Retiring Fairplex horticulturist leaves a lasting legacy

Horticulturist Donald DeLano is retiring this month after 31 years with Pomona Fairplex. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

by Andrew Alonzo |

Donald DeLano, the driving force behind Pomona Fairplex’s abundant foliage since 1991, is hanging up his gloves.

“My mind’s there, but my body is not,” said DeLano, 69, citing health concerns as the main reason he’s retiring.

Over those 31 years he’s cemented his legacy. He’s overseen all of Fairplex’s 487 acres year-round, and established a farm-to-table dining experience at the nearby Sheraton Fairplex Hotel and Conference Center, among many other accomplishments.

One of his proudest achievements is the completion of The Farm at the Fairplex in 2014. The Farm introduces visitors to new and unusual produce and serves as a gateway to conversations surrounding sustainability.

“The Farm is an educational adventure here,” DeLano said. “We opened in August 2014, the L.A. County Fair started the last week of August that year on Thursday. It’s just been growing ever since then.”

During its first year, The Farm had a heavy focus on foliage since getting animals to the Fairplex, which had previously been a struggle. In 2015, The Farm was outfitted with a stable and began building a stockpile of chickens and rabbits to showcase for livestock competitions. In fact, the recent return of livestock competitions at the L.A. County Fair can be attributed to DeLano’s work at The Farm.

Long before the 35-year Claremont resident’s career began with the Fairplex, young DeLano was a self-described mathematics and physics nerd at Glendale High School. That changed when he enrolled in a field botany class at Glendale Community College. After transferring in 1973 to Cal Poly Pomona, he dove head first horticulture.

Horticulturist Donald DeLano is retiring this month after 31 years with Pomona Fairplex. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

“I loved the way it combined science, research and math,” he said. “That’s when I realized I had an affinity for plant names. I like pressing plants, figuring them out and dissecting them down. I’ll be walking down the street and I won’t realize that I’m saying the names of the trees as I’m going around. When I go to someplace like Disneyland, I don’t look at Disneyland: I look at all their plants.”

In the early 1970s well-known landscape expert Bob Lamp hired him to help get the Fairplex’s flower and garden buildings and hillside arrangements ready for the fair.

He became a trusted associate under Lamp, and DeLano found himself getting called to the Fairplex every season.

DeLano earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cal Poly Pomona in 1976.

Toward the end of the 1980s, when he was pursuing his master’s degree at CPP and still freelancing with Lamp, he answered a new calling: teaching agriculture and leading undergraduate labs at his alma mater.

After three years at CPP, the Fairplex asked if he could assemble a group to advise on an upcoming renovation of the grounds. DeLano gathered a few of his Fairplex connections and some of his CPP students to make a lesson out of it.

In winter 1991, Fairplex came calling again, this time to ask if he would take over as head of landscaping. Thus began more than three decades for DeLano at the Fairplex.

In 2010, the Fairplex’s board of directors wanted to expand the grounds to incorporate more area for farming. DeLano was tasked with writing a grant request to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. After the proposal was denied, DeLano polished a second application and submitted in 2012.

“We received a grant for almost a half-a-million dollars,” he said of the second go-around. “It was $486,000 or something like that. The grant goes for two years and eight months.”

From adding garden plots specifically for educating children on field trips to establishing the five-acre urban farm meant to showcase California plants, the money was well spent.

DeLano will officially retire on Wednesday, November 30. It will be a strange transition, one he equates it to the “weird” feelings he had when he left Cal Poly.

But he admits his body can no longer handle the rigorous demands of horticulture work — at least on a grand, 487-acre scale. Although it hurts physically and emotionally, he’s ready to hand the reins over to a new generation.

“If someone else was here that was healthy, there’s so much more that can get done,” he said. “I just can’t get it done anymore. But it’s one of those sweet and sorrowful things.”

Although a replacement has yet to be found, DeLano gave reassurance about his departure.

“Some people find change bad. Change is neither bad nor good, change is just change. It’s a different viewpoint,” he said.

In retirement, DeLano plans to spend more time with family, including his six grandchildren and wife of 49 years, Becky.

“Fairplex is fortunate to have had a committed, passionate person like Don DeLano as part of its team for 30 years,” Fairplex spokeswoman Renee Hernandez wrote in a news release. “He will be missed but he has left a lasting legacy.”


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