'Mr. Petunia' Helped Beautify Quaint Mich. Town

fromCMUPR

In the small northern Michigan town of Charlevoix — recently named one of America's prettiest towns by Forbes.com — Dale Boss is known as the man who helped make it beautiful. Some call him "Mr. Petunia." He's lived in Charlevoix for all of his 80 years. Thirty years ago, he launched the effort to plant five miles of petunias through the heart of the city. The program has taken root, and every summer for the past three decades, this cheerful man has headed out at 4 a.m. seven days a week to water his beloved flowers. He's put more than 43 million gallons of water on 1,740,000 petunias.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Michigan this holiday weekend, traffic will be heavy heading up north. It's primetime for the quaint vacation towns on the shores of Lake Michigan, and in the town of Charlevoix, it's primetime for the petunias.

They line the curbs, fill the parks, hang in baskets over sidewalks. Hundreds of volunteers plant them every spring. And one man makes sure they're well cared for all summer. Amy Robinson of member station WCMU introduces us to Mr. Petunia.

AMY ROBINSON: Even for those of us in the sometimes less-than-balmy state of Michigan, it's nice to get out in the spring and summer, work in the garden, tend the flowers. But most of us use a trowel and watering can. Dale Boss is a little more hard core.

(Soundbite of tanker truck)

ROBINSON: He's out every morning at 4 a.m. in his custom-designed, 2,500-gallon tanker truck watering the 60,000 petunias that line the streets in the town of Charlevoix.

Mr. DALE BOSS: By doing it early in the morning like this, why, I have the town pretty much to myself.

ROBINSON: Boss has lived in Charlevoix his whole life. He's celebrated 80 birthdays, 60 years of marriage to his high school sweetheart, Marilyn, and this year, 30 years of watering the petunias. As you can imagine, people here know Dale Boss.

Ms. JEANNINE WALLACE: Absolutely. How could you not know? For years he was the milk man. You know, of course you know him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBINSON: Jeannine Wallace is a longtime resident of Charlevoix. She describes Boss as one of the city's, quote, "loveable characters."

Ms. WALLACE: You have to be a little eccentric to want to water flowers every day at four in the morning. You know, that takes somebody with a little bit of an oddball look at things. He's an amazing man.

ROBINSON: Boss waters the flowers at a rousing four miles an hour, about a pace, he says, of a brisk walk. His early morning drive is interrupted five times when he pulls up to a city hydrant, hooks up what's essentially a short fire hose and refills the tanker.

Mr. BOSS: This is tank number four.

(Soundbite of machinery)

ROBINSON: He doesn't earn a dime for his work. This is his summer vacation, and to hear him talk, he loves it.

Mr. BOSS: I've never missed a day in 30 years. Every quart of water that have been on these flowers, I've done it.

ROBINSON: The flowers have been Boss's pet project since 1982, when he proposed Operation Petunia. Since that year, when Charles and Di were married and MTV was launched, he's spent some 10,000 hours tending the flowers. He says people in this town respect the flowers. They've never been dug up or vandalized, although, he says, once they were cross-pollinated.

Mr. BOSS: A bunch of kids planted a block of marijuana in the line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBINSON: Police confiscated the pot, and if you believe any publicity is good publicity, you'll like Dale Boss.

Mr. BOSS: Rather than being mad at it, I used it as a plus. I got a hold of a lady that writes for the Detroit Free Press, and they put it on the front page of the Detroit Free Press that there's pot in the petunias in Charlevoix.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOSS: So we captured some advertising for something that a bunch of kids played a joke on me.

ROBINSON: Boss is always promoting Charlevoix. Just this year, Forbes.com named Charlevoix as one of America's prettiest towns.

Ms. BOSS: And it's just because people all over town people plant flowers, they fix their houses up. And it's just a nice place to live.

ROBINSON: Boss says he has no plans to retire from his post as Charlevoix's self-appointed gardener and head cheerleader. These days he's lobbying for his latest dream project: a 300-foot tall observation tower that would give tourists a bird's eye view of the petunias.

For NPR news, I'm Amy Robinson.

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