Henry Clay is one of those men of few words but many thoughts. He always stays in the background and does not say a lot but when he does, it is best to listen. Henry Clay or as me and my children call him “Poppy,” has always been a strong male figure in my life. He married my grandmother, Sandra Clay, when I was very young. I was his first grandchild and even though not by blood he never treated me any different. He taught me how to do many things from how to fry an egg, how to bait a hook and how to grow flowers. I always look to him for advice because he is not the person trying to push his opinion and advice on me about everything. He is a loving, caring and patient man to several children, stepchildren, grandkids and now great-grands. He is a horticulturist in the Bulloch County area and has given his advice to many people. He was one of the original people to bring about the GSU scrubs to Sweetheart Circle which to me is one of the most iconic parts of campus. Henry Clay is the wisest man I have ever known but not just in business and plants but in being a loving grandfather and friend.
--Emily Norton, nominator
Henry Clay is a Virginia native, and a graduate of both Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Georgia. He’s a former horticulturist, and a member of both the Tree Board and the Beautification Commission in Statesboro. But if you ask him the label he most enjoys, he might just tell you that it’s “Poppy.”
Clay earned his Bachelor of Science degree at VPI, and then his master’s at UGA, and he attended some classes at Clemson University. He later taught at Middle Tennessee State University, where he was also in charge of the grounds. Eventually, he moved to Savannah after taking a position as Regional Horticulturist with the UGA Extension office. But being in the “big city” just wasn’t for him.
“There were a lot of drugs in Savannah at the time,” he said. “I’m a small town boy. I’m from a small town, and Savannah was a little too big for me. I did quite well there, but I had two young children to consider at the time.”
Clay says he thought his children would fare better in Statesboro. So he asked for a transfer to Statesboro, and it was approved, since he could have an office at Georgia Southern.
“I found a home, and I’ve been here ever since. They couldn’t run me off then,” he said, laughing, adding that he moved to the Boro in 1975.
During his working life in Statesboro, he worked with the plant operations people at GSU on horticultural projects on campus, as well as with the city of Statesboro. He was asked to join the Beautification Commission, as well as the Tree Board. He also worked with garden clubs in the area.
The commission worked to advise the city on beautification projects in Statesboro while the board worked to inventory the trees in the city and see that there were enough trees planted when new businesses came to town.
Clay says he didn’t choose horticulture at first. He began at VPI in forestry, but along the way, decided he was tired to going to school. He dropped out at the end of his junior year and enlisted as a private in the Army. He went on to become an officer, and when he got out of the Army, he was a first lieutenant. He remained in the Army Reserves until his retirement after 20 years, something he’s very proud of.
After getting out of the Army, Clay realized that he needed to finish his education, and returned to school. But he didn’t want to return to forestry. He determined that horticulture was more his forté, and so he changed his major.
He went to work for a nursery after graduation in Portsmouth, Virginia, but he soon decided he didn’t know enough, and he got an assistantship at UGA, where he went on to earn his master’s. Clay went on to work at the Georgia Academy for the Blind in their horticulture program, and then spent some time at Clemson, and then on to Middle Tennessee State. Eventually, he determined that he wanted to get back to Extension work, and they offered him the job in Savannah.
Clay and his first wife had three children, two boys and a girl. After his wife’s death, he remarried, and his current wife, Sandra, who is the former owner of SERVPRO in Statesboro, also had three children from a previous marriage. Together, the couple has many grandchildren.
“We’ve got 25 or 30 grandchildren,” he says, laughing.
Clay’s son still lives in Statesboro, and his daughter is the assistant principal at the gifted school in Savannah, he said. His other son passed away last year. His granddaughter, Emily Norton, nominated him as one of the Three Wise Men.
“She kind of looks after me,” he said, smiling. Clay talks of how he used to take Emily into the backyard of their home and teach her about flowers. He also taught her how to make breakfast, and says “she just kind of looked up to me, like a mentor, I guess.”
“She came in one day with a huge bouquet. She had picked every flower in the yard,” he said, laughing. “’Flowers, Papa, flowers,’ was what she said. She became my favorite right then. She’s always been that way. Not that all of them aren’t my favorites. But she was my first favorite.”
Clay says he doesn’t get to spend as much time with his grandchildren as he’d like, but they spend the holidays together, and none of them live very far away. “Some of them are always down here,” he said. “We stay in touch pretty good.”
Clay has been retired for a number of years now, but says he didn’t just sit down when he retired. He has remained active on the Tree Board and Beautification Commission, and has done some landscape design, something he discovered an interest in prior to retiring.
“My coworker was a landscape architect, and we put on some short courses for the county agents because they were always involved in landscaping,” he said. “We tailored them for the nurserymen, because they didn’t always have access to studying landscape design. We got people from Ohio State to do these short courses, and I got interested myself and sat in on the classes.”
He has done some landscape design for some local businesses, as well as private homes.
“I did just enough to keep busy and keep interested,” he said.
As for what Emily said of him and his being wise, Clay says he’s not sure he lives up to it.
He is sure, however, that the best bit of wisdom he ever got came from his own father.
“I guess it was when Daddy told me, ‘You better study son. This world is not all real easy. You have to make a living.’ That’s probably the greatest thing he said. But I remember that specifically,” he said.
As for the advice he’d offer to others, he draws from his own experience, and says that since he wasn’t the best student, and didn’t focus on his studies as he should have, he would love to have the opportunity to go back and do it again, even going back to high school.
“I don’t know if I was the best student in the world. If I went back, I would be more diligent in my studies, because that is your future. You need to be diligent. Everything is important eventually in your school work. I would say make it a point to do your studying. Even if you don’t have homework, keep up with it, and pay attention in class. If you do those things, it becomes a habit. And if it becomes a habit, you benefit from that habit,” he said.