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Obituary: Eugene “Gene” Corey

Father, longtime nursery owner, six-decade Claremont resident, wounded Korean War vet

Eugene Corey, a Claremont resident for more than 60 years, and founder of Corey Nursery Company, died peacefully recently at Mt. San Antonio Gardens. “Gene” was 92 years old.

Gene was a wonderful example of what is possible in America. His parents had come west from Maine, where his grandfather had a large potato farm. His family lived in West Hollywood in the Depression years, during which they struggled to put food on the table. He never forgot those years.

While attending Hollywood High School, he worked at the gas station his father was managing on Sunset Blvd. He regularly saw gangster Mickey Cohen and Hollywood celebrities, including Judy Garland, as he filled their tanks with gas and washed their cars.

His interest in horticulture and entrepreneurship began in high school, when most of the gardeners in Beverly Hills—who were primarily of Japanese descent—were interned during World War II. He saw the need for lawn care and basic gardening for wealthy clients and set up his own gardening service. He loved his old friends from those years, and always remained in contact with them.

Before he could go to college, the Korean War started. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Camp Roberts, where he was assigned to train recruits in the use of guns and artillery. In Korea he fought in the famous Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He talked about the extreme cold, carrying heavy artillery up steep hills, and the Chinese tanks that were coming after his unit. Wounded in battle, he always said the only thing that saved him were the frigid temperatures.

After the war Mr. Corey bought a Chevy with his combat pay and, funded by the GI Bill, enrolled at Fresno State University, majoring in horticulture. While at Fresno State he worked summers at Sequoia National Park. He spoke fondly of those summers and would later introduce his family to the wonders of the Sierra Nevada.

Upon graduation, Armstrong Nurseries hired him to travel the country selling roses and fruit trees.

Most significantly while at Armstrong, he met his wife of 60 years, Janetha. He and “Jan” were married in 1960 and three sons—Jeff, Ken and Brian—followed.

The family settled in Claremont and Mr. Corey, being a self-starter, decided to leave Armstrong Nurseries and start his own business. With what little money he had, he rented a broken down greenhouse in Westminster and started selling plants with the aid of an old beer truck. He couldn’t afford to paint the truck, so he always said there were a lot of disappointed faces when he rolled up the sides to reveal shelves of house plants instead of beer.

Eventually he saved enough money to make a down payment on a piece of land in Claremont (and assume a loan at 21%) where the nursery stands today. This was the start of his successful wholesale greenhouse business. The mantra echoing through the greenhouse in those days was “Less talk, more work.”

He loved the nursery business, enjoyed the horticulture, and reveled in the camaraderie within the industry; he even enjoyed the competition and hard-nosed customers. He was known to start off sales meetings with customers by saying “You’re getting fat!” or some other lighthearted insult. If they laughed or insulted him back he would walk out with a nice order. If they didn’t get it—well, it was a short meeting.

He was involved with many industry organizations, including the California Association of Nurserymen and the Nursery Growers Association. Along the way, Mr. Corey hired, mentored, and launched many who would also spend their career in the industry.

With their kids grown, the couple traveled the Central Coast looking for a site to expand the nursery. Eventually a location was found at Nipomo. Although a move to the area was discussed, his roots were too deep in Claremont, where he served as president of the Claremont Chamber of Commerce, as a member of the Rotary Club, on the Claremont Tree Commission, and was on the board of Oak Park Cemetery.

Family members fondly remember his obsession with a good view, his love of old movies, cars, and especially bluegrass and country music. They loved, but never understood, his favorite saying after the first taste of morning coffee or chilled martini at night: “Ah, poor Georgie!”

While never retiring, he worked less in later years; he and Mrs. Corey spent many happy evenings at the Hollywood Bowl and L.A. Philharmonic performances, and socializing with friends and family.

He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Jan Corey, and sons Jeff of Claremont, Ken of Palm Springs, Brian of Santa Barbara, and their extended families.

 

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