Former nursery owner Fox delays retirement to keep doing job for which he still has passion

Wayne Fox stands inside a greenhouse at Huntington Nursery & Florist, where he has worked for 51 years. Fox was also the owner of the business for a long time, selling it in 2008, but he opted to stay on to help out and continue doing work he says he loves.
Wayne Fox stands inside a greenhouse at Huntington Nursery & Florist, where he has worked for 51 years. Fox was also the owner of the business for a long time, selling it in 2008, but he opted to stay on to help out and continue doing work he says he loves. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Wayne Fox agreed to stay on and help for a year after he sold Huntington Nursery to Jim and Kevin Yarger in 2008.

Twelve years later and counting, he’s still there.

“I’m one of the managers here,” he says, when asked for his current title. “I do the design work, and I do the estimating for all the outside contracting, and I’m kind of the horticulture guru, so to speak … I’ve been here so long, I do what I have to do. I’ve been doing it so long that whatever has to be done, I do.”

Huntington Nursery has been around for 74 years, opening in 1946 as a Christmas tree farm. Fox has made his career there for 51 of those years, starting as a part-time seasonal worker in March of 1969, when he was a junior in high school. Between then and now, he has served in nearly every function needed to make Huntington Nursery successful, from sweeping floors and digging trees to balancing the books.

“I did all kind of just landscape work, and maintenance and trimming, and all the stuff that landscapers do – except I was being told what to do,” Fox says. “Other than when I was in college, I did a couple of odd jobs. But it’s pretty much where I worked, all my life.”

Fox graduated from Purdue University in 1974 with a degree in landscape design and nursery management. He was then hired to become a manager, doing what he pretty much does now.

“I really haven’t had a job change at all, because I got graduated up, but of course I was getting a formal education in horticulture at Purdue, but once I got out of Purdue I just moved on up,” he recalls.

In 1984, after managing the business for roughly 10 years, he purchased it from the original owner, Lowell Buzzard, who also taught math at the high school. Fox remembers that in his senior year Buzzard was both his boss and his math teacher.

Now, it was Fox’s turn to be the boss at the nursery, a role he continued in as sole proprietor for 24 years.

“That’s why there’s not many jobs I don’t know what to do, because in 24 years of ownership, you learn them all,” he adds.

In the past 51 years at Huntington Nursery, Fox says his best memories are of the people he’s come in contact with – those he’s worked for and worked with, as well as his customers.

“I still have an extremely good following,” he says. “People come in now and they have a landscape problem, they’re looking for me, because I’ve been here so long, for one. Just solving people’s problems on landscaping and that kind of stuff. Those are things that I enjoy the most, and you get quite an array of people over 50 years you’ve worked with.”

Over the years, each progressive owner made improvements, Fox says, recalling the time they even moved a barn on the property – literally – in the name of progress.

“We picked that barn up and actually turned it 90 degrees,” he says. “It was in the way of the new barn.”

The changes in nursery and landscaping practices over the years have also been noteworthy, he says, mainly because of more modern equipment being used today.

“The stuff we did in 1969 with a shovel and a spade and a rake, today we have machinery that digs our plants. The volume of work that we can get done today compared to what we could have gotten done in ’69 or in the early ’70s is because of the fact that we have equipment. It’s saved our backs.” Fox explains. “With a spade or shovel you could dig four trees a day. Today we can dig about 50 in a day, with four guys. That’s because the machine does the work.”

Fox says landscaping has also become more popular, with more elaborate landscaping patterns nowadays as people seek to add value and make their properties look appealing. It has continued to fuel the growth in Huntington Nursery’s business each year, he says.

Under the leadership of the Yargers, Huntington nursery has expanded and improved with the addition of the floral shop, a mowing service and increase in employees from 12 to 14 to around 20 to 25 in the summer season, plus three full-time florists.

Kevin Yarger says having Fox on staff has been invaluable, with the former owner essentially teaching him and his father, Jim Yarger, about the business they had no background in.

“We had a built-in coach for the last 12 years, to get our feet wet,” Yarger says. “It’s been great. I can’t believe it’s been 12 years.”

But perhaps more than anything, what keeps Fox passionate about working at one business for more than 50 years is the gratification he gets from the results of his handiwork.

“Even just going to a one-day job, where you start with this and you end up with this at the end of the day, and you look back and say, ‘That looks nice.’ Even though it’s for someone else, it still gives you gratification, because you accomplished that,” he says. “I think people that work in this business for any length of time, it’s because they love that period aspect of it. It’s just fun.”

For the next 50 years of his life, Fox thinks he may want to chill out and cut down his work schedule to only two or three days per week. He doesn’t talk about relaxing in Florida. His two sons, ages 37 and 35, also worked at the nursery for their dad when they were younger, but have opted to go into different careers. One is a schoolteacher and the other is an airline pilot.

“I always told them, you know, if you don’t have a passion for what you do, then don’t do it. Do something else. Because if you don’t love what you do, it’s going to be a miserable 50 years for you,” he pontificates. “People tell me, even today, when they ask questions, they’ll still look and say, ‘You really love what you don’t you?’ and it shows. And I do. I truly love my job.”