Harry Ponder admits it: He’s never worked a day in his life. For the most part, neither has his brother, Rex.
They came by that honestly, folks who knew their daddy, Glenn Ponder, would say. That man delighted in plants and even more so in people, and spending every day at his nursery near Dadeville surrounded by an abundance of both couldn’t seriously be called work. For two youngsters who spent most of their waking hours at their daddy’s business, that positive attitude became engrained.
The official name of the nursery, according to courthouse records, was Tallapoosa County Nursery, but in the real world, it was Ponder’s, where healthy, hardy plants were always available and shopping was a downright pleasure.
“Daddy was a people-person, with a love that was genuine and honest, and people could tell that,” Rex says. “He made them feel special. It didn’t matter if they came in and bought a truckload of plants or a $1 azalea, he’d make them feel like they were worth a million dollars.”
What’s funny is that when the Auburn Chamber of Commerce presented Rex, an Auburn horticulture alumnus, its Customer Service Crown award in April, customers who wrote nomination letters, and co-workers, too, said almost the exact same thing about Rex.
“If anybody has a gift for getting along with people, it’s him,” said Cindy Salter, general manager of University Ace Hardware in Auburn, where Rex runs the garden center. “He makes everybody feel important and special.”
And more than a few thousand people across the country will vouch that the same is true of Harry, who in his 39 years as an Auburn Department of Horticulture faculty member, has become a legend. But more on that shortly.
Although Glenn Ponder never went to college, he and wife Marie were determined that both boys would have that chance, and in 1967, Harry, who was six years Rex’s senior, entered Auburn as a horticulture major intent on returning to the nursery to partner with his daddy.
“It was the natural progression,” he says. “The next step.”
Only, it wasn’t, because God moved in a mysterious way, at the Ponders’ home church, Dadeville’s Sardis Methodist.
“I still taught the Sunday school class there in college, and after class one day, both my parents said, ‘Harry, you’re a good teacher. You might want to teach.’”
He didn’t think much about it, “but that seed was planted,” he says.
As he advanced toward his horticulture degree at Auburn, faculty encouraged him to consider graduate school.
“They said, ‘You should think about getting your master’s because one day, you could teach,’” he says. “And I said, Oh, that’s just what my daddy and mother said.”
In 1971, a year after graduating with his bachelor’s in horticulture, Harry was awarded his M.S. degree and he’d made a firm decision on his future.
“The farther I went down that (teaching) road, the more it felt right,” he says.
The next step was a Ph.D., and for that, he was accepted into the program of the country’s premier horticulture scientist at the time. The only problem was, the professor was at Michigan State University and, while Harry didn’t necessarily relish the idea of moving to Michigan, his daddy was adamantly opposed.
“Going there was one of the hardest things I ever did, because Daddy was so against it,” Harry says. “He did not want me to go north and be so far away. I told him I had to go, that I couldn’t afford not to, but that was a hard, hard decision.”
Rex insists that his brother shake off any lingering guilt.
“Daddy hated for him to go that far, but let me tell you what: Nobody could have been prouder of anybody than Daddy was of Harry,” Rex says. “It got to where he’d tell everybody who’d listen about where Harry was and what he was doing.”
While Harry was pursing his doctorate along the frigid frontier, Rex was heading over to Auburn for his horticulture degree, which he completed in 1976. Like his brother, he did well at Auburn and had been accepted into the horticulture department’s master’s program, but his plans changed dramatically when Glenn Ponder was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live.
Rex immediately returned home to help run the business.
“I did feel like I was needed to help take care of things at home and with the nursery, but Daddy and Mother ever made me feel like I had to do it,” he says. “Honestly, though, Harry was always more academically minded than me, so I think as much as anything, going home was mostly something I did an excuse to not go to graduate school. My heart just wasn’t in that.”
Harry, meantime, had joined the University of Georgia as extension horticulturist for metro Atlanta and spent every free second searching for the most highly respected oncologist for Glenn’s type of cancer. He found that doctor at Emory University, there in Atlanta, and under that physician’s care, the elder Ponder defied the six-month odds by living five full years more, until 1981.
Rex kept Ponder’s Nursery open for a couple more years, but in 1984, “it was just time,” he says—time to close the doors. He then started his own landscape company and spent the next two decades designing and installing landscapes and gardens throughout the Auburn-Opelika area. In 2005, in what he rightly calls “my mid-life crisis,” he exited landscaping and did a 180, opening a restaurant, Pita Pit, in downtown Auburn.
“It was still customer service and dealing with the public, so I loved that part of the restaurant business, but I was a fish out of water,” he says. “Horticulture was in my blood.”
He sold the franchise in 2013 and, then, like the psalmist, “waited patiently for the Lord.”
“I absolutely believe that God will put you exactly where you need to be, if you’ll just listen,” he says.
In October 2015, the garden center position at University Ace opened, and by popular demand on the part of friends, acquaintances and former landscape clients, Rex got the job and returned to what he knew and loved. Plants and people.
“I learned from watching Daddy,” Rex says. “When a customer comes in, I want them to know that I know they could have gone to any other place in town, but they came to us, and I appreciate that.”
Harry says Rex is right where he belongs.
“Rex definitely got Daddy’s gift of dealing with the public and customer-service skills,” Harry says. “He won’t tell you this, but when he went back to help Daddy, he didn’t just run the nursery; he grew the nursery.”
And Harry—what about Harry?
Well, by the time he and Rex lost their Daddy in ’81, he was in his third year as an Auburn faculty member in his beloved horticulture department, and the kindness, integrity, compassion and love of people he learned from his daddy were already endearing him to students. Today, say "Auburn horticulture" to an alum of the department, and odds are, the reply will be "Harry Ponder."
By Harry's own calculations, roughly 2,000 Auburn students have graduated with horticulture degrees over the course of his almost four decades as a teacher, mentor and adviser. But here's the amazing thing: He remembers them all.
Not as in, "Hmm, that name rings a bell," either. He remembers the years they graduated and where they got their first job, knows where they are now and what they're doing, knows when they got married, how many kids, their spouses' names—you name it.
Former students and current will declare he has a photographic memory, and Rex agrees.
"He's been that way all his life," Rex says. "We could go someplace one time, and a year or two later, he could tell you every little detail of that place."
Harry insists that isn't so.
"I'm just good with names," he says.