We welcome you to provide your thoughts and memories on our Tribute Wall.
To send flowers to Roger's family, please visit our floral store.