Samuel Andrew Jones, known as the “orchid man” at the South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, died June 3. He was 93.
Sam was the longtime curator of orchids at the botanical gardens, overseeing the construction of its first orchid greenhouse in 1996 and then the building of two expanded greenhouses. The 1,800-square-feet facility, named the Samuel Jones Orchid Conservatory, opened in 2015. It houses several thousand orchids and more than 25 species, some of them rare.
Sam was involved in horticulture for most of his life. He first became fascinated with roses and won ribbons in American Rose Society competitions. The yard at his home at one time bloomed with more than 100 rose bushes.
Then in the 1970s he received an orchid as a gift. Despite his attempts to cultivate it, the orchid died. He wanted to know why and began studying orchids in books and talking to experts.
Sam built a greenhouse behind his garage. He joined and later became chairman of the South Texas Orchid Society. His passion for orchids lasted more than 30 years and he inspired that passion in a new generation of orchid enthusiasts.
At the botanical gardens, he taught a popular monthly orchidology class and wrote a booklet titled Orchid Culture for the Novice. He often was featured in news stories about the orchid house and his talent for growing orchids.
A month before his death, Sam dictated off the top of his head another booklet, Aid to Growing Orchids, that discusses in detail how to water, fertilize and care for a variety of orchids.
“For 35 years, I’ve been trying to stress the importance of water and orchids,” Sam wrote in the booklet, which is available at the botanical gardens. “People acquire an orchid as a gift or are simply overwhelmed by its beauty and buy one. Then they proceed to kill it because they don’t understand the relationship between water and light. Most orchids end up in the trash can simply because they are over-watered or under-watered.”
One of his last projects was to see the installation of a new reverse osmosis system to purify water for the conservatory. The botanical gardens featured a story about the project on the cover of its latest newsletter.
Of all the orchids he cared for, his favorite orchid was the Paphiopedilum, often called the “lady slipper” orchid.
Sam had humble beginnings. He was born Dec. 1, 1924, in Samson, a rural town in Geneva County, Alabama. His parents were Henry Jackson Jones and Alma Mae Jones.
As a boy, Sam worked hard on his family’s land and plowed peanut fields with mules. He often told stories about his years growing up in Alabama, including summer swims in the Pea River and some of the colorful Southern characters he met.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II, young Sam enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was only 17 and had to get his father’s permission to join.
The Navy sent him to the Florida Keys for torpedo training and then to Southern California, where he was shipped out into the Pacific. He served in the war on several ships, including the U.S.S. Portland and the U.S.S. Kalinin Bay, an aircraft carrier that was part of the “Taffy 3” task force in the Battle off Samar.
The Naval History and Heritage Command described it as “one of the most memorable engagements in U.S. naval history.” The battle prevented Japanese ships from taking control of Leyte Gulf and helped save General Douglas MacArthur’s beachhead in the Philippines.
The slower “outnumbered and outgunned” Taffy 3 force seemed headed toward disaster, “but the American ships defied the odds and gamely accepted the enemy’s challenge,” the naval history account reads.
Sam was wounded when he was hit by shrapnel during a kamikaze attack on the carrier. But, characteristically, when asked if he had applied for a medal for being wounded, he exclaimed, “Heck, no! Men around me were dying!” He and a friend wrapped his arm to stop the bleeding and Sam didn’t even go see the medic until the next day. The doctor lambasted him and said, “You don’t understand; that arm belongs to the U.S. Navy!” Sam got a kick out of telling that story.
The story of Sam’s World War II experience was the subject of an article, titled “War and Remembrance,” published in Texas Highways magazine in 2015 and written by his daughter, Kathryn.
After the war ended, Sam moved to Schenectady, New York, worked for General Electric and did commercial photography on the side. He continued to take photos throughout his life. Several years before his passing, Sam received a digital camera as a gift and learned to use it even though he preferred film.
Sam ended up leaving New York and heading back west to warmer Southern California. There he met and married his wife of almost 60 years, Wanda Faye Smith, in Los Angeles on Jan. 28, 1956. The couple lived in Hollywood at the foot of Griffith Park and their first child, Kathryn Ann, was born there. But Wanda grew homesick and they returned to Texas. Another daughter, Cynthia Louise, was born in Corpus Christi, followed by Mark Andrew two years later, born in Kingsville.
After living in Kingsville for several years, Sam and Wanda settled permanently in Corpus Christi and their three children graduated from W.B. Ray High School. Even though Sam didn’t even attend high school, he believed in the value of education and continued his own education by reading books, especially about ancient and biblical history, World War II and Winston Churchill.
While floating in the Pacific on Navy ships, Sam took a correspondence course and had learned how to become a certified fingerprint analyst. Not being able to find a job in that specialty after the war, he took another correspondence course to learn a trade and became a machinist.
But the work that Sam will be remembered for is public service. He served as a Scoutmaster for a local troop of the Boy Scouts of America. After retiring from his job, he devoted the rest of his life to cultivating orchids and public service in his volunteer positions as curator and educator at the botanical gardens.
Sam was preceded in death by his parents and his wife, who died in 2016. He is survived by a sister, Alice Madalean Cassady, of Samson, Alabama; daughter Kathryn Jones and her husband, Dan Malone, of Walnut Springs; daughter Cindy Markert and her husband, Dennis, of Dime Box; son Mark and his wife, Kathy, of Corpus Christi; four grandchildren – Nathan Markert and his wife, Valerie, of College Station; Aaron Markert and his wife, Aimee, of Dime Box; Rebekah Wickel and her husband, Clayton, of Burton; and Andrew Jones of Corpus Christi.
Sam also is survived by six great-granddaughters: Adley and Avery Markert of Dime Box; Addison and Kallie Markert of College Station; and Hailey and Cameron Wickel of Burton. Other survivors include numerous nieces, nephews, cousins and many friends.
The family would like to thank the staff and especially the nurses of Altus Hospice for helping care for Sam in his last days so he could remain at home with his family.
A Visitation will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, June 7, at Seaside Funeral Home.
A Celebration of Sam’s life will be held at Seaside Funeral Home Chapel at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 8. Entombment will follow next to his wife at Seaside Memorial Park’s mausoleum. Afterward, a reception will be held at the South Texas Botanical Gardens’ education room.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Sam’s name to the South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, 8545 S. Staples, Corpus Christi, TX 78413. See www.stxbot.org for more information.