Marvin Jernigan
A Man Named Marvin

by Gene Phillips

A Man Named Marvin Once upon a time, there was a man named Marvin, and what an extraordinary man he was. He was a ‘Gentle Giant’ who was like a father to many of us in the camellia world. By watching him, we learned not only how to grow camellias, but more importantly, how to live our lives. Marvin taught us that attributes such as power, fame, and fortune cannot come close in comparison to wisdom, respect, and generosity. Through his quiet mannerism, he accomplished more in his lifetime than others would dare to imagine.

The story of Marvin Jernigan could be told by hundreds of different persons in hundreds of different ways. There is no limit to the number of people that Marvin touched in some way, but this is the story of how very special that he was to me. This is my story of ‘A Man Named Marvin’.

I had my first face-to-face meeting with Marvin Jernigan at a camellia show in Albany, Georgia several years ago. His reputation had preceded him as a quiet man that really knew about camellias. After talking with him for just a very short while, I found that characterization to be correct. Marvin was unlike some camellia experts who will try to seek you out and begin to bestow their camellia wisdom on you, whether you want to hear it or not. Rather, he was the kind of grower that you tell you his opinion on anything that you wanted to know, but only if you asked him for it. One thing that I learned from Marvin was the meaning of the word ‘patience’. He pointed out to me on many occasions that things ‘camellia-wise’ will have to take time, and will not happen overnight.

Although Marvin was a camellia grower, like most of us, he had a day job, and he took that occupation very seriously. Throughout much of his life, Marvin worked in the field of law enforcement. First as a game warden, later as a probation officer, and finally as a prison superintendent, Marvin made it his business to do the very best job that he could. For a large portion of his career, he dealt with tragedies on a daily basis, and being the kind of compassionate person that he was, he found it difficult to leave them in the office everyday. Many times, Marvin told me how camellias offered him a means of escaping the pressures of his job. In his camellia garden, he was able to find a calm in the raging storm, where he could find the peace that would enable him to face another demanding day.

Marvin first began his love affair with camellias at a camellia show that was put on by The Middle Georgia Camellia Society in Macon around 1970. He told me that one-day, he and his wife Ruth were walking down the street, and he saw a sign for a camellia show, so they went in to see what all the fuss was about. From that moment on, he was hooked. Not only did Marvin learn about how to grow camellias, but he also, learned how to show them. After a few years, He became a camellia show judge, and eventually, became one of the best teachers at the schools where camellia judging is taught. Camellia shows were always an important part of Marvin’s life. Like most camellia enthusiasts, he had his list of favorite varieties. One time I asked Marvin to name the camellias that he liked best. Not surprisingly, he told me that his favorite was ‘Ville de Nantes’. Other cultivars on his list were ‘William Forrest Bray’, ‘Cecil Beard’, ‘Henry Lunsford’, ‘Dr. Carl Beard’, and of course, ‘Ruth Jernigan’. Marvin told me that he believed that ‘Frank Houser’ was the best reticulate hybrid ever developed.

Not only was Marvin Jernigan one of the most knowledgeable experts on camellias, but also he was one of the most generous individuals that I ever met. He was always giving plant material to anyone that asked him for it. I can’t even begin to tell you how many camellia cuttings that Marvin has given me over the years. He was that way with everyone that he knew. Once, he had just registered a new seedling that he developed named ‘Ruth Jernigan’ in honor of his lovely wife. He had camellia fanciers from everywhere asking him for cuttings of the new variety. Marvin said that he took so many cuttings off the plant and cut it back so far, that he lost his original plant, and had to get cuttings of it himself from some of his friends that he had shared cuttings with earlier. There was never a camellia that Marvin had that he would not share with you. He never kept secrets on growing camellias. All you had to do was ask, and he was an open book.

Marvin was the ultimate volunteer. Marvin volunteered his knowledge as interim horticulturist for the American Camellia Society at their headquarters in Fort Valley, Georgia. The garden at the ACS headquarters is called ‘Massee Lane’, and was one of the dearest places to Marvin’s heart. He served, as interim horticulturist at a time when his services were needed most. If it were not for the devotion that Marvin gave to Massee Lane, many of the irreplaceable camellias may have not survived. Although he always loved camellia shows, Marvin also realized the importance of using camellias in the garden, and it was for this reason that he loved Massee Lane so much. His work as ACS horticulturist at Massee Lane enabled many to see camellias in a garden setting as landscape plants. Another of Marvin’s goals was to have at least one plant of as many varieties as possible planted at Massee Lane. He used to tell me that even varieties that were considered by camellia experts to be insignificant should be planted as well. Marvin believed that a hundred years from now, one of these so-called insignificant varieties could prove to be invaluable for a future camellia hybridizer. In addition to all of the volunteer work that he did for the American Camellia Society, Marvin also helped many local and regional camellia societies. When The Camellia Society of Southeast Georgia was just getting started, Marvin volunteered to drive to Savannah, and put on a program.

Marvin Jernigan was one of the best camellia hybridizers that I have known. Much of the knowledge that I have on camellia breeding was learned from Marvin. He began to hybridize camellias in 1972 with the help and inspiration of Marvin’s good friend – Dr. Walter Homeyer who was probably one of the best camellia breeders of all time. Marvin strived for diversity in his hybrids. Many of his developments would be ideal as exhibition blooms in camellia shows, and others would be best suited for the garden. Unlike many camellia hybridizers, Marvin was concerned about the plant that he developed as much as he was about the flower. Many seedlings that he raised had superb flowers, but were never registered as named varieties because they had poor plant characteristics or were susceptible to disease. Marvin was definitely ‘A Camellia Hybridizer’s Hybridizer’.

I have mentioned many of the attributes of Marvin Jernigan, and many of the roles that he played during his life, but I have saved the best for last. Marvin’s best role was that of ‘friend’. No one could ever want a better friend than Marvin Jernigan. There was no way that you could ever out-give him, and the beauty of his generosity was demonstrated in his reason for sharing. He never gave because he thought that he would get something in return. Marvin gave because that was his nature. Once, I had asked Marvin for some seed from his Oleifera species. He brought me a whole bucket of them that he had already shelled. I probably got several thousand seedlings from those seed in that five-gallon bucket. When Marvin first got interested in camellia hybridization, Walter Homeyer invited him to come by for a visit. During his first visit, Dr. Homeyer gave Marvin 8 breeder plants to begin his camellia breeding with. Marvin never forgot the generosity that was bestowed on him, and for the rest of his life, he tried to make that spirit of sharing part of his daily practice.

It has often been said that behind every good man is a good woman, and that was definitely true in Marvin’s case. Ruth Jernigan was always one to keep Marvin from misbehaving or loosing track of time. I will always remember the time that Marvin and Ruth came down to help us with a program for The Camellia Society of Southeast Georgia. I can still see Ruth raising her hand well into the program. She would twirl her wrist round and round with her finger pointed towards the ceiling. I noticed her doing this several times during the program, so after the presentation, I asked Ruth what she was doing. She told me that it was her way of telling Marvin to ‘wind it up’. Once, I asked Marvin what was it about him that enabled him to get a woman like Ruth for a wife. Without hesitation, he just smiled and said that he was “Very Lucky’.

Marvin left us on March 8, 2002. I will always remember how I felt when I got the call telling me that Marvin had passed away. There was so much more that I wanted to learn from him. My friend – Debbie Odom put it best when she said “ Marvin; thanks for being you and for sharing with all of us your love of camellias. You will always be our inspiration. We can only imagine what your ‘new garden’ will look like once you start pollinating!” The ultimate tribute to Marvin is exhibited in the lives of those that he impacted. Every time that I visit Massee Lane, I will smile and think of Marvin. It is only fitting that there will soon be a special garden at Massee Lane known as ‘Marvin’s Garden’. For those of you that knew him personally, there is no need to say anymore, because you can understand why he was so special. For those of you that did not know him, I hope that you get a glimpse of the person that he was. Marvin was a teacher, a father, an inspiration, and most importantly, a friend to me. He will always live in my heart because I was one of those fortunate individuals that knew ‘A Man Named Marvin’.