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Botanist's legacy lives on in herbarium, arboretum

4/15/2014

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Joe Thomasson isn't at all recalcitrant to call himself "one of Howard's botanical children."

His connection with Howard Reynolds dates back nearly 50 years, when Thomasson took his first class under Reynolds in 1964 at Fort Hays State University.

Reynolds retired as a plant taxonomist from FHSU in 1981, a position soon filled by Thomasson, who spent 29 years there.

"He had written me and said, 'I think you should apply for my position,' " Thomasson said as he traveled north to Nebraska with Reynolds' ashes en route to graveside services in Seward, Neb.

"We're riding with Howard to Nebraska," he said during a telephone interview Monday after local services were conducted in Hays.

Reynolds died Thursday at Hays Medical Center at age 99, just days short of his 100th birthday. He was born May 1, 1914, in Seward County, Neb.

Reynolds lived a storied life, both as a botanist at FHSU and as an extensive traveler before and after his retirement.

Reynolds was an Army veteran of World War II, spending 32 months in the South Pacific serving as a malarial control officer, said Thomasson, whose relationship with Reynolds extended far beyond student and professor or that of a fellow botanist.

Reynolds traveled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Highway, where he raised the eyebrows of fellow travelers as he answered questions in Russian.

When asked questions by what might have been the KGB, Russia's secret police, Thomasson said Reynolds said he answered them "in German and a little French."

That apparently was enough to confuse them, and he was left to his travels.

But Thomasson made it clear Reynolds' life was all about plants, even smuggling cuttings of Bulgarian Ivy into the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.

Reynolds admitted the deed in his later years.

"I put it in my luggage," Thomasson recalled Reynolds as saying.

In fact, Reynolds put the cutting in the sleeves and pant legs of the clothing in his suitcase, Thomasson recalled.

"He was a world traveler," he said of Reynolds. "An international smuggler. A World War II veteran. A family person."

And his legacy will live on.

Reynolds left his estate to the FHSU Foundation, to support the management and preservation of botanical collections in the Elam Bartholomew Herbarium at Sternberg Museum of Natural History and the permanent preservation of the Howard Reynolds Arboretum at Second and Elm. Thomasson soon will serve as executor of Reynolds' estate.

"I have the largest thornless honey locust in Hays," Reynolds said in 2010 of the outdoor classroom that surrounds his residence. "As far as I know, I have the largest Douglas fir in Hays."

"I specialize in trees, shrubs and woody varieties, and tulips, daffodils and hyacinths."

Nearly half of the flowers at Reynolds's memorial service in Hays came from what will be the arboretum.

He was well-known as a walking encyclopedia of all things botanical.

As well, that's where the Bulgarian ivy now graces the trees and grounds.

Reynolds was just as legendary for his good-natured approach to life.

"He was always smiling," Thomasson said. "I've only known him as 'Happy Howard.' "

In 2009, Reynolds said he was on the "56th anniversary of his 39th birthday. Me and Jack Benny, 39 and holding."

"I knew him for 50 years," Thomasson said. "I never heard him say a negative word about anybody."

Reynolds motto was "learn as though you're going to live forever," he said. "Live as though you're going to die tomorrow."