Dahlia Mentors Program
A Very Special Friend and Mentor
Gilly Simmons, originator of MY BEVERLY, ALLIE WHITE, and many other fine dahlias, passed away on December 20. Gilly and his widow Beverly have been dear friends of ours for more than 20 years, and Gilly was a mentor to me when I was new to growing dahlias. I got to know Gilly very well when I attended the ADS National Shows in Asheville, NC and Birmingham, AL in the early 1990s. Gilly, who was a retired high school basketball coach (at the time second on the all-time list of most victories for a high school basketball coach), coped with growing dahlias in the most harsh climate of anyone in ADS.
For most of the time that he grew and exhibited, Southern States Conference rules did not permit anyone to exhibit who used shade cloth before a week prior to the first Southern States show. Like us, Gilly lived in an area (Anderson, SC, on the border with Georgia) that summer thunderstorms usually bypassed. Gilly would take cuttings and put in plants all spring and summer until weather conditions improved to the point where the plants could survive the vicious summer heat. Because the plants that bloomed for him tended to be very late cuttings, he normally brought blooms from the center or main stem to shows. Gilly and Beverly would bring a car full of blooms and stage all night.
While Gilly was a master exhibitor in all areas, he excelled in baskets and arrangements. One year when I wrote for Dahlias of Today about the ADS National Show, I selected as the most impressive exhibit I saw all year as a Gilly Simmons basket – and the photo is in Dahlias of Today as proof.
Gilly was especially proud of his many seedlings, and he always sent them to me. I grew many of them, including Allie White and My Beverly before he officially introduced them. Indeed, I remember bringing Allie White to Richmond and being responsible for its classification and first notice in the Classification Handbook, probably in 1999 (listed as its introduction date). As nice as My Beverly still is, this cultivar, the second he named for his wonderful wife, was absolutely sensational when I first grew it, also probably in 1999.
Each year, Gilly would carefully analyze the cultivar results in the back of the Classification Handbook, both for overall winnings and winnings in the East (closest he could come to results for the South). His careful research, which he sent to me each winter, helped identify cultivars that might be future big winners. Gilly also wrote religious poetry and shared his works with us. His annual letters in late December were close to a dozen pages of closely written material. In earlier years, before my life became so crazy and Gilly became more frail, we used to talk on the phone by the hour.
One problem with the vast size of the dahlia areas in North America is that it is difficult for anyone to know many dahlia people from all sections of the country. Dahlia people in the rest of the country did not have enough opportunity to meet and get to know Gilly and Beverly Simmons. I am glad that I had this opportunity. Gilly touched my life, acted as a mentor and inspiration for me, and was a close friend for most of my time in dahlias. He was unique. I wish that many more members of ADS could have known what Gilly learned and was delighted to share. Although Beverly and her family are the official mourners, everyone who knew him more than casually will be mourning his loss.
- Alan Fisher