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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.

Press Democrat Poll

What type of warning did you receive about last October’s fires? (Multiple responses allowed)

Official alert on my landline: 5 percent

Official alert on my cellphone: 17 percent

Neighbor warned me: 14 percent

Family member or friend warned me: 28 percent

Police or fire came to my home to warn me: 5 percent

None: 43 percent

Don’t know: 1 percent

In the future, how would you like to be notified about a fire or other impending disaster?

Phone call: 31 percent

Text message: 30 percent

Email: 1 percent

Air raid siren: 28 percent

Other (specify): 7 percent

Don’t know: 3 percent

Do you think Sonoma County is more prepared today to warn you about fires or disasters than it was last year?

Yes: 54 percent

No: 31 percent

Don’t know: 15 percent

SOURCE: The Press Democrat Poll/David Binder Research

She asked the rubbernecking leathernecks to move on, and Wilson replied that he’d love to watch because he was the Ohio baton champ. Sure you are, the young woman replied.

He asked if he could use a baton for a minute, and she handed him one. Minutes later, she asked if he would teach her.

Wilson said his new friend and student’s parents were quite prominent in Jacksonville and played bridge with Camp Lejeune’s commanding general. One day the woman’s father, who’d seen what Wilson could do with a baton, remarked to the general that he should get the young man into the Marine Corps Band.

An audition was set during a Camp Lejeune boxing match. During a break, Wilson ducked into the ring to show the crowd his baton-twirling mastery.

“They hissed and booed, yelled ‘faggot,’ ” he said. But as he sent the baton soaring and grabbed and spun it, the boxing-match crowd cheered and rose to its feet.

Wilson was assigned to the Marine Corps Band. When he wasn’t performing, he was putting his high-school vocational skills to work as a clerk. Not bad duty.

He was in Washington, D.C., as he neared the end of his hitch. Fond of handsome clothes, he stopped into a high-end clothier, The Custom Shop. He found himself chatting with founder Mortimer Levitt, who offered him a job.

“I was a young, good-looking kid and had a lot of hair,” Wilson said with a laugh. Soon the Marine vet and ex-baton twirler was selling fine cuff links, ties and such, and learning the art of the custom-made shirt.

From D.C., Levitt sent him to the store on 5th Avenue in New York City. Thanks to his office skills, Wilson said, “I became Mr. Levitt’s personal secretary on weekends.”

This was the late 1950s and The Custom Shop chain was growing. When a store opened in San Francisco, Wilson jumped at the chance to move west and become the shop’s assistant manager.

He said that a couple of years later, Levitt opened a store in Detroit and asked him to help run it. He complied, but Detroit terrified him. He asked Levitt to return him to San Francisco, but his boss said there wasn’t an opening there, so he quit.

Wilson returned to the bay and took what work he could find, as a bookkeeper at the Mason Brothers brokerage house. He worked his way up to broker, but felt unfulfilled by the work.

He said a long, generally unacknowledged interest in art led him to use his GI Bill educational benefits to enroll at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. There, a counselor’s assessment of his interests and talents directed him to the realm of interior design.

Wilson said that upon graduation, he applied for a display design position at the Joseph Magnin store located then at Coddingtown shopping center. Hired on the spot, he joined a crew charged with building the store’s sales displays from scratch.

“Crazy people, super talented,” he said fondly.

He was sorry to lose that job with the sale of the chain, but he stayed in Sonoma County. He came to love the creative challenge of designing, creating and constantly improving.

It was the early 1970s, and he liked to shop at Al’s Nursery, located then near Andy’s Produce, north of Sebastopol. One day without warning, the couple who owned the nursery offered to sell it to him, with very attractive terms.

So he bought it, changing the name, perhaps unwisely, to Chet’s Plant-Tarium. He remembered, “I got all kinds of calls asking, ‘When is the moon in … ?’  ”

Always drawn to the fine and high-end, Harris turned the nursery into a select retailer. He ran it until a couple who admired the business invited him to their beautiful home and land on Occidental’s Joy Road and surprised him with an offer to give him that property and $12,000 in exchange for the nursery.

He sold. And this is how Wilson’s life has continued to unfold: He has continued to seize opportunities.

He successfully operated the Glad Tidings fine accessories stores on Sebastopol’s Main Street. He set up showrooms around the country for a major importer of home furnishings. He was a designer for Praetzel’s Fine Furniture in Petaluma, and for Drapes and More.

He counts among his more memorable interior-design clients hyperwealthy and amiable Texans Bill and Martha Herod and football great John Madden, who needed a nice bunk room at his East Bay home because his party guests needed a safe place to sleep it off.

Wilson managed, then owned, the former Sonoma Design Center on Santa Rosa’s West College Avenue. Single since the death in 1996 of his longtime partner, Bob Drew, a stockbroker and co-founder of the former Santa Rosa Players theater company, Wilson continues to work as an independent landscape and interior designer.

And for the past 10 years — nine of them as president — he’s channeled his formidable design talents into the Men’s Garden Club. The club, which works out of a greenhouse at Elsie Allen High School and benefits students there and beyond with training and scholarships, used to win red ribbons in the judging of House of Flowers exhibits.

These days it wins blue. “I’ve never been happy with second-place,” Wilson confessed.

Last year and the year before, the Garden Club, no longer limited only to men, made history by winning back-to-back Best of Show honors in the Hall of Flowers. This year the top prize went to Santa Rosa landscape designer Michael Golas.

But Wilson and the club of amateur gardeners won Blue for Best Garden Design and Best Water Feature.

Showing well in the fair’s elaborate flower show simply makes this latest chapter of the former Marine baton twirler’s life a bit more fun. Were he to write an autobiography, he said he’d call it, “My Extraordinary Life.”

Possible alternate title, “I was Magnin’s Gump.”

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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