BRATTLEBORO – Change is on the horizon… The changing color is not only leaving Wantastucket Mountain, but also flowers all over the area as Dick DeGray enters his final season tending to the decor of downtown Brattleboro.
DeGray plans to hang up his irrigation hose and put his gardening shovel in place next month as he retires after 12 years of tending to flowers.
“Some health issues play a really big role,” said DeGray, who will undergo hip surgery in the near future. “I haven’t had a summer vacation in a very long time. I’m an avid golfer, and even though I play, I haven’t been able to play as much. You are restricted. There’s a real commitment here that I don’t think people realize, that this is a seven-day-a-week project. And I “I loved doing it.”
DeGray has served the city as a member of the Select Board and a downtown business owner, but he said giving flowers to the community has been one of the real joys of his life.
“People have expressed that to me many times, and people would always stop to talk to me if I was on the street, and honk their horns when I was working on the flowers… That gratitude really encouraged me to keep going.” He said. “Every now and then when I say, ‘What have I created here?’ Knowing that people are really fascinated by the flowers gives me great satisfaction, because I’ve done something for the community. I’m proud of it. But I did it for the community, not for Dick DeGray.”
What started as a small 10-pot thing on Main Street has blossomed into a community-wide beautification project, inspired by cities like Wilmington.
“Wilmington has been the gold standard,” said DeGray, who wondered why there were no flowers in Brattleboro. “We can do it. It took me a few years to get where they are. People have told me the flowers in Brattleboro are prettier than the ones in Kennebunkport, (Maine) and prettier than Wilmington. It’s not a competition. They definitely inspired me to do what I was doing.”
Working with his wife Missy, who he claims was instrumental in getting this project off the ground, they found the right floral partner with Ahmed Rashid of Rashid’s Garden Center on Route 9 in West Brattleboro.
“He deserves as much appreciation as I do, because his flowers are amazing,” DeGray added. “They are beautiful. He entrusted them to me and my goal is not to spoil his creations.”
For DeGray, a typical day during the warmer seasons begins at 3:15 a.m., when most people are asleep, while he drives around town watering the plants and checking on their condition.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m going to miss being on the street at three o’clock in the morning. It’s like it’s my city. When I’m on the street on a Sunday morning, it’s my favorite day of the week to drink water. There’s no traffic, and for some reason there’s never any people on the street. And so on.” It’s like this is my city. I walk around and think about our city, I think about what it could be, I think about what it is, and it makes me a little sad to see where we are. I know we can get where we want to get. It won’t happen overnight. We’re going to need help From other agencies.”
Over the years, he said he has noticed an increase in the number of people facing homelessness and drug addiction. He sees people sleeping on stairs, in parks, or walking around asking for money.
“It’s a sad commentary on where we are in Brattleboro and where we are in the community,” he said. It was prevalent before, but I think the coronavirus has really brought it to the forefront. We’ve always had homeless people in the city, but not to the extent we have now.
Over the course of 12 years of doing flowers, he has had high and low points. One of the lowest was last year when someone tossed the 10 flower boxes on the Plaza Park wall.
“I almost started crying. I sat straight down on the sidewalk. I just shook my head. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I wanted to turn around and go home and say that’s it. I’ve been vandalized over the years but not to this extent. I had to keep going because “It was hot and everything needed to be watered. When I finished watering, I went back and brought the flowers back to Rashid and they looked fine.”
One of the many high notes he remembers was when he was working in Blaney Park two years ago, trimming flowers, and a lady came up to him.
“She said she was going through a hard time in her life. She said when she comes here, she walks around the flowers. She sits in the garden. She said it makes her feel so much better,” DeGray recalled. “I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t know what to say. She tapped my heart and said, “I will pray for you.” She turned and walked up the hill. Every time I was like, “Okay, what am I doing here?” I go, you know, I think of that lady in those words, and I say, “How do you quit smoking?”
DeGray, who volunteers full time, now cares for more than 200 flower pots, and the Downtown Brattleboro Business Organization supports his work with an annual budget of about $20,000. In 2021, many local businesses and groups donated money for the new irrigation truck to help care for flowers throughout the city. The bright red truck, which carries irrigation and garden supplies, was named Bloom to help keep the downtown area thriving.
But now, between the weather this year and the pain he’s been experiencing in his hips, DeGray said the efforts are starting to pay off.
“This was my worst summer and I wanted my best summer to be, you know, my last,” he said.
Although his time caring for the community flowers will end on Oct. 22, he said he feels confident that the efforts will continue. Noting all the support he has received over the past 12 years, DeGray said the Parks and Recreation Department, Public Works, Police Department, Fire Department and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance all deserve credit for making this program what it is now.
As for DeGray, it will be finished on his favorite day of the week, Sunday, when he hands over his keys to the DBA on October 22. If you wake up early that morning, around 3 a.m., look for red irrigation. A truck named Bloom Wistron Degray, with all his happiness, cares about the little things that make a big difference in society.