[ from the Oakland Tribune, Dec. 26, 1947. ]
by Jack Burroughs
“How’d you like to be a bumble bee?” said Luther Burbank.
“Fine,” said Howard Gilkey.
This conversation, one of the shortest on record, took place about 40 years ago in Santa Rosa.
The result was that Howard became a “bumble bee,” which is to say he was given an opportunity to try his hand at cross-pollinating of spineless cactus under the supervision of the celebrated plant breeder.
To say that this was the turning point in Howard’s life would not be strictly accurate. It was one of many turning points in the noted landscape architect’s career, which has consisted of a long succession of turning points.
Howard Gilkey was born in Winthrop, Iowa, March 26, 1890. Though born in the Middle West, he came of New England stock.
The first of the numerous turning points in his life came, when at the age of three, he moved with his parents to Tennessee, where he lived for five years. Their residence was an old Civil War blockhouse in Greenbriar, 30 miles north of Nashville.
At an early age, Howard taught himself to read by studying the ads on newspapers pasted on the walls upside down to serve as wallpaper. So far no one has come forward to dispute Howard’s claim to being the only person who learned to read while standing on his head. One of the first words he learned to spell was “beautiful.”
It was at this early period of his life that Howard’s natural love of flowers began to find expression. He loved to wander along the “spring branches” in search of wild flowers. He also made a collection of 40 kinds of wild seeds and bulbs. When he was 4 years old he put wild gentian and wild violet together and said he was “going to mix them.”
In 1898 the Gilkeys moved to Peoria, Ill., where they lived for four years. Howard completed grammar school before leaving Peoria.
In 1902 the family moved to California and Howard was enrolled in the Santa Rosa High School.
In the spring of 1907, Will Lawrence, who was Luther Burbank’s foreman, gave him a job operating a Norcross cultivator. These implements are familiarly known as “devil’s claws.” The operator walks backward and drags the cultivator after him.
Howard was put to work in a big plot of giant amaryllis. He broke off three of them. He was not fired as he expected to be, but worked for Burbank for two years doing most of the greenhouse work of seeding and planting. It was at this period that he did the cross pollenization work with spineless cactus as a result of the “bumble bee” conversation already recorded.
He worked for Burbank until the spring of 1909. In the fall of 1909 he resumed his interrupted studies in Santa Rosa High School, graduating in 1911, the only boy honor student in his class.
He went to Berkeley to attend U.C., paying his way by taking orders for bulbs for a new variety of gladiolus. Bulbs for these flowers had been given him by Burbank.
He worked with Carl Purdy, who had charge of the horticultural gardens and the Palace of Horticulture at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. In 1916 he returned to U.C. He graduated that year, finishing in the division of landscape design, a newly formed department.
In 1918 he worked as a payroll clerk for the Board of Education, and in his off hours he laid out Lakeside Drive and several small parks about the city.
For two years he worked as city landscape architect. The City Hall Plaza flower beds still follow the design he laid out. He also supervised the Jack London Oak in the Plaza.
He was one of the four founders of the Business Men’s Garden Club of Oakland, which was organized on January 15, 1930. The other three organizers were Harold Austin, James Cobbledick and George Furniss.
The desire to create a garden show resulted in the first annual California Spring Garden Show, held in 1930 in the Earl G. Anthony Building.
He has been connected with this annual show in an official capacity, save for two years, 1935 and 1936. On his return in 1937 the theme was Nature’s Gardens.
In 1944 and 1945 the annual shows were suspended, Howard went into war work, as an engineer and draughtsman.
Observation of the pre-fabrication of ship parts while he worked as a marine draughtsman at Kaiser No. 3 Yard in Richmond gave him the idea of pre-fabrication features of the 1946 garden show.