Former florist loses his fight
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 7, 2013 1:46 PM
At the time, it seemed like a simple gesture -- the passing of a red carnation from a local business owner to the first woman to enter his modest flower shop.
But when, every day for more than 30 years, similar blossoms made their way into the hands of unsuspecting customers, the exchanges that landed them there became a part of family histories and Wayne County lore.
Don Worley never thought too much about it.
There was no hidden agenda -- no ulterior motive behind his offerings.
Those who knew and loved him said bringing smiles to faces was just his way.
But early this morning, as news of Don's death began to spread -- Worley died Wednesday at his home -- some of those same people were void of happiness.
"This is one of the saddest things I've heard in quite some time," said Evelyn Small, one of many who turned out in August to celebrate the florists reluctant retirement. "We don't live in a world full of special men. But if ever there was one, it was Don."
Worley first came to Goldsboro in the late 1950s, after joining the military and being assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
"I was a teenager on my grandfather's farm out in the Smoky Mountains and he had worked me to death," he said back in 2010. "I thought, 'There's got to be a better way.' So I found it."
And he found that the military lifestyle suited him -- he got the opportunity to travel from Europe to Asia and learned just how much he loved to serve others when he was sent to Vietnam as a "glorified school teacher."
"It's the best job anyone could ever have, teaching adult students. They really want to learn," he said. "I just enjoyed it so much."
So when, after more than 20 years in the military, he retired and moved back to Wayne County, he looked for other ways to serve.
And he found that combining his passion for flowers with his love of people gave him an opportunity to do just that.
He saw his shop as more than just a way to make a living.
It was a way to connect with people from all walks of life -- a place where their many causes would be supported.
Over the years, Don's Florist would become the drop-off point for everything from donations for troops overseas during Operation Desert Storm to school supplies for needy children.
And he continued to build his reputation on similar acts of kindness -- volunteering to mow lawns and fix cars for spouses of deployed airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, giving discounted rates to all charities and churches -- becoming known as a man far more interested in the people those acts have touched than turning a profit.
So when his wife, Patti, revealed, in 2010, that he was battling cancer -- that surgeries, chemotherapy and "mini-strokes" would likely force her husband to close his doors -- the community he so often touched decided to give back.
Hundreds showed up for a barbecue fundraiser created to help the Worleys offset the cost of Don's battle.
And when it was announced that their longtime florist would open just one more time, they turned out to honor him.
Aug. 11 was supposed to be a celebration -- a chance to share stories and long embraces.
But when Don couldn't make it out of bed -- when Patti was forced to call 911 and have her husband transported to Wayne Memorial Hospital -- a retirement prompted, in part, by his waning health, happened inside a Spence Avenue business without the man who built it.
Don fought that reality all the way to the emergency room.
He kept telling Patti that he needed to be at the store -- that he, not his daughter, Beth, should be the one extending red carnations to his decades-old customers; that he should be the one reliving the memories that made the decision to close shop so hard.
But by the time his old friends started walking through a door they knew would, by noon, close for the final time, it was clear that the man they came to see wasn't going to make it there.
So with heavy hearts, Beth and longtime shop manager Sally Fuller took turns reaching into a bucket full of red carnations.
They listened to stories about Don's kindness.
And they accepted prayers for a man loved as much for his selflessness as his vibrant flowers.
What they didn't know was that Don was busy perpetuating his reputation across town -- that even as he endured an X-ray and an untimely stint in a hospital room, he was thinking of those around him.
He had Patti call Beth to tell her to pack up a bucket of carnations and bring it to Wayne Memorial.
"He wants to give carnations to the doctors and nurses," Beth said, smiling. "That's Daddy for ya."
And moments after he was discharged, thanks to his little girl, Don did just that.
"He sure did," Beth said.
It started with a red carnation -- a small token of gratitude passed from a local business owner to the first woman to grace his modest flower shop.
But thanks to Don, that symbol of friendship and love will always mean something more to those who came into contact with a man they vowed Thursday to remember ... always.