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O.L. 'Ollie' Weeks, 90; Grower Won Honors for Breeding Roses

May 25, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

O.L. "Ollie" Weeks, who took a rented horse, a plow and an acre and became one of California's largest and most reputable rose growers, died May 11 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 90.

His death came after several hospitalizations this year for heart problems, said his wife, Verona.

Weeks founded the business that became Weeks Wholesale Rose Grower in Santa Ana in 1937. With his wife, he ran what grew into a multimillion-dollar enterprise spread over 250 acres in the Kern County town of Wasco, for almost 50 years, until retiring in 1985.

A leading breeder who was partial to red blooms, Weeks created many award-winning roses known for their beauty and robust growth.

A number, including an unusual lavender rose called Paradise, were named All-America Rose Selections, the Oscars of the rose world.

Texas-born Weeks was an unpretentious, plain-spoken man who was happiest wearing work clothes and driving a tractor over his land. "He was a hillbilly ... and he made no apologies for that," said Verona Weeks, who was married to him for 64 years.

Although his elegant creations became known to rose fanciers around the world, he "could have cared less" about the attention, said Harold Young, editor and publisher of the trade publication Pacific Coast Nurseryman, who knew Weeks for more than 40 years.

"He was driven by his love of roses," Young added. "They were his hobby and his livelihood."

Weeks left the little town of Rotan, Texas, when he was 3 months old and settled in California's Imperial Valley with his parents, who raised cotton. By age 12, he was working summers at a nursery, where one of his jobs was packing roses for shipment.

In 1937, he was a production foreman for the citrus processor Treesweet Products Co. in Santa Ana when he started growing roses as a sideline.

He married Verona, a secretary for the Army Corps of Engineers, in 1938. She is his only immediate survivor.

After World War II ended and the Santa Ana Army Air Base where Verona worked closed, the Weekses decided to pursue roses full time. By 1952, they had joined other rose growers in Chino. When the post-war housing shortage made land too precious there, they moved their growing operation to agriculture-friendly Wasco, near Bakersfield, which was fast becoming the rose-growing capital of the state.

At its peak, Weeks Wholesale Rose Grower harvested and sold more than 2 million plants a year. It had about 300 acres in cultivation in Wasco and Chino, and grew more than 200 varieties.

The company developed a reputation for quality, honesty and personal service that extended to notes to customers handwritten by Verona that often contained poetry.

"They had a very loyal customer base," said Tom Carruth, an award-winning hybridizer who joined the company a few years after the Weekses sold it. "They established an independent rose nursery, which was one of the most successful in the United States, especially for a mom-and-pop organization."

Rose breeding is a tedious affair that can take as long as 10 years of patient tending of thousands of rose seedlings before finding one worth cultivating. Weeks produced more than 40 new roses during his five decades in the business.

For a decade starting in 1954, Weeks collaborated with breeder Herbert C. Swim to produce a number of roses that have endured in today's marketplace. The most famous is Mr. Lincoln, a quintessential red rose, long-stemmed and rich in fragrance, which has been a bestseller since its introduction in the mid-1960s.

Another Swim-Weeks effort resulted in Angel Face, which Carruth described as a breakthrough for its novel lavender color. It was the first of that hue to earn the All-America Rose Selections honor, one of six that the two men would win together.

After his partnership with Swim ended, Weeks continued to breed winning roses on his own. Among his best known are Perfume Delight, a deep pink beauty with a heavenly scent, and Paradise, a lavender rose with a dark plum blush. They were among his All-America Rose Selections winners, which also included standouts named Arizona, Bing Crosby and Sweet Surrender.

Weeks sold his company in 1985 to a group that included former employees of Armstrong Nurseries. It is currently owned by International Garden Products, a family of horticultural companies.

Last year, the Weekses sold the last 28 acres from their rose business and donated the $4.3 million in proceeds to Good Samaritan, where Ollie Weeks had been treated for esophageal cancer in 1996. The hospital will use the donation to expand and upgrade its cancer treatment programs.

Weeks, who once said he found "thundering tranquillity" in working the land, continued to breed roses for a few years after his retirement. He spent much of his time in pursuit of what his wife called "the definitive yellow" rose. Three of his last creations--including a brilliant yellow one called Canary Diamond--will be on the market later this year.

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