A Son of the Earth

For floral designer Randy McManus, the soul’s journey begins in the soil

By Jim Dodson

Photographs by Amy Freeman and Aesthetic Images Photography

As he suddenly steps in to help one of his employees maneuver a massive floral centerpiece spilling over with spectacular late-spring flowers out the front door of his shop, Randy McManus offers a tiny smile over his shoulder.

“I used to overwork. But now I work smarter,” he says. “I surround myself with really good people and am not afraid to take a morning off to work in my garden.” Who needs a psychologist? “Getting my fingers into the earth clears my mind and resets me. I’ve been sticking my fingers in the dirt since I was 9.”

The remark is telling. In a world animated by sudden change and constant motion, success in the flower design business can be as ephemeral as a vase of Asian lilies. Yet it’s exactly this rare balance of passion and hard work along with perspective gained from the ground up that has made Randy McManus Designs one of the most respected floral designers and special events companies in the state, if not the wider Southeast.

With another busy summer season on the doorstep, McManus — a trim and fit man who will turn 60 this summer — appears almost as calm as a garden Buddha, even in the midst of the activity buzzing all around him at his shop at Dover Square, between Greensboro’s Dover Road and Battleground Avenue.

In the shop’s principal work area, for instance, half a dozen staffers at a long prep table, dressed in zippered gray hoodies that read “Randy’s Team,” are busy putting together table arrangements of jonquils for Greensboro Country Club’s annual Easter dining room display — same place the massive centerpiece is headed – while Marty Emory in the back office is busy booking the latest summer and autumn weddings and anniversaries that seem to arrive in bunches with the arrival of sunshine and warmer weather.

Several regular customers, meanwhile, roam a retail display floor that resembles the curated aisles of a fine museum’s gift shop, filled with stunning house plants, terrariums, home and garden supplies, fine ceramics, unique candles and other decorative pieces — all under the watchful eye of Tango, the boss’s 2-year-old poodle/Jack Russell mix.

“He grew up on a horse farm, but he’s really making himself at home,” McManus explains, briefly settling behind the neatly ordered desk of his inner office, while Tango relaxes below in his own miniature teepee. “We’re both from the country.” Longtime friends of the Greensboro florist know how difficult it was to let go of Frida, the friendly Jack Russell who was a fixture in Randy McManus’ life for a decade and a half.

“We carpooled together to work for 16 years. When I lost her,” he adds, “that was the first time since my third birthday that I didn’t have a dog.”

Such fidelity speaks volumes about this quiet son of the earth.

In a world filled with overnight success, McManus’ long but steady rise from a close-knit family farm South of Greensboro to the cream of the floral design world has been built from the ground up on values of faith and loyalty learned early in life.

“His understanding of people is extraordinary,” says his friend Gail Boulton. “He instinctively seems to know what they need, which comes out of his deep compassion for people. I think this is why his work with flowers is in such demand. “Randy,” she says, “puts his soul into his work — but even more so into the people he serves. He’s this angel who shows up to give them a lift when they need it most.”

She points to Friends with Flowers, a program McManus quietly created in May of 2004, which uses flowers leftover from the week’s production work to create dozens of arrangements made by volunteers and delivered to Beacon Place of Hospice and Pallative Care of Greensboro, Kids Path and Hospice of the Piedmont in High Point. Thousands of patients and families have benefited from the simple gift of these flowers. His volunteer floral team averages 65 bouquets a week working on Mondays and Thursday afternoons.

It’s this synthesis of compassion and creativity that prompted Cone Health’s Heart and Vascular Board to invite McManus to join a committee formed to enhance the healing environment of the hospital. “I was really out of my comfort zone at first,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Here were these world-class medical authorities and I’m just a guy who grew up on a farm south of town. Little by little, though, it was good for me. I was able to reach out and make a contribution. It felt good.”

Among other sympathetic ideas, he has championed use of original artwork in patient environments to produce a more humane atmosphere — suggesting even a partnership with UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum on a rotating basis. He also promoted the idea of transforming the food services to healthier, more holistic dining.

Meanwhile, life and business flow together at Randy McManus Designs in the form of incoming perfect weddings to plan, anniversaries to celebrate, births and deaths and almost any kind of special event made better by the language of flowers. From mountains to coast, the Hamptons to Charleston, the McManus mystique continues to expand and grow.

If gently pushed on this subject, he will admit that he has been urged by some larger market clients to carry his talents to a bigger stage where he could not only elevate his profile but his income.

“But why would I do that?” he says, hopping up to greet a longtime customer who has dropped by the shop to buy his wife birthday flowers. “I’ve learned what is enough for me. I’m so fortunate. I have an eight-minute drive to work every day, a garden at home where I love to dig in the dirt, a team of 10 or so wonderful people who can do almost anything and know the Randy Rule.”

So what is the Randy Rule?

“They can do anything Randy doesn’t want to do,” he explains with a laugh. “I’ve learned to step away and enjoy living on this Earth, to be with friends and share whatever success I’ve had. That doesn’t just mean money. I don’t take any of it for granted. It’s been a long journey and a lot of hard work from that 9-year-old kid digging in the dirt.”

His people were farm folks dating back several generations in the Sumner community off Randleman Road south of Greensboro.

Father Clyde worked for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department. One of his specialties was tracking down bootleggers and escaped prisoners with the two bloodhounds, Mutt and Riley, and a German Shepherd trained to guard him.

“They were just part of our lives,” he recalls. “My dad built them a fancy brick doghouse. Mutt tracked down nine escaped prisoners. Only two got away — and only because they managed to get in cars.”

His mother, June, worked for an insurance company and kept a big garden where Randy gravitated early in life.

June and Clyde noticed that their young son wasn’t reading well and was falling behind other kids in class. They took him to UNC-Charlotte for testing and learned he had something called “dyslexia.”

“They didn’t know much about the condition in those days. I had teachers who had never even heard of dyslexia. The experts then thought forced memorization was about the only thing that could help. It didn’t really help me, however. I grew bored by memorizing words and lost interest. My grades reflected this.”

He was placed in special education classes with kids in wheelchairs, more or less warehoused in public school. “That didn’t bother me. I got to see kids who were really struggling and felt sorry for them. It wasn’t a place where I could learn phonetically, but it did teach me to be compassionate for others. It was like being in the dark. I would just put my head down and sleep.”

The place he felt at home was in his family’s yard and garden.

“We were a family of gardeners. We had dogs and had every [kind] of farm animal,” he remembers. “My parents are the reason I have the confidence I do today. They told me I should do what I loved and was drawn to — which was working with living plants in the garden and the yard. I’d go out in the winter and dig up maples trees and plant them in our yard. My grandfather told me if you dug up a tree in winter, you could successfully plant it. Pine trees, boxwoods, you name it, I planted it. Some of those trees are huge now around my home place.”

In the ninth grade came a different kind of breakthrough.

He was failing at typing when an art teacher at Southeastern Guilford named Eva Benbow — one of the Benbows of Greensboro furniture fame — took him in hand and proposed a personal curriculum of art for stimulating his mind.

“From then on, she introduced me to art — to painting and designs, to colors, shapes and different shades of the same color. It was amazing, transforming. We did clay on the wheel, sculpture, mixed glazes, sketching, water colors, acrylics, you name it.” She also introduced him to art in history and architecture, “giving me a way to understand the world around me. It was a different way of learning. My mother described it as an awakening. It changed my life.”

Eva Benbow also loved plants. She gave him plants from her garden, showed him the basics of color, texture and design. “She gave me some beautiful strawberry begonias from her own garden. I’ve moved five times since then. And I’ve always taken her strawberry begonias with me.”

By the twelfth grade, his dad had built him a greenhouse and he was propagating plants, helping friends and neighbors with their gardens. He basically “figured it out in my head” and began making “dish gardens” out of rooted seedlings and began selling them through Greensboro florist shops.

This led to a successful gig taking care of indoor plants at a piano store at Carolina Circle Mall, which in turn grew into a business looking after plants for commercial businesses. In the 1980s, he merged with another company that expanded to caring for plants in office buildings, with a growing list of clients. In 1998 he sold his interest in this company and, owing to a two-year no-compete contract, moved into the garage apartment of friends, the Ayers family of Sedgefield. That same summer he did their daughter’s wedding flowers out of the residence’s garage.

“By then I’d decided flowers were the way for me to go,” he says. Although he had no formal training in flower arranging, he slowly realized he seemed to have this natural ability. “When it comes from God, you don’t question it. You just say ‘wow’ and do it.” Today, that daughter, Smedes Ayers Linder works in the shop for Randy.

After years of doing weddings and special events of all kinds out of the Ayers’ family garage, he found the perfect spot for a shop behind Greensboro antique maven Caroline Faison’s iconic shop on Battleground Avenue. “Her clients and mine were very sympathetic. And she was a terrific landlord for many years.”

It was good timing. The economy was doing well and McManus could suddenly display his design versatility. “I had the virtue of creating the demand before I had to pay rent. That was a blessing and a very important business lesson.” The other important lessons he learned came from his childhood and family: “The value of hard work. When I had my first little greenhouse, I heated it with wood and had to stay up all night just to keep plants alive.“

An unexpected benefit came from requests for him to decorate top showrooms at the High Point Furniture Market. “It was difficult work — you have to set up late at night and spaces are restricted — but I got to work for and with several designers from around the world, really gifted people who basically provided a free education in sophisticated design. I listened and paid close attention. What fell off them was like a free college education.”

McManus still works with select furniture designers at market time, but today operates out of the roomier commercial store on the backside of Dover Square on Battleground Avenue.

Something equally vital from his childhood colors his perspective, a sense of spiritual gratitude embodied by a prayer he recites every day — sometimes several times a day — in his meditations.

It’s called the “Prayer of Jabez” from the Book of Chronicles.

And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that Thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that Thine hand might be with me, and that Thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me! And God granted him that which he requested.” 

“I start my day with it every day and have for 15 years,” he explains. “It might seem a little selfish asking God to grow your property. But it’s really about keeping a proper perspective on your life and work so that you can provide blessings to those around you.”

He was taught the power of the prayer by his friend Alejandra Thompson, a hispanic business woman whose Thompson Traders firm has become a major force in the home furnishings world. They share a passion for faith, philanthropy and beautiful things. “Randy,” says Thompson, “is the most giving soul I’ve ever known. And he can make any place work like a dream.”

Like the passage of seasons in the life of a plant, so it is for this son of
the Earth.

Several years ago, as his father Clyde approached death, he advised McManus that he didn’t want to die in a nursing home or hospital bed.

“He wanted to die at home and he wanted me to build him a cabin from trees he’d cut down on 10 acres overlooking a lake in Liberty, where he could look out and see wildlife.

“My father always gave me the difficult job,” he explains with a little smile. “That’s what I told his minister.”

But the son built his dying father the cabin he wanted, with a great view of the lake and sky. Randy visited every day, too — to sit and talk about everything from the weather to Randy’s mother, who passed away in summer, 2016.

“He was a big man, a real man of the earth who could figure out anything and do it well — from building things to chasing down bootleggers. I remember that near the end he told me, ‘Randy, this old shell’s worn out. But I’m ok with it because your mom’s come into my head.’”

“I think you’re right,” his son agreed, “”but it’s been a good life.”

“I’m assuming I don’t need to order flowers,” his father quipped.

The minister from the church in Liberty brought him — and his entire Sunday school class — communion outside at his farm.

Clyde McManus passed away in mid-August of 2017.

Together, they’d picked out the place where his father wished to be buried in the cemetery of his country church.

And this helps explain why Randy McManus is rooted in the earth that made him.

“It’s all about my body and mind,” he says. “This place makes me happy. It’s where people come into my shop just to say hello. They are incredibly kind. Since my parents died, it’s as if friends and customers have adopted me. If I ever left, it would be like leaving family.” 

Jim Dodson is the editor of Seasons and its sister publications O.Henry, PineStraw and Salt.

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