BRADENTON -- Sometimes he would drop in on people he knew, just to give them advice on their lawns and tell them what plants to grow where.
Will E. Waters would drive around with his wife on Saturdays buying antiques and trinkets from yard sales. A few times each year, he would sell all the items he accrued at his own sale, along with the plants he grew in his backyard.
"He never needed the garage sale money," said his wife, Elizabeth Waters. "He just loved talking to people, chatting with people, giving them advice on their plants."
To Dr. Waters, plants were everything.
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The former director of the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Bradenton died Monday after suffering from viral encephalitis and later pneumonia. He was 82.
He could've become a coal miner, clobbering away in the depths beneath the Kentucky soil, risking life and lung for little pay like his father.
"No thank you, Dad," he said one day. "I'm going to college."
After growing up on a farm in Smithtown, Ky., with five siblings, selling strawberries and sheep's wool, spending mornings clearing the land with his mother, Dr. Waters shipped himself off to the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, igniting an impressive academic career.
Dr. Waters earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Kentucky in 1954. After being drafted for two years of service in the military, he returned to school for his master's in soil science and then a Ph.D. in crop production from the University of Florida in 1960.
Six decades ago, he met Elizabeth, a fellow student at UC who, on one night, happened to be at the same prayer service. Immediate
ly enamored, the 21-year-olds married at a preacher's home in Indianapolis and started a family.
"He always gave us good advice," said his son, Alan Waters. "He said, 'Don't quit, finish the job, take responsibility, work hard.' "
Dr. Waters was a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences member at the GCREC in Bradenton for eight years before moving to Apopka to build and serve as the director of a new IFAS research center. In 1970, Dr. Waters returned to Bradenton to serve as the GCREC director until he retired in 1998. (The GCREC is now located in Wimauma.)
During his time there, Dr. Waters did research to help farmers. He came up with new varieties of insect- and disease-resistant vegetables and flowers, explored the science of weeds and helped to develop row covers. He was a tomato farmer's dream come true.
Away from the lab, Dr. Waters loved to fish for trout in Terra Ceia Bay. In fresh water, he threw out a line for perch and bass. For eating, bluegills was his favorite.
He loved western music and bluegrass and Tennessee Ernie Ford records. Until the end, he enjoyed a well-decorated hamburger -- everything on it.
"Even in the nursing home he asked for a burger. Every scrap of meat had to be cooked hard," Alan said.
But Dr. Waters never cooked ("HA! No!" grinned Elizabeth when asked about it.) In college, when she asked for grits and eggs, he made her some corn meal.
Dr. Waters was always looking for the next person he could remedy. His mind was a trove of knowledge.
"He helped people. Even to his dying day, he helped people," Elizabeth said. "He brought them laughter. He encouraged them."
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.