Chet Wilson is one of the busier bees at the Sonoma County Fair’s Hall of Flowers. He’s also something of a Forrest Gump.
Lean, balding and vigorous at 77, Wilson pauses while buzzing about the daily plant sale just outside the hall’s main door. He considers a fairly simple question:
How did he come to be there, a creative force in large part responsible for the amateurs of the Men’s Garden Club of Santa Rosa winning ribbons year after year at the Hall of Flowers despite the competition from professional landscape designers and nurseries?
A broad smile comes to Wilson and he readies himself to respond. This would not be a simple answer.
He says, “If I passed away tomorrow, I’d say I had a good life.” Good for sure, and also quite stunningly remarkable.
This fellow was the Ohio state baton-twirling champion before he became a Marine. He recounts a lifelong series of right place, right time encounters that led to him doing well — most often, exceptionally well — as a custom shirt salesman, stockbroker, Academy of Art graduate, Joseph Magnin department store display designer, home-interior consultant to a Texas tycoon and to pro football icon John Madden, owner, at various times, of a Sebastopol nursery, that same town’s upscale home-accessories boutique and a Santa Rosa design center and, for the past decade, the transforming president of the Garden Club.
It began with his birth in 1936 to a large, hardworking but poor family in Depression-stressed Spencerville, Ohio.
“I’m the second-oldest of 10 boys and four girls,” Wilson said.
In high school, he found he was miserable at shop. So he became one of the few boys to choose the office-skills route, bookkeeping and typing and such. That training would serve him very well later on.
As a kid interested in music, he learned that his family was plenty impoverished enough for him to qualify for a loaned band instrument. Picking the saxophone, he took it home to commence practicing.
His father, a machinist who built steam engines at the Lima Locomotive Works, heard a few notes and put an end to it.
He barked to his son, “I’m not going to come home from work and listen to that noise.” So much for the sax.
But a light came on in young Chet Wilson’s head when he heard that his school, Spencerville High, was in need of a drum major. To practice baton-twirling makes no noise.
It disgusted his father when he took up the baton, but in time the old man came to appreciate how extraordinarily good he was at it. Wilson performed all four years as his school’s drum major. And he triumphed in the statewide baton-twirling competition.
“Everybody knew I was going to be the Ohio State drum major,” he said. But the scholarships he would require didn’t materialize.
So in 1954, instead of going to college, Wilson enlisted in the Marines. Every one of his 13 siblings who passed the physical exams signed up for military service, too. “It was basically our way of getting out and seeing the world,” he said.
He recalled the day that he and a fellow recruit walked in street clothes in Jacksonville, N.C., not far from the Corps’ sprawling Base Camp Lejeune. They came upon a young woman teaching some kids to, of all things, twirl a baton.